By Hamza Hendawi/AP
CAIRO: In retrospect, Hosni Mubarak’s one-time ruling party may have made the biggest single contribution to his stunning downfall.
The National Democratic Party (NDP), for decades the country’s dominant political force, was widely reviled by most Egyptians as a bastion of corruption. It was blamed for rigging election after election, for propping up Mubarak’s authoritarian 30-year rule and for giving the hated security agencies a free hand to detain and torture.
Its national headquarters in Cairo, a Soviet-style building next to the Nile river, was one of the first targets attacked early in the 18-day rebellion that ousted Mubarak. The blazing complex, which was looted as it burned, provided one of the most dramatic images of the uprising. Party offices in at least six provinces across the country were also burned.
Animosity for the party was fueled further by reports in Egypt’s independent media that the gangs of thugs who attacked and battled protesters were paid by NDP businessmen.
The party now appears headed for oblivion, largely because it has always been linked to Mubarak, his son Gamal and his now-crushed ambition to succeed his father, and the coterie of businessmen widely seen by Egyptians as greedy, uncaring and corrupt.
However, some analysts say the party may get a second wind from operating, at least for now, as a counterrevolutionary force that could stealthily creep back into a position of domination. And there are some signs that the party is doing just that now.
Mubarak ceded power to a military council headed by Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, a one-time loyalist who served the ousted leader for some two decades.
The new Cabinet that Mubarak appointed days into the crisis, after he sacked the old one, remained in place until Tuesday when the military rulers swore in 11 new ministers in a nod to protesters demanding a clean break.
However the new Cabinet lineup included three Mubarak-era members in senior positions, including Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was named by Mubarak shortly before he stepped down on Feb. 11.
Retaining the three was immediately decried by the youth groups behind the uprising and was likely to fuel fears that the former president continues to influence the country’s policies from behind the scenes. Mubarak is believed to be in seclusion in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh and he remains NDP president.
The NDP was founded in the 1970s when the late President Anwar Sadat allowed the return of political parties for the first time since army officers seized power in a 1952 military coup. First known as Masr, or Egypt, Party, it has been led by Mubarak since he took office in 1981.
Its political domination began with its inception but it only started to flex its muscles as the country’s most powerful civilian group in the last 10 years when Mubarak’s son Gamal began his rise through the party ranks to become the country’s most powerful politician after his father.
Gamal’s ascent was coupled with the emergence of a new class of politicians as the ruling party’s stalwarts — mega rich businessmen who formed his inner circle inside the party. In the party, they found a haven, using their political empowerment to promote their interests and their links to Gamal Mubarak to escape scrutiny of their shady business dealings.
By the time the anti-government protests began on Jan. 25, most Egyptians saw the ruling party, Gamal Mubarak and his businessmen friends as the root cause of Egypt’s many woes — from poverty and corruption to high unemployment and rising food prices.
“It was clear that the businessmen did not have the country’s interests at heart,” said Gihad Auda, a senior party member who belonged to Gamal Mubarak’s powerful Policies Committee. “Thanks to them, the party is now as good as finished, betrayed by its own leaders.”
Still, there has been no formal announcement on the party’s future. Its six-man leadership, which included Gamal Mubarak and several powerful politicians, resigned on Feb. 5 and a new leadership was named. But the new leaders were mostly dismissed as minnows with little influence or popular base, suggesting that they could be part of a stopgap arrangement until the picture is clearer.
A new secretary general for the party, Hossam Badrawi, was named halfway through the uprising but he quit after a few days to protest Mubarak’s reluctance to step down and spare the country more serious unrest. Mubarak was behind the appointment of Badrawi and replaced him with Mohamed Ragab, another little known party official.
“It is hard to tell to what extent the party will shrink,” said senior party member Fathi Ragab. “But it all depends on how well the current leadership can revive it.”
The NDP never had a clear-cut ideology to begin with, something that analysts believe could herald its demise, making way to new parties with a legitimacy rooted in the uprising.
“I think the party is in a deep crisis, especially because its most powerful men are now in hiding or under investigation,” said Hala Mustapha, a political scientist who quit the party several years ago after serving on its powerful Policies Committee. “It is also because it has no political identity to revive.”
However analyst Diaa Rashwan said the party’s structure is unscathed, at least on paper, and it remains capable of undermining post-Mubarak Egypt.
“It could still play a dangerous role as a counterrevolutionary force,” said Rashwan, who claimed that party operatives were already preparing to contest the parliamentary elections promised by the military within six months. “They can win up to 30 percent of votes in a fair and clean election and that can go a long way in confusing the political scene.”
The party has never been lacking in will and what it lacks in transparency and democratic conviction, it makes up for in the ability to conduct large scale fraud.
In November parliamentary elections marred by widespread fraud, the ruling party was able to win all but a small number of seats in the 518-member chamber, squeezing out all opposition parties. The result was a far cry from the 2005 election when the banned Muslim brotherhood, the country’s strongest and best organized opposition group, won 20 percent of the seats, by far its strongest showing ever.
Many analysts believe that a legislature that is virtually free of opposition stripped the regime of one of its last claims to legitimacy and may have been the last straw for the youth groups that organized the uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11.