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Egypt Debates Value of Proposed Changes to Political Party Laws - 2004-10-05

At its recent conference in Cairo, Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party proposed reforms it said would make it easier to establish new political parties. But the members of three aspiring parties that have been denied permission to register in the last week, say the ruling party has no intention of opening the political field to organized opposition.

At the Political Parties Court last week the Al-Ghad Party, the Party of Tomorrow, was denied registration for the fourth time.

Chanting, "Freedom, where are you?" and "The National Democratic Party is between us and freedom," hundreds of supporters of the Al-Ghad Party stormed into the courtroom. They were protesting the decision to postpone the ruling on their party's registration until November.

A few days later, this past Sunday, the government's Political Affairs Committee refused to allow the establishment of two other new parties, the Hizb Al-Wasat Al-Gedid, or New Centrist Party, and the Hizb Al-Karama Al-Arabiya, or Arab Dignity Party.

Under laws created in 1977 under President Anwar Sadat, all political parties in Egypt are required to apply to the Political Affairs Committee for registration. The leader of the would-be Arab Dignity Party, Essam Al-Islambouli, says the committee has only granted one request since then, while at least 50 applications have been denied.

Mr. Islambouli says the Political Affairs Committee is essentially a mechanism to reject and ban parties. He says it does not approve parties that are strong or that have public support. Mr. Islambouli says the majority of the members of the committee have a conflict of interest since they are also members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

When parties are rejected by the committee, they have the option of going to court, It is through court rulings that the majority of parties in Egypt have been created.

The Al-Ghad Party calls for constitutional reform and a parliamentary republic in which the president's powers are vastly curtailed. It also says it favors privatization, civil rights, secularism and an open relationship with the West.

The Al-Ghad Party presented its case to the Political Parties Court, which is comprised of eight judges and eight public figures, such as university professors and government officials. But for two days in a row, last week, several of the public figures did not show up, forcing the court to adjourn and postpone its ruling. Some of the missing court members told reporters and Al-Ghad supporters that they had been too busy to attend the court session.

But Ayman Nour, the 39-year-old two-term parliament member who is the Al-Ghad Party leader, says the real reason is that the public figures, many of whom are ruling party members, were instructed by the party not to attend.

He claims the National Democratic Party pressured six court members to stay away.

During the ruling party conference in late September, officials proposed legislative amendments they said would make it easier to register new parties. The changes include adding three judicial figures and three independent observers to the Party Affairs Committee and setting a maximum of 90 days in which the committee must respond to an application.

But critics of the government say the proposed changes do little to break the NDP's monopoly on political life in Egypt. In an interview with the Al Ahram Weekly newspaper, Arab Nasserist Party Chairman Diaaeddin Dawoud downplayed the NDP's amendments as "merely cosmetic." The head of the opposition Wafd party, Noman Gomaa, says the ruling party aims to "control and terrorize other parties."

Gameela Ismail, the wife of Al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, is as a journalist and the director of the Nour Foundation charity. She says the NDP is only making a pretense of opening the field to new parties.

"They're just fooling around, they're just playing around. They don't want to do anything genuinely okay for the political party system. Not at all," she said. "They want to keep the game in their hands. They want to show they're doing a lot of things, but they're doing actually nothing to improve [the situation]."

But NDP member and Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies director Abdel Moneim Saiid says it is too early to judge the planned legislative amendments. He calls them a successful compromise between reformers within the NDP and those who are concerned that without strict regulations Islamist and fundamentalist parties might proliferate.

"It was a kind of compromise between a complete openness and keeping the current system," said Mr. Saiid. "And the compromise was to have a new [Political Affairs] commission, much more flexible and much more open-minded and much less influenced by the government bureaucracy."

Mr. Saiid says the National Democratic Party should be given some time to implement its proposals and to show that it is serious about political reform.