The top leadership of Egypt’s governing National Democratic Party, which has long been synonymous with corruption and rigged elections, resigned Saturday as the regime struggled to convince the country it was instituting change while still holding onto power.
Among those who resigned was President Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was once thought by some Egyptians to be his likely successor.
The dismantling of the party’s power structure is a dramatic indication of the pressure on Vice President Omar Suleiman to purge the vestiges of Mubarak’s power and snip the ambitions of his son.
The NDP’s secretary-general, Safwat el-Sharif, was replaced by Hossam Badrawy, a doctor and member of parliament who is an advocate for human rights.
The Egyptian army began to reassert control around Tahrir Square on Saturday, with the government emphasizing a return to normality while preparing for negotiations with a divided opposition struggling to devise a common strategy.
The Obama administration Saturday expressed disappointment that major Egyptian opposition groups had not turned out for what they hoped would be a key meeting with Egypt’s vice president on political reform, and called on them to begin discussions immediately.
A senior administration official said major opposition groups continue to hold back, apparently fearful that they would lose leverage if they begin talks before Mubarak surrenders power.
“The major players still haven’t shown up,” the official said. “But they need to test the government’s willingness to make major change…. The onus is on the opposition to share ownership of this process.”
U.S. officials on Friday reached out to the group and its leaders, including former U.N. official Muhamed ElBaradei, urging them to begin the discussions. Suleiman convened a meeting Thursday, but only the weak government-sanctioned opposition groups showed up.
Hundreds of soldiers Saturday moved into streets around the square that has been the focus of 12 days of revolutionary fervor and the one tangible symbol of opposition success.
Control of the square, or even a return to normal traffic of the area around it, would reinforce the government’s message that it would remain in control of the country for the seven months leading to elections — and that Mubarak need not resign as the opposition demands.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on state television that stability was returning to the country and that large demonstrations like the one that took place at Tahrir Square on Friday would not succeed in forcing a regime change.
“We haven’t been affected and, God willing, next Friday we won’t be affected,” he said. “All this leads to stability.”
Some feared the relative calm was only a prelude to a show of force by the military
“All of a sudden, I’m a little bit worried that something will happen,” said Amr Said, a 24-year-old student, as little boys scampered through the crowds in Tahrir carrying trays of bread on their heads. In the afternoon chill, people swarmed stands serving up hot cups of tea.
Fatima Khalid, a 29-year-old in a head scarf, said government calls for a return to normality might foreshadow a crackdown.
“But they need to understand: For us, this is normal now,” she said. “We will never stop asking for our rights.”
Over the years, even as poverty widened and government social services failed, it was the National Democratic Party, not Mubarak, that was often vilified in the eyes of the public. It was viewed as a politically connected rich man’s club aloof to the concerns of the nation yet protected by the power of the state.
Two cases over the years highlighted the crisscrossing interests between the party and the government. In 2006, an unseaworthy ferry owned by Mamdouh Ismail, a Mubarak appointee to the upper house of parliament, capsized in the Red Sea, killing 1,029 passengers. Ismail was charged with manslaughter but fled to London, taking his bank accounts with him. He was found not guilty in absentia but later sentenced to seven years. He remains at large.
In 2008, Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a billionaire construction magnate and a prominent member of the ruling party, was arrested for the murder of his former girlfriend, Suzanne Tamin, a Lebanese pop diva. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The ruling was overturned on appeal and he was granted a new trial. He was then sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The party was further identified with Gamal Mubarak, who represented a young business-oriented wing that pushed through economic reforms. The result was recent years of impressive economic gains that helped lift the nation in the eyes of foreign investors but failed to stem inflation and poverty for more than 40% of Egyptians living on $2 a day or less.