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Egyptian Court Rejects New Political Parties

A court in Egypt rejected the appeals of 13 new political parties, denying them official recognition and thus banning them from participating in elections. The move came not long after President Hosni Mubarak pledged to strengthen Egypt's political party system. Leaders of some of the parties say it is evidence that the government is not serious about political reform. The decision has drawn new criticism of the law governing Egypt's political parties. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

The Supreme Administrative Court on Saturday upheld the recommendation of Egypt's Political Parties Committee, rejecting the applications of 13 new political parties for legal recognition.

Several of the parties' leaders say the ruling is aimed at stifling the opposition.

The rejected parties include the pan-Arab Karama Party that already has two members in Parliament and the moderate Islamist party Hizb Al Wasat, the Centrist Party. Both parties have been applying for recognition since the mid- to late-90s.

The court cited technical reasons for most of the rejections, but the head of the Karama Party, Hamdin Sabahi, says he is certain that the real reason his party was rejected was political.

He says, "I think there is no real will for political reform in Egypt, especially allowing the establishment of new parties. This lack of political will is the real reason behind the rejection of these parties, including the Karama party, not the legal or technical reasons."

Egypt's weak opposition parties had a particularly anemic showing in the 2005 parliamentary election, when all the registered opposition parties together won only nine of the 444 elected seats. Independent candidates were much more successful, winning more than 100 seats. 88 of those went to independent candidates openly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which now has the largest opposition bloc in Parliament even though it is technically a banned organization.

Less than two weeks ago, President Mubarak proposed a series of constitutional reforms that he said were, in part, aimed at strengthening Egypt's political parties.

Wasat Party leader Abul-Ela Madi said he plans to apply again, but he also thinks his party's rejection was more for political reasons than for the technical reasons that the court cited.

"If they are actually serious on political reform, they should open the door to the new parties to feed the political party life with new blood, like our party and others," he said.

Under the current system, the Political Parties Committee not only decides which new parties can be registered, but can also shut down existing parties.

Critics say the committee is overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, which means the ruling party, in effect, gets to select its own opposition.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch says the committee's powers are too sweeping, and the criteria it uses to make those decisions are too subjective.

Even before the court decision, Human Rights Watch was calling for an urgent reform of Egypt's political parties law. The group's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement that the Egyptian government "for decades has used the political parties law to fix elections before they begin."

Cairo-based Human Rights Watch researcher Elijah Zarwan said planned reforms to the entire electoral system could combine with the restrictions on forming political parties to exclude many more people from political activity.

He said, "Actually, since the independent candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood did so well in the last parliamentary election, in November and December 2005, you have had a bunch of senior members in the National Democratic Party, and recently the president himself, hinting that they might return to party-list voting. Now ... in theory there is nothing wrong with this."

"In practice, though, as long as there are these restrictions based on political parties and as long as the government gets to decide who can be a political party, this would exclude most of the legal opposition in Parliament," he added.

A party-list system would likely allocate seats in Parliament on a proportional basis according to the percentage of votes they receive. Senior members of the ruling party have advocated such a system, saying it would allow the NDP to send more women and Christians to parliament.

But the party's detractors say a party-list would also allow the NDP leadership to exercise tighter control over its own ranks, as well as practically exclude the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood from parliament.