The Middle East Channel

Can Egypt’s National Democratic Party be reformed again?

If parliamentary elections were to be held in Egypt before summer, many argue that only the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood would be able to secure a significant number of seats.  The two are viewed as the only political groupings currently organized at the national level and able to confront the challenge of ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

If parliamentary elections were to be held in Egypt before summer, many argue that only the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood would be able to secure a significant number of seats.  The two are viewed as the only political groupings currently organized at the national level and able to confront the challenge of an imminent election. But after weeks of popular attacks directed against NDP symbols, and several of its highest representatives facing charges in court, what really remains of the former ruling party – of its organization and its capacity to mobilize?

The NDP, target of popular anger

As soon as Egyptian protesters began taking to the streets on January 25, it became clear that the National Democratic Party (NDP) – like its Tunisian counterpart, the Democratic Constitutional Rally – would soon become one of the main targets of popular anger.

Over the past decade, the NDP had come to symbolize everything that crystallized opposition to the rule of President Mubarak: the firm grip over the political arena, illustrated by a continuous and almost complete domination of Parliament; the elaboration and implementation of neoliberal reforms and their negative impact on the social conditions of most citizens, especially the middle class; the corruption of a new business elite that has used its growing political influence for its own profit and enrichment; the grooming of Hosni Mubarak’s younger son Gamal as heir.

When the NDP’s Cairo headquarters were torched on January 28, Mubarak used NDP figures as fuses in an attempt to avert crisis. He sacked several cabinet members considered to be the masterminds of Egypt’s economic policy of recent years (most of them were also high ranking members of the NDP and close to Gamal Mubarak). The NDP Political Bureau also resigned collectively, and Hossam Badrawi, widely seen as a prominent liberal within the party, was appointed secretary general on February 5. But this could not stop the wave of popular protests. On February 11, President Mubarak was finally forced to resign. Since then, the NDP has entered a period of turmoil, and it remains unclear how it will manage to emerge.

A "presidential party" deprived of its president

Since its creation by President Anwar Sadat in 1978, the NDP – the heir to the state’s single party – had been primarily conceived as a tool for supporting the president. The NDP was the organization that would run for elections (and win). It was also a means to reach Egyptians all over the country, a channel through which popular feelings and demands would be voiced (mainly by the party’s members of parliament) in the ruling circles of the capital city. But since Hosni Mubarak left office, the "presidential party" does not have a president to support anymore. Even though Hosni Mubarak’s name still formally tops the party’s organizational structure, his position has remained vacant and will most certainly remain so for the coming period.

The shock wave has reached all levels of the organization. Hossam Badrawi resigned from both his position and the party only a few days after his nomination for secretary general, arguing that the party lacked the institutional organization needed to deal with the current crisis. Within a few days, the NDP was confronted by an unprecedented wave of resignations throughout the country. Whereas officially the number of members exceeded three million, party leaders now expect a very sharp blow in the organization’s membership. For many Egyptians, there will be no interest now in belonging to a party that is no longer the "ruling party," and hence will not have much to offer in terms of services, jobs, and access to state resources.

"New" leaders for "new" reforms

In such a context, there are huge challenges ahead for the NDP. First, the party needs to secure a new organizational structure, even if provisional and partial. To date, three figures, well-known to party members but not the most emblematic of the party’s excesses, have taken the lead at the national level in a move to salvage what can be saved of the party: the new secretary general, Mohamed Ragab – former head of the NDP parliamentary group in the Consultative Assembly, new assistant secretary general Mohamed Abdellah – one of the party founders and a long-time member of the General Secretariat, and Majed al-Shirbini, who has retained his position as secretary in charge of membership. The new leadership has begun considering internal reforms, notably a new name for the party, a new emblem, a new organizational structure, and a strategy to increase youth participation at all levels.

A few priorities have been identified. A coherent and reliable organization has to be built: more that the quantity of members; the quality of membership is now insisted on. The image of the organization, deeply tarnished by corruption scandals, has to be restored. The people’s demands – those of the poorer Egyptians, but also those of the middle class, which have too often been ignored or even despised in the recent period – should be better taken into account. And of course, the coming elections have to be prepared.

Strikingly, this agenda looks very much like the one that was shaped in 2002, when the party started designing its "New Thinking" policy under the leadership of Gamal Mubarak and his closest associates, in an attempt to turn the party into a coherent, efficient and disciplined organization capable of winning free elections (In 2002, the eighth congress of the NDP was held under the slogan "New Thinking" or "Fikr Jadid." It marked the official launch of a reform policy aiming at modernizing the party and promoting economic and political change.) Now it seems everything must be started again from scratch, but without the leaders who have so miserably failed in their mission and in a far more uncertain political environment.

Is it worth trying to reform the NDP again?

Given the magnitude and difficulty of the task, who will be willing to undertake such reform now? What are their chances of success? The NDP Youth Front for Reforms has recently tried to position itself as a key player in the process of "rebuilding" the party. They submitted their own proposals to the central leadership, insisting on the fact that reforms should aim at purging the party of all corrupt elements, lead to a real democratization of the organization and give an important role to the youth. However, the chances of their strategy’s success appear even thinner now than those of the so-called "reformers" were a decade ago.

In the early 2000’s, Gamal Mubarak and his associates had a valuable case to justify their choice not to create a new party and to act from within the "old" NDP. At that time they could notably rely on a party network closely intertwined with – and dependent on – the state’s structures and benefit from the support of President Mubarak himself. Now that all this has vanished and the mere name of the NDP sounds like corruption and oppression, how can the old party compete? Should elections be organized in a very short period of time, party leaders may try and convince Egyptian citizens that a "party of the government" could be revived. But with such a terrible reputation and little money to be used by businessmen for electoral purposes now, they may find this is extremely difficult.

Virginie Collombier is an expert in Middle East politics and a researcher associated with The Arab Reform Initiative. She received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Grenoble.

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