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Egypt's Ruling Party Under Pressure


Egyptians start voting for a new parliament Wednesday in an election seen as a key test of democratic reform. The opposition is more unified and the past year has been marked by growing calls for change, putting more pressure on the ruling National Democratic Party to reform. One of the ruling party's leading reformers is facing a tough battle to keep his seat in parliament.

Listening to Hossam Badrawi talk about democratic reforms and change, it is sometimes easy to forget that he is not a member of the opposition.

"Without real democracy, and without participation of the people in decision making, and without implementing reform ideas in education, health and economically, we cannot survive," he said. "It is not a matter of choice."

Mr. Badrawi is a member of parliament from the ruling National Democratic Party, the NDP. The silver-haired medical professor is part of the NDP's reformist bloc, seeking to change the government and the ruling party from the inside.

He acknowledges that there is plenty of resistance to his efforts.

"You know that managing change is the most difficult thing ... And you will find a huge number of people getting the benefit of keeping things as is," added Professor Badrawi. "Two things have to happen in this country to make the move: an open fight against corruption, and focusing on human development."

Egypt's political opposition often criticizes the NDP as a bastion of corruption, and says ruling party lawmakers are more interested in lining their pockets than running the country.

The pro-democracy movement known as Kifaya, has held large street protests calling for a total overhaul of Egypt's system of government. Many opposition supporters feel that the people in power cannot be trusted to reform themselves.

The head of the main opposition coalition, Aziz Sidky of the National Front for Change, says real reform requires getting rid of, what he terms, the corrupt mafia running the country.

"The ruling party, we call it the ruling party, which is headed by the president, attracted all the people who are trying to benefit by being close to the ruling circles," he said. "And who we see today as very big capitalists, when the started they had not one dollar in their pockets. They made it, by being close to the government."

Both the opposition and the NDP are focusing on the parliamentary election as a test of democratic reforms.

Mr. Badrawi is worried that holding onto the majority could end up hurting his NDP reform agenda. He says the NDP has focused on winning as many seats as possible, choosing popular status-quo candidates rather than taking a political risk on lesser-known reformists, or backing more women and Christians, who are underrepresented in parliament.

"So we came to a compromise between both that I am not very happy with," he said. "But I see the political value because you cannot just go into elections with your reform standards and lose it, and then do nothing."

Mr. Badrawi is facing a very tough race, and may have trouble holding on to his seat in parliament. He has five opponents on the ballot, three of whom he considers very serious challengers, including one from the main opposition coalition. For the first time, he is also facing an Islamist candidate backed by the influential Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is officially banned, but tolerated. Its candidates run for parliament as independents. It is believed to be the most popular opposition group in the country.

One threat to Mr. Badrawi's seat comes from his own party. One of his challengers is a fellow NDP member who is running as an independent. That is not unusual.

"We are having many candidates of the NDP running against the party itself, which is creating confusion, and in my opinion is a political hypocrisy," commented Mr. Badrawi. "The party should have taken a strong position against that, but again, politically, the door was kept open so as to keep them within if they win."

The apparent division in the ruling party is not new.

The NDP holds about 80 percent of the seats in parliament. But in the last election, five years ago, the NDP only won about 38 percent outright. After the election, members of the ruling party who had run as independents rejoined the ranks of the NDP, giving it a super majority.

Even if he does not hold onto his seat, Mr. Badrawi says the push for change is rapidly becoming irreversible.

"The wave of reform is getting higher. It is getting stronger. The vocabulary of reform is being used by everyone now, which was not before … The president himself used this vocabulary in his campaign," he said. "And I believe the wave of reform is going to be overwhelming once it becomes a critical mass within the society. That is very close."

Egyptians vote for parliament in three stages, depending on where they live. People in Mr. Badrawi's Cairo district vote Wednesday and, if necessary, there will be a runoff six days later. Voting elsewhere takes place on November 20 and December 1.

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