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Some Disappointed at Lack of Political Reforms in Egypt - 2004-09-24

The annual conference of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party came to an end Thursday night in Cairo, after the announcement of several key economic reforms. But those who had hoped that opposition demands for constitutional reform and an end to the country's state of emergency would be discussed were disappointed.

A party member who directs the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Mohamed Abdel Moneim Saiid, says the party announced important legislative and economic plans. But he acknowledges there was little discussion of changes to the political system.

"I think the main message of the conference is a big movement on economic reforms that changes the climate of investment in Egypt, whether for local or external investors, but on the other hand a cautious movement on the political reforms that makes the existing system work better but does not change it qualitatively," Mr. Saiid said.

The conference announced plans to reform the tax and customs system and the banking sector, as well as plans to privatize industries and boost investment.

But Hesham Kassem, the editor of the newspaper Masr Al-Youm and a frequent critic of the government, charges that the ruling party, known as the NDP, has a habit of announcing reforms and then failing to follow through.

"It's a disappointment to a lot of people who were hoping that something on political reform would be announced," he said. "I personally was not really expecting much. The track record of the NDP conferences over the past years shows that we shouldn't really expect much. The NDP or the regime has no commitment to reform because reform could mean the end of the regime."

Opposition parties, human rights organizations and banned or unlicensed parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists had called for a constitutional amendment to set presidential term limits and introduce multi-candidate presidential elections next year. They also want an end to Egypt's 23-year-long state of emergency. Emergency laws ban public demonstrations and allow for the confiscation of books and other written materials, for the trials in special state security courts, and for detainees to be held for long periods without charges.

The conference did propose the establishment of a special commission to oversee parliamentary elections, as well as changes that would make it easier to register new political parties and legislative amendments that would strengthen existing civil rights.

But Aida Saif Al Dawla, an anti-torture activist and the recipient of a Human Rights Watch award in 2003, says that without an end to the emergency laws, such initiatives are meaningless.

"This is totally insignificant, because according to emergency sate or emergency law they can arrest anybody, confiscate anything, close any office, detain people indefinitely," Ms. Saif Al Dawla said. "It has absolutely no meaning."

In spite of the modest political steps the Egyptian ruling party took at its conference, Ms. Dawla says the party is only making a show of adopting the issue of reform, while, she says, it has no serious intention of introducing any changes that would reduce its power.