CAIRO // The ruling National Democratic Party wrapped up its annual conference this week stressing Egypt's economic progress amid allegations of corruption, stringent criticism of government policies and speculation over the future leadership of the country. "New Thinking for the Future of Our Country" was the slogan for this year's three-day conference that ended on Monday, visible on countless party signs throughout the streets of Cairo.
Economic progress was to take centre stage during the convention. In a speech on the opening day, Hosni Mubarak, the president, said: "I want to stress the party's and government's commitment to economic reform and our determination to continue that without hesitation." Gamal Mubarak, Mr Mubarak's son and head of the NDP's powerful policy committee, had a prominent role throughout the convention and defended the government's liberal economic policies, which he said had led to 7.1 per cent growth and was already beginning to trickle down to the poor.
He also noted that the private sector accounted for 70 per cent of jobs in Egypt. Activists held a parallel online convention in protest of the government, setting up a website, www.anti-ndp.com, with the counter slogan "Don't believe them". Organised by the April 6 Youth Movement, an activist group on Facebook named after worker protests throughout the Nile Delta in April this year, the website's statement vowed to expose the NDP's failures.
"We are going to expose their lies to the whole world with statistics and let all people know that they are liars? and reveal their failures in health, education, development, fighting poverty, corruption," it said. But Gamal Mubarak, anticipating such attacks in his speech on Sunday, said most criticism towards the NDP came from reactionaries pushing outdated policies. "Since we are the majority party it's only natural that we get the lion's share of attacks, suspicion and criticism," he said.
"Some of those who are calling for reforms want to take us 30 or 40 years back by calling for the implementation of outdated policies, by clashing with the outside world and manipulating the people by using emotional slogans," he said. He also praised his father. "The reforms and visions of president Mubarak achieved sovereignty for Egypt and the independence of its territories for the longest period in our modern history," he said.
Hosni Mubarak, 80, who heads the NDP, has been in power since Oct 1981. He won a fifth six-year term as president in 2005. Recent scandals involving businessmen close to both Gamal Mubarak and the NDP have led to widespread accusations of corruption and cronyism within the party, an issue the president's son addressed in his speech. "The NDP is not spoiling businessmen and is not hiding any corruption. They say we are pampering the private sector? I say nobody is above the law," he said, clearly referring to the trial of Hisham Talaat Moustafa, an Egyptian tycoon who is accused of paying someone to murder Suzan Tamim, a Lebanese singer, in Dubai in July.
The scandal has tarnished Gamal Mubarak's image, with one analyst calling it the "final nail in the coffin" of his attempt to win acceptance in Egypt. "The scandal has reinforced negative perceptions of the president's son and his inner circle of unsavoury business associates," said John R Bradley, author of Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, in an opinion piece before the convention.
Gamal Mubarak's central role in the conference has rekindled speculation he will replace his father as president, a possibility he did not dispel. "Is there a country or party that determines four or six years before the elections who is the candidate? I don't think that we can be asked three years before the elections to respond to this question," he said in response to a question. "We have institutional and the party's bylaws and we have a constitution and a clear legislative framework that we respect," he said.
The opposition was not convinced. "The parallel president: He acts like the actual leader and gives the throne speech," read the headline of the leftist weekly Al Arabi on Sunday. Mr Bradley even suggested the succession of Gamal Mubarak could be what tips Egypt over the edge. "Opposition to Gamal Mubarak inheriting the reins of power is one thing that unites all of Egypt's fractious opposition groups," he wrote.
In closing the conference on Monday, Moufid Shehab, a senior NDP member and minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, said "the NDP is still pursuing the democracy process that we started and we respect the laws and the constitution". However, it only seemed to underline the political repression of recent years, ranging from the detention without trial of opposition members to the persecution of editors and journalists.
"I have no doubt that the ruling National Democratic Party with its current policies not only has become a party that is incapable of leading Egypt in the present but is posing a real burden on Egypt's future," said Hassan Nafaa, a political analyst. Meanwhile, on the city's streets, Mahmoud el Masry, a taxi driver in his forties who has struggled with rising prices, said he had little hope this year's convention would bring about positive change.
"Every year there is the same talk, which is cheap, while everything else is becoming very expensive," he said. "Our future will be better if the government and the party distribute the millions they spend on these conferences and the ads they fill the streets with." firstname.lastname@example.org