Perplexed by Egypt’s ambiguous political scene, observers have divergent views on the motives behind President Hostni Mubarak's sudden decision to postpone the ruling party’s annual convention until after the parliamentary vote.
The state-owned press quoted the president as saying the conference has been postponed from 9 November until 25 December to allow party members to focus on their electoral campaigns ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 November.
For some pundits, the announcement makes perfect sense as the party still has a lot on its plate to ensure victory in its bid for the parliament‘s 508 seats that are up for grabs.
“It's all about time,” said Amr Hamzawy, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The party is not finished yet with its internal election of candidates [who will run for parliament]. It still has to do political training for candidates and come up with an electoral platform.”
The National Democratic Party (NDP) has yet to announce its official parliamentary candidacy slate amid fears of possible dissent among members who fail to garner endorsement. In previous years, the internal selection process stirred the outrage of hundreds of members who decided to break ranks with the party and run as independents, subsequently defeating NDP official candidates in the vote. In 2000, the NDP won only 39 percent of parliamentary seats, failing to procure the two-thirds majority required to amend the Constitution. It was only able to retrieve this majority after co-opting nearly 180 victorious independents who were former NDP members. In 2005, once again the party was obliged to bring back winning independents into its fold when its official candidates were not able to secure more than 34 percent of the seats.
“The party does not want to expose the divisions that will pop up between those who win the party’s nomination and those who do not, during the convention,” said Hamzawy. “They want to project the image of a unified party ready for elections. If they hold the convention now, this image might be reversed.”
Yet, some opposition figures believe the delay might have more complex connotations that go beyond the poll.
“I do not think it has anything to do with the elections,” said Ibrahim Nawwar, spokesman for the Democratic Front Party.
“The elections already have a time table and the date of the convention was set according to that table," Nawwar added. "The conference was supposed to launch the party’s electoral campaigns. So there must be no reason to postpone it other than the president’s health, or internal conflicts within the NDP, or both together.”
In recent months, conflicting positions on Mubarak’s potential successor have engendered a rift in itself within the NDP. Harsh criticism from top NDP leaders of a pro-Gamal Mubarakm the son of the president, campaign, coupled with the launch of another campaign by anonymous activists who expressed their endorsement of Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, both attested to divisions within the regime.
These developments came on the heels of reports about the president’s ill-health that casts doubt over the ability of the 82-year-old veteran pilot to run for a sixth term.
“There is a sort of political blackout in the country,” said Nawwar. “The incumbent regime is known for its lack of transparency.”
“We do not know anything about the president. We see him sometimes while inaugurating projects, but we do not know his health status,” added Nawwar.
For the regime’s supporters, Nawwar’s speculations are far-fetched.
“It seems we have a lot of political speculations nowadays, but most of them are incorrect,” said Magdy al-Daqqaq, editor of the state-owned October magazine.
“I think the issue [of postponing of the convention] is being overblown,” added Al-Daqqaq. “If held as scheduled, the convention would have kept party leaders and candidates away from their constituencies and their electoral campaigns. The president intervened to resolve logistical differences over whether to hold it before or after the poll.”
“It is not about a rift between old and young guards,” he added.
Holding an annual congress to discuss the party’s outlook and policies is quite a recent NDP practice. Although the party is 32 years old, its yearly conference was first initiated in 2000 by the president’s son, Gamal. Since that time, the former banker was groomed to spearhead an NDP overhaul in which young and liberal elements were invited to join the party and challenge the party’s old guard. Eventually, the NDP annual conference became Gamal’s main platform to present himself as a reformer and the party’s main policy-maker, heightening fears of hereditary succession.
At this year’s conference, the party is expected to announce its presidential candidate for the 2011 poll. Yet the indicators are not in Gamal’s favor anymore, given the affirmation of many NDP leaders that President Hosni Mubarak is the party’s sole candidate.
“It makes sense to postpone the convention,” said Mostafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a political scientist at Cairo University. “It seems that some people inside the party think it's better to announce the presidential candidate after the poll, so that people’s attention will be focused on the parliamentary race for now.”
Although Egypt is almost one year away from the presidential vote, the party needs to announce the endorsement of Mubarak as its official candiate soon, according to al-Sayyed.
“They will announce him now to put an end to speculations about the president’s health and Gamal’s future career. This will also reassure foreign countries about stability in Egypt by keeping the same head of state,” added al-Sayyed.