Shazli country

For several days, rumors of Kamal al-Shazli's death had been circulating. The man himself had threatened to sue his Wafdist rival over spreading false allegations of his demise to secure an electoral advantage, a tactic he must have grudgingly admired even as he decried it. For al-Shazli was one of a breed of apparatchiks who spent their lives shaping the country, leaving his imprimatur not only on the party and regime that he served, but also on the very practice of politics in Egypt. Many owe him for their political careers or for the countless favors that were his stock in trade; at the height of his powers he was a veritable puppet-master of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). But many more will remember him as a political enemy (whether inside or outside the ruling party) and a symbol of the regime's manipulation.

Al-Shazli's trajectory through Egyptian politics was classic. As a young man, he joined the Nasserist Youth, where he made what would be lifelong friendships with members of the security apparatus and the single party of the time, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). He was quickly spotted as a promising and loyal young leader. He came from a reputable family in the small town of al-Bagour in the governorate of Menoufiya and was elected as its MP for the first time in 1964. He won every election since, and died only two weeks before he was due to be elected yet again in the coming parliamentary race.  
Over this period, he survived the major transitions in regime politics: from Nasser to Sadat, to Mubarak, and from the ASU to the NDP. In the Mubarak era, with some of his old friends alongside him at the helm of the NDP, he would reach a long period of dominance over the ruling party, where he was Secretary for Organization and chief whip between 1978 and 2005. During that time, and particularly between the late 1990s and 2005 when he was Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, al-Shazli was the government's pointman in handling unrest among MPs, answering questions with easy charm and a sharp sense of humor that must have infuriated his opponents. Al-Shazli defended the government through thick and thin, most notably making many apologies for the necessity of the Emergency Law. The novelist Alaa Al Aswany, in constructing the character of Kamal al-Fuli for his hit novel The Yacoubian Building, clearly used al-Shazli has a model for the rotund and corrupt politician.
I have visited al-Shazli's hometown of al-Bagour twice during parliamentary elections, hoping to learn more about how Egypt really worked politically by studying its party bosses. By Delta standards, al-Bagour appears to be a prosperous town, something the locals told me was largely due to its hero and MP, who used his position in Cairo to bring investments and services to a place that might have otherwise been passed over. It used to be that farmers would have to drive all the way to Qanater, some 30km to the south, to be able to cross the Damietta branch of the Nile. It was al-Shazli, I was told, who had a bridge built nearby to ease the traffic. The second time I went to al-Bagour, I was surprised to see that the small town now had its own Cairo-like flyover, except in miniature. I didn't really see the point of having a flyover for such a small town, but it must have been taken as proof that al-Bagour was a town that counted for something.
With the rise of Gamal Mubarak in the NDP, al-Shazli's stardom began to fade. In 2002 his control of the party slowly began to erode until he was replaced as chief whip by business tycoon Ahmed Ezz in 2005 and lost his ministry to Moufid Shehab. In 2008, another purge in party ranks got rid of most of his protégés in the higher levels of the party. Some saw in this a bitter rivalry with the "new thinking" crowd brought in by Gamal Mubarak, most notably Ezz. But many party-watchers believed that the old guard would use every trick in the book to retain its influence, and some even blamed the rising problem of "NDP independents" on their machinations. 
He survived longer than others, though. Lately an odd rumor was circulating that al-Shazli had once again been put in charge of running the coming elections. Some saw in this the return of the old guard and the end of the Gamal Mubarak project. That is clearly an overstatement, if only because he had clearly been ill for a while, losing much of his once gargantuan weight over the past year. But even with the man gone, the al-Shazli political system will still endure at least for a while. You cannot dismantle overnight what was built over several decades, and the clever apparatchik–which al-Shazli certainly was–knows that the key to survival is making oneself indispensable. 
The problem is that, as this generation of indispensable men inevitably disappears, they might very well be taking the secret of how they kept the system going to the grave.  
Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net. His column appears every Tuesday.

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