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Agenda for the future
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 10 - 2003

The president's address to the NDP congress was a classic example of boldness of vision, writes Ibrahim Nafie
President Hosni Mubarak's address at the closing session of the First Annual Congress of the National Democratic Party (NDP) was as thorough as it was comprehensive. After reviewing the NDP record over the preceding term in light of a close reading of current realities, the president outlined a vision for the future that aims to realise Egypt's aspirations for progress and advancement to the ranks of developed nations. Perhaps the most important value of the president's speech resides not so much in his diagnosis of our challenges and what we must do to overcome them as it does in his advocacy of concrete mechanisms for action and follow-through on a range of pressing issues. Certainly, the speech was followed with great interest and appreciation in the Arab world and abroad as much for its substance as for the clarity and boldness of its vision -- aspects which give us all the more cause to subject it to closer inspection.
One of the president's primary aims was to establish a set of principles that would lay new foundations for national action towards confronting the challenges before us and reforming the relationship between the citizen and the state. However, of key importance is the comprehensiveness of his recommended approach, which encourages careful analysis of the diverse dimensions of the issues and systematic implementation of solutions. Referring to the banner of the NDP congress, he said, "Putting the new way of thinking into effect on the ground and translating it into a concrete plan of action not only requires that we develop our party's internal mechanisms and reconstruct its grass-roots base and structures. Rather, it means above all, that we must formulate a clear programme for resolving the problems that concern the public and that in so doing we must confront our challenges with sincerity, courage and initiative, and make it possible for all forces in society to contribute their opinions and to participate in devising the radical solutions that respond to the pulse of the Egyptian street."
But in order to better respond to popular sentiments, the ruling party had to devise a more systematic way for measuring the nation's pulse. As Mubarak put it: "We must adopt a modern scientific approach for assessing party and government performance in reflecting the opinions of the public on all issues that affect their lives, in gauging the impact of the various dimensions of the reform process on their standards of living and in conforming to the Egyptian public's perceptions of the best means to solve its problems within a framework that guarantees success for the efforts we exert in confronting these challenges." Only through such an approach can the party and government ensure that their proposals for action "acquire the impetus of popular will to propel the process of modernisation and development forward".
Although leaders the world over acknowledge the importance of respecting public opinion, Mubarak's appeal was unique in more than one respect. As is well known, the president takes public opinion very seriously and accords it special weight in all major decision-making processes. In addition, he has always been keen to monitor how government actions affect the average citizen so as to ensure that the necessary adjustments are taken to ease the burden of economic reform placed on the disadvantaged. Indeed, it is precisely this conscientiousness that has spared Egypt the upheavals that have rocked the stability of so many other countries.
Mubarak established another principle of paramount importance: not only must the NDP better attune itself to the public, it must open itself to the active participation of all Egyptian forces in the pursuit of national revival. "Our invitation to participate is not restricted to the rank and file of the NDP," he said. "It extends to all new sectors of society in order to expand the scope of involvement and to encourage all national forces to exercise their natural right to take part in political party activity within a framework of intercommunication between all political parties and forces, including independents. It thus seeks to generate a constructive dialogue, the goal of which is to promote the welfare of the nation and to establish the foundations for a sound democratic political life in which diverse trends can work together on the basis of their affiliation to Egypt and their dedication to the advancement of the higher interests of the nation."
This appeal to rise above partisanship in the interests of realising national aspirations is, I believe, a thoroughly Egyptian tradition and a major contribution to approaches to development and progress in the Third World. South Africa has introduced a form of "power sharing" that permits political parties that obtain a certain percentage of the popular vote to take part in government. This innovation has been lauded by political scientists as a landmark in how to reconcile democracy as a theoretical value to the specific characteristics of an actual society. I believe that President Mubarak's call to all political forces to assume their responsibility and to work together with the ruling party in accordance with a regulating mechanism for communication and dialogue will similarly be hailed as a landmark in how a ruling party can take the initiative in laying the foundations for collective national action.
Also in the context of expanding the scope of public involvement in determining the fate of the nation Mubarak stressed the need to strengthen civil society by giving it a more instrumental role in the development process. "Our invitation to dialogue will extend beyond the general public and other political parties and forces to include the organisations of civil society which we believe have a vital part to play in shaping public opinion. Towards this end we will institute the legislative and bureaucratic framework to provide for a greater margin of freedom for these organisations so that they can better exercise their social and developmental role as an active partner in the process of comprehensive development."
Turning to mechanisms for handling current concerns, Mubarak stressed -- along with the boldness and initiative needed to confront problems head-on -- another central principle. Referring to the working papers prepared for the congress by the NDP Policies Committee, the president observed, "I believe this philosophy cannot bear fruit if we attempt to work in isolation from the outside world. As the tenets of our party affirm, Egypt must interact constructively and strengthen its relations with the outside world if it is to achieve the kind of development our society has set as its target, especially with regard to economic development."
There is no question in my mind that this openness to the rest of the world is what has earned Egypt its prominent international status. It is due to President Mubarak's approach to foreign policy that Egypt stands as one of the few nations that can boast a high degree of credibility in its international relationships, a phenomenon I experienced up close during the president's visits abroad and in his talks with world leaders. But as the president himself said, what we must do now is capitalise on Egypt's accumulated international repute in the service of the various dimensions of development and progress.
The NDP, in its eighth general convention in September last year, set six topics for the party's policies committee to study and produce working papers on: women's issues, the population problem, economic orientation, the international facets of development, the rights of citizens and democratisation. The decisions President Mubarak has taken with regard to many important points under these categories have contributed to strengthening the cause of democracy in Egypt. One notes, for example, that his handling of the long- standing question of nationality of the children of Egyptian women married to foreigners sets an example of the courage and resolve needed to create bold solutions to chronic problems. In his closing address to the NDP's First Annual Congress, Mubarak related, "I asked the government to draft a bill to amend the Nationality Law so as to provide for the equal rights of Egyptian fathers and mothers to confer their nationality on their children, in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. I also charged the minister of interior with granting Egyptian nationality to the children of Egyptian mothers married to foreigners and to process the applications that his ministry has received in this regard, in accordance with existing procedures and regulations."
However, the greatest stride Egypt has taken towards democracy under President Mubarak was his decision, which he announced in his address to the NDP congress, to abolish all military orders issued under the Emergency Law. This decision is to reduce to a minimum the scope of the Emergency Law. This emanates from the president's belief that, while this law was necessary to protect Egyptian society at a time when its security and stability were vulnerable, many aspects of it are no longer relevant now that Egypt has crossed that disturbing phase in its history. The president's remarks in this regard reflect the ideals he holds and the hopes Egypt will strive for. "I decided to abolish all military orders issued by the military governor under the Emergency Law, with the exception of those necessary to maintain public order and safety, in order to promote mutual confidence between the citizen and the state and in affirmation of the principles of justice, equality and respect for human rights."
This decision is exemplary of the steady but balanced march forward in the democratisation process that the president has always espoused. Contrary to many countries where sudden transformations triggered cycles of upheaval and strong-armed repression, the Egyptian experience in economic and political transformation stands as a model for how to avoid or contain the adverse repercussions of change. The experience, too, is rich in lessons on how to strike a balance between the rights of the state and the rights of citizens.
Although there are still many areas which require our fullest attention and concerted efforts, what is of essence is the spirit we bring to this process. President Mubarak put his finger on this spirit when he said in his speech that rising to the challenges before us requires, above all, a new and creative way of thinking, the courage to devise radical solutions to our problems and the willingness to work together constructively towards the realisation of our aims.
Nevertheless, if the president has established the principles that should govern our collective efforts, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is that we develop a bureaucracy that embodies the spirit the president espouses. After all, here too, courage, resolve and the faith in the rights of citizens are vital if the vision Mubarak outlined in his speech and the plans that devolve from this vision are to be translated into reality. Should this indeed transpire, I have no doubt that the Egyptian experience in political and economic transformation will inspire many Third World countries and, perhaps, help them avoid unnecessary confrontations with the major powers in the world order.


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