Dobson is guest-blogging for The Post this week from Cairo.
Today, as you walk toward Tahrir Square, long before you can see anyone, you can hear their voices. One speaker after another takes to the microphone, denouncing the Egyptian military’s proposed constitutional referendum. On cue, the crowd yells in support or begins another chant of slogans against reforms they consider illegitimate. Although Egyptians appear divided on whether to vote yes or no on tomorrow’s referendum, there is near uniformity of opinion in Tahrir Square.
The only thing that seems to have more emotional appeal than a no vote is the impetus to prosecute the leaders and prominent faces of the old regime. As I made my way through the crowd, I came across a large poster with the faces of 74 leaders from the old order. It divided these villains into three groups: the government, the party officials who lied on his behalf and the corrupt businessmen who stole from the people. As I stood there studying their portraits, a man came through the crowd and said, “This is the Mubarak mafia.”
In this new Egypt, politics is churning as political players who have rarely (or never) been able to come to the fore are now playing a leading role. Right now most conversations center on four key players: the youth who sparked the revolution; the political opposition parties that are trying to capitalize on it; the Muslim Brotherhood, which has waited in the wings; and the Egyptian military which is supposed to steer the process. But there is a fifth element that can’t be forgotten quite yet: the remnants of the old regime. Where are the dictator’s helpers?
The National Democratic Party (NDP) was never an ideological party. It wasn’t formed to stand for an idea or a vision. The old ruling party was best understood as a broad patronage network that bought support for Mubarak’s regime by directing money and other benefits to those whose support it needed to remain in power. Its ideological underpinnings were so weak that in recent elections, a majority of its legislators ran as independents and only later rejoined the party as a result of backroom deals. It was cash — not ideas — that mattered.
Agreement is widespread that the NDP brand is dead. But the worry is that such a collection of opportunists, if given an opening, will reconstitute themselves under new names and monikers in whatever government is to follow. “The NDP has power from everywhere. They have all the money from years of corruption, and their people still control the media,” says Ahmed Salah, an activist and former leader of the April 6th Movement. “But they are not coming back as one team.”
In the early days after Mubarak’s ouster, the Egyptian military moved quickly to put some of the most notorious fixtures of the old regime on trial. One prominent example was Ahmed Ezz, a steel magnate who led the ruling party’s organization department. When I visited Egypt a year ago, all the NDP officials I met told me that Ezz was the mastermind of the party’s election strategy. Given how the November 2010 parliamentary elections unfolded, it appears that strategy amounted to nothing more than outright fraud and vote-rigging.
While it is hard to find anyone willing to defend Ezz, most people believe he and other NDP officials are being offered as scapegoats for those who committed greater crimes. “That’s why they are sacrificing the new guard, not the old guard. People are being prosecuted for crimes of an economic nature, not the crimes that cost lives,” says Salah. The military appears to be seeking a balance: offering up some names in hopes that it will satisfy public demands, while not prosecuting people whose crimes could lead to a widespread inquiry of members of the old regime.
In the meantime, many former NDP officials are attempting to keep a low profile. Ali Eddin Hilal, once the NDP’s media secretary, was a constant fixture before television cameras. Now he will not receive journalists. His mug shot was among the 74 faces I saw on the poster in Tahrir Square today.
But other members of the Mubarak regime remain on the job. Zakaria Azmi, chief of the presidential staff, recently called into a television show to confirm that he was still at his post and reporting to the Supreme Military Council. People believe he remains in the government because he is a former army officer, and the military protects its own.
And that is precisely what worries the people in Tahrir Square today. “They are strong and they are weak,” says Gamal Soltan, head of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, referring to the remnants of the NDP. “They are weak because they used to be organized in a way that was attached to the state. Now there is no government to support the NDP. But they are strong because they represent a real force. And they will be seeking support where they can.” In other words, they are down, but not out.