First Egypt Conference sees chaos, but also progress

Ahram Online, Sunday 8 May 2011

With much sound and fury, the first mass gathering of the forces of the January 25 Revolution was held Saturday, with follow-up plans already underway

National Council

Cairo's International Conference Centre (CICC) in Madinet Nasr had never hosted such a gathering. It's most recent appearance before the public eye, less than five months ago, was on the occasion of the erstwhile ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) 7th annual conference, a triumphalist event in which the now dissolved party celebrated its sweep of parliament a month before. For three days, the platform of the conference centre's main hall featured Hosni Mubarak, his heir apparent Gamal, NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif, and NDP organisational secretary and steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, the latter strutting and preening as he boasted of his role in the ruling party's electoral triumph. With the exception of the overthrown president, who is held in Sharm El-Sheikh International Hospital, all the rest are currently under lock and key in Tora Prison, near Cairo.

"The First Egypt Congress: The people guard their revolution,” held in the same site on Saturday drew a very different crowd. A mere five months ago, the participants, numbering what CICC officials described as an unprecedented 4,300 men and women, could have been picked as the least likely group among Egypt's 83 million population to be granted admission to the prestigious conference centre, let alone an NDP function of any kind. In fact, gathered at the CICC on Saturday were the representatives of the movements, parties and groups that had played a crucial role in triggering, and giving field leadership to the revolution that brought Mubarak, his clique and ruling party down.

There was one notable exception, however. The Muslim Brotherhood declined to take part.

The daylong event was the brainchild of renowned Egyptian businessman Mamdouh Hamza, who sought to bring together what he and other participants described as the “civic democratic forces” of the revolution, “civic” being the favoured term Egyptians political activists are using to indicate what elsewhere in the world would be designated as “secularist”, or non-religious.

The purpose of the conference, according to organisers and main participants, was to maintain the revolutionary momentum and send a strong message to the ruling military council that the “civic” political and revolutionary forces in the country could speak with a single and powerful voice.

Worried that that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were no longer in sync with the revolution, and that remnants of the former regime were working hard to abort it, Hamza and others felt the need to unify the voice of the great number of revolutionary youth movements, independent trade unions, peasant associations, non-governmental organisations, popular committees and political parties, old and new, to press for the completion of the revolution, which they all agree is to build “a fully democratic civic state”. In order to do this, Hamza and conference organisers presented the idea of creating a “National Council”, to be made up of representatives of all the participating movements and parties, and to act as a unified political body mandated to engage in dialogue with both the interim government and the military council, and, come elections, to draw up a unified list of candidates to run for parliament.

But this was not the kind of disciplined and orderly gathering that the CICC’s Khufu Hall had been accustomed to. The conference organisers struggled throughout the day to maintain order, with the proceedings often interrupted with chanting slogans, jeering and shouting. A man who interrupted a speech by shouting “Islam, Islam”, was chanted down by the hundreds of participants chanting “civic state, civic state”. Organisers then forcibly removed him from the hall. Similarly, a speech given by former Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, in which he spoke of “Islam’s influence on the revolution,” was met by loud and persistent jeers.

During an introductory speech by Mohsen El-Noemany, minister of local development, the crowd repeatedly interrupted him by chanting ”the people demand that all political detainees be released.” Frustrated, El-Noemany was forced to interrupt his speech mid-sentence, finally telling the crowd that his government asks the people for patience.

“We are a transitional government and our job is to create the right environment to hand over power to those you choose,” said El-Noemany, who finally brought his speech to a hasty conclusion before stepping off the podium.

The day was divided into four sessions, each discussing a theme. The first focused on the guiding principles of a new Egyptian constitution; the second, the economy and social justice; the third, the forthcoming parliamentary elections, due in September; and the final session, the role the National Council can play to ease the country through the turbulent transitional period.

In the first session, Tahany El-Gebaly, Egypt’s first woman to sit on the Supreme Constitutional Court, discussed 20 principles she believed should be underlined by Egypt’s coming constitution. These include “super constitutional” principles such as human rights and civil liberties, and equality of all citizens, irrespective of race or creed. Other principles protect the civic nature of the state — its republican and democratic character.

El-Gebaly, who is openly critical of Article 2 of the defunct 1971 Constitution, stipulating that Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic Sharia the main source of legislation, was willing to concede that it would be too dangerous politically to split post-revolutionary Egyptian society on this issue. Rather, she suggested that these stipulations should be kept in the new constitution, but that other stipulations be introduced to protect the equal rights of non-Muslims, and to guarantee that Islamic Sharia is understood as indicating its overall spirit and purpose and not as literal legal injunctions.

This drew criticism from liberals on social networking sites, who viewed this concession as an attempt to cater to the Islamist political forces in the country.

The Egyptian revolution’s slogan, “Freedom, Dignity, Social Justice”, was repeatedly referred to in the second session devoted to the Egyptian economy and the achievement of “social justice”. The focus was on corruption in the country, increasing level of poverty, and the importance of setting a minimum wage of LE1200. Much talk was also given to ways by which Egyptians can legally gain back money stolen by the Mubarak family and corrupt businessmen who ruled Egypt the last 30 years.

Hasan Mustafa, a revolutionary youth who opened the session, talked about how systematic privatisation by Mubarak’s regime led to the country’s current economic problems. “All the public sector companies that have been privatised need to be returned,” Mustafa insisted. “What happened during the last 15 years was the biggest theft in the history of mankind.”

The third session, focused on ways that Egypt’s political forces can prepare for parliamentary elections set for September, so that parliament is an accurate “representation” of the “diversity” of Egyptian society. Sherif Zahran, a revolutionary youth, talked about a campaign that the council will conduct called “Awareness is the key,” in which they will create committees that will go into various governorates and cities of Egypt to spread awareness on the voting process. “Our biggest problem is that we only have three and a half to four months before the election campaigns begins,” Zahran told the audience.

However, the rage that had been building up in the conference from an earlier recommendation that the 50 per cent quota given to workers and farmers in the Egyptian parliament should be eliminated spilled over in the third session. An angry farmer took the stage and told the crowd that farmers are discriminated against and that the removal of the quota would rob them of one of the few rights they have left.

Abu El Ezz El-Hariri, a parliamentarian for 36 years and one of the founders of the Popular Alliance Leftist Party agreed, saying that if the quota is eliminated only rich businessmen will have seats in parliament and it will not be representative of the people.

Many participants in the session agreed that a unified candidate list with a unified programme is the best way to tackle September’s elections. This would guarantee that the different political parties in Egypt, as well as a good number of Christians and women, are properly represented. Many agreed that if this is not done, the remnants of the NDP and other organised groups will take the majority of seats.

Another hot topic was the issue of drafting a new constitution before parliamentary elections. The current plan put forward by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stipulates that parliamentary elections will come first, and then a committee will be formed that will create a new constitution. However, Hamza believes that it’s important for the constitution to be drafted first, otherwise it will only reflect the ideology of those who make it to the parliament.

Amr Hashem, an expert on democratisation, told the crowd that the rigging of the last elections triggered the downfall of the old regime. He said that the coming elections are one of the most vital tools of the democratic process and stressed the importance of conducting fair and transparent elections. He talked about the importance of judicial supervision of the elections and the need for both “governmental supervision” by the government itself, and “public supervision” by candidates and civil society groups.

Hashem also said that the Muslim Brotherhood are the most organised group at the moment and warned candidates from other parties not to clash with them. He also said that he is creating a “candidate blacklist” for all NDP candidates who previously ran for parliament so that they would not be able to run again this time.

The last session, led by Hamza himself, focused on the role the National Council will play in achieving all these goals. He said that the council plans to create an economic committee, a constitutional committee and an elections committee to reach out to the people and spread awareness. He added that the council will also look for initiatives to involve the youth in Egypt’s political life, and also to help reach out to the families of those who were injured and martyred during the January 25 Revolution.

Hamza said that the council will have 180 members who will represent all political groups and ideologies in Egypt. He urged all political parties, NGOs and civil society groups to present more than one candidate to ensure that the council is as diverse as possible. The nominations should be sent to the council’s site by 12 May.

A coordinating committee, made up of public figures, will then pick out the members they see as most fit.

The announcement came at the end of the 12-hour long conference. Hamza, who had repeatedly insisted that his National Council does not compete with the official National Dialogue in any way, then made a jibe at this dialogue, saying that he doesn’t think the government-led dialogue will “amount to anything”. He insisted that his council will.

However, while the idea of a diverse National Council that will speak in the name of the Egyptian people may seem attractive, many question how practical it is going to be, and are saying that Hamza’s plans may be too ambitious. But Hamza is soldiering on and is already talking about forming branches of the council across Egypt’s governorates.

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