Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif's new government has embarked on a bold economic reform programme.

But the ruling National Democratic Party, holding its annual conference this week, showed no signs of answering demands for bold political change.

Muhammad Mahdi Akif, who became leader of Egypt's most influential opposition group in January, said on Wednesday: "It changes ministry after ministry and each one ends in failure.


"Without true reform, the state will remain in decline and backwardness. Poverty and suffering will only grow," he added.

 

Sweeping tax and customs cuts and the government's revival of privatisation has stirred a rare mood of optimism among businessmen and brokers over the past few weeks.

Brotherhood chief Akif says
Egypt is a dictatorial state

However, Nazif's technocrats, sworn into government in July, have often promised political reform but announced only minor changes they say will broaden political participation.

Akif said he expected no new democratic reforms.

"No new approach has been announced. Because the state is a dictatorial state," he said.

Crackdown

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, has had no legal status since the 1950s but the government allows it limited operation.

It cannot hold public meetings or publish a newspaper but it has well-known members throughout the country.

One of the first modern Islamic political movements, the brotherhood paved the way for more groups but renounced violence decades ago.

 

It, however, remains vulnerable to crackdowns. In the latest incident, 11 university students were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of brotherhood membership. 

 

"The president holds all authority in his hands - executive, judicial and legal. No one can move without state security's permission," Akif said.

"A country in such a state cannot get moving and reform because freedom is the root of reform and freedom is absent."

Brotherhood members run for parliament as independents and hold more seats than any other opposition group.

The movement has sought dialogue with the government and says it aims to achieve an Islamic state through the ballot box.

Detention without trial

"A country in such a state cannot get moving and reform because freedom is the root of reform and freedom
is absent"


Muhammad Mahdi Akif,
Muslim Brotherhood leader

Akif echoed a statement by opposition parties this week calling for an end to emergency law, which has been in force since 1981.

This law allows the government to detain indefinitely members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents without trial.

He also called on the government to scrap a law that enables the authorities to withhold recognition from political parties on subjective grounds and bans religious movements from forming parties.

"And a presidential election with more than one candidate," Akif said, rounding off a list of demands.

The Brotherhood has never applied for recognition as a party, saying it knows such a request would be refused.

Akif said if Egypt's leaders wanted reform, it was theirs.

"If they don't want reform, the ummah (nation) will remain in this coma," he added.