Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Al Ahram weekly : Tomorrow's party today

Tomorrow's party today

With an official licence finally in hand, the new Al-Ghad Party will be electing its chairman tomorrow. Mona El-Nahhas reports on the party's struggle for legitimacy and interviews its founder, Ayman Nour

Nour and Al-Ghad Party members during the press conference at Beit Al- Umma

The Political Parties Committee, an affiliate of the Shura Council, approved the formation of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party last week, bringing the number of political parties in Egypt to 18.

Since its formation in 1977, the committee -- which is authorised to give licences to new parties -- has turned down such requests 63 times. Prior to Al-Ghad, only two applicants -- Al-Wefaq Al-Watani (National Accord) Party in 2000, and Al-Geel Al-Democrati (Democratic Generation) Party in 2001 -- have broken that mould.

Al-Ghad Party's approval was announced in a very brief statement issued after a short meeting of committee members on 27 October. The statement did not explain the approval, which observers found odd, considering that Al- Ghad's application had been rejected thrice before on the grounds that its platform was not fundamentally different from that of any currently existing party.

Following each rejection, 40-year-old MP Ayman Nour -- who represents the party's 5,200 founders -- attempted to amend the party's platform, which now weighs in at 2000 pages.

Nour said the decision was "a significant boost for democracy and pluralism in Egypt". He expressed hope that two other frequent applicants -- Al-Karama and Al- Wasat parties -- would also obtain official authorisation in the near future. Al-Karama Party was rejected on the grounds that "it advocates a radical ideology", while Al- Wasat Party was denied a licence for its alleged links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.

A statement from the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) welcomed the government's decision to licence Al-Ghad. At the same time, the EOHR called for the parties committee to be abolished altogether, arguing that since the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) controls the committee, it could only constitute an obstacle to unfettered political life.

Some political analysts have interpreted the granting of a licence to Nour's party as a governmental stab at the liberal Wafd Party, which has recently stepped up its criticism of the NDP.

"The government does not want strong parties," said Cairo University political science professor Hassan Nafaa, who thinks the government might be counterbalancing the Wafd Party with Al-Ghad. "The Wafd will be preoccupied by its new competitor, which will attempt to attract a large number of Wafdists into its ranks. As a logical result, the two parties' attention will be distracted from serious political issues into infantile struggles. And the government will emerge as the winner."

Shura Council Speaker Safwat El-Sherif, who serves as chairman of the political parties committee, dismissed allegations of political manoeuvring. The committee's decisions, he said, "are completely void of personal whims, providing licences to parties that have proven to have unique platforms".

Wafd Party Chairman Noman Gomaa chose not to comment on the approval.

Nour, a former Wafdist, insisted that his party was not out to battle the Wafd, even though 25 per cent of the latter's members have recently joined the new party. At the same time, Nour chose Beit Al-Umma -- the historic residence of the leader of the 1919 anti-colonial revolution and founder of the Wafd Party, Saad Zaghlul (1858-1927) -- to host the press conference announcing Al-Ghad Party's inauguration.

During last Thursday's press conference, Nour said, "Zaghlul is neither owned by, nor serves as a trademark of the Wafd Party."

Nour was dismissed from the Wafd Party in 2001, after Gomaa accused him of attempting to split the party by leading a dissident faction. Following his dismissal, Nour -- who already held a parliamentary seat representing the Wafd -- turned independent.

The new party's mouthpiece -- a daily newspaper -- will be launched in January 2005.

Al-Ghad's first general congress, meanwhile, is set to take place tomorrow. Party founders will elect the chairman and 46 members of the party's higher committee. Nominations were submitted between Sunday and Tuesday.

The elections will take place at the international conference centre in Nasr City, and results will be announced on Friday evening. Until then, the party will continue to be led by Nour.

The party already includes six independent members of parliament, which would appear to automatically make it the leader of the opposition front at the People's Assembly, whose next session begins 11 November.

That role, however, is still up in the air since People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour has suggested that Al-Ghad would not be recognised as a parliamentary bloc before 2005, when new parliamentary elections will be held. Nour's argument is that the six independent MPs who now belong to the party should be reclassified as Al-Ghad Party MPs, to be headed by MP Abdel-Moneim El-Tunisi.

The party first submitted its platform to the Political Parties committee in July 2003. When the committee rejected it on the grounds that it was similar to those of the existing parties, Nour contested the decision at the Political Parties Court, an affiliate of the Supreme Administrative Court that is authorised to hear appeals relating to political parties.

After several hearings, a final verdict was scheduled for May. The ruling was then delayed until 25 September. When three of the eight public figures on the court (all of whom are members of the NDP) failed to attend, the ruling was delayed again. Another deliberate absence of five of the public figures caused a third postponement of the verdict, this time until 6 November.

Besides court appeals, Nour also re-submitted the party's application to the Political Parties Committee three times, using a legal loophole that allows party founders to file successive requests using a different name for the party each time, as long as amendments to the party's platform are introduced. Following the party's authorisation, Nour announced that all legal cases that had previously been filed would be dropped.

Al-Ghad calls for democratic reform, with an emphasis on secularism and promoting the empowerment of women, who constitute 37 per cent of the party's founders. Al-Ghad is also the only Egyptian political party in which a woman, Mona Makram Ebeid, holds the post of party secretary- seneral.

The party's main concern, as voiced by its founders, is combating poverty and solving the average citizen's problems. Its platform gives priority to domestic issues, paying far less attention to regional and international affairs.

Al-Ghad's agenda for political reform is summed up by the new constitution it has drafted to replace the one currently in use. The party aims to obtain one million signatures in support of its draft constitution, after which they plan to put it before parliament.

Al-Ghad's draft constitution abolishes the system of presidential referendum, in which the People's Assembly nominates a single candidate for a popular referendum.

No less significantly, Al-Ghad's draft constitution opts for a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, wherein the government is formed by the party with a parliamentary majority and executive power rests with the prime minister, rather than the president. Under the parliamentary system, the president's powers are largely symbolic.

Reform starts at home

Ayman Nour, founder of Al-Ghad Party, was born in Mansoura in the Daqahliya governorate in 1964. Nour graduated from Mansoura University's faculty of law in 1985, and went on to obtain a masters degree in the philosophy of political history as well as a PhD in international law.

He had begun working as a journalist for the liberal Wafd Party newspaper, Al- Wafd, in 1984, and eventually rose up in the party's ranks to become an elected member of the Wafd's Higher Committee.

In 1995, Nour ran for and won a parliamentary seat representing Cairo's Bab Al- Sha'riya district. In 2000, he was re-elected.

In March 2001, after the death of longtime Wafd leader Fouad Serageddin, Nour was dismissed from the party after clashing with its new chairman, Noaman Gomaa.

How do you explain the Political Parties Committee's approval of Al-Ghad Party?

I think that the committee had no choice but to approve the party's foundation. We were certain to get a court ruling in our favour, so the committee found it better for the approval to come willingly from within rather than be imposed on them by a court ruling.

Some have said the approval is a stab at the Wafd Party, which has recently stepped up its criticism of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Would you agree?

I don't think this is true, since the tone of our criticism is just as harsh as that used by the Wafd.

Before getting the licence, we were very harsh in our criticism of the government, via the dozens of inquiries we submitted at the People's Assembly [on important matters].

I want to make it clear that we will never be an alternative for the Wafd. If we aim to replace any of the existing parties, it will be the NDP.

Would you provide us with a summary of the party's priorities?

First, we will focus on widening the party's membership by meeting with people everywhere. We will also prepare ourselves for the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for late 2005, when we hope to win numerous seats.

You have repeatedly described Al-Ghad as being a unique party. In your opinion, what distinguishes it from currently existing parties?

Al-Ghad is a party for the younger generation, since nearly 64 per cent of its members are under 45.

As a youthful party, its ideological perspectives and mechanisms will be different, inspiring a boost to Egyptian political life. We are also the only party with a large number of founding members, something that reflects an ability to interact with the public.

And finally, we have a new liberal ideology, which takes the social dimension into account, and provides solutions for poorer classes.

How do you think Egypt can go about achieving a comprehensive reform programme?

Political reform is the basis of any reform in Egypt. Without amending the current constitution, political reform cannot take place. Because we believe in the importance of this, Al-Ghad took the initiative and drafted an alternative constitution, adopting the principle of power rotation.

We hope this new constitution will see the light very soon.

Why have you decided that your party will not take part in the opposition parties' reform alliance?

We will never join the alliance, which rejected our participation from the very start, on the pretext that we were not a legitimate party.

That's their opinion, which I don't think will change. Even if it changed after we became official, it makes no difference to us. We are not going to be part of their alliance, but that does not mean that we will refrain from coordinating with them on reform-related issues.

Why have you said that Al-Ghad will not take the governmental financial aid allocated to all parties?

Simply because we decided to depend on ourselves; the financial aid we get from party members and supporters is enough.

Moreover, the governmental support may be used to shackle the party's performance.

Does Al-Ghad intend to engage in a dialogue with the NDP?

As a liberal party, Al-Ghad believes in dialogue. Dialogue between Egypt's different political forces is very much needed, if we are talking about reform. Thus, if we are invited to an open dialogue with the NDP, we will be willing to do so, as long as that dialogue is without preconditions.

And what about the Muslim Brotherhood group?

We have no objection to the Brotherhood or any political force whose legitimacy is from the people, rather than via a mere license.

When Al-Ghad holds its first general congress to elect the party's leadership tomorrow, will you be the only candidate for the chairman's post?

Of course not -- former MP Mohamed Farid Hassanein and others will run against me for the post, and I am very pleased with that, since having several nominees is a healthy phenomenon.

And although the party statutes give the party founder the right to chair the party for five successive years without holding elections, I decided to give up that right. I insisted on not chairing the party unless fair elections took place.

Not content with this, I also added a new item to the statutes banning the party chairman from nominating himself for the same post for more than two successive terms. After all, it would be nonsense to call for power rotation without applying it on ourselves first.

How will Al-Ghad's internal leadership elections be any different from those of other parties?

Our elections will feature, for the first time, judicial supervision over the whole process. The idea of judicial supervision was the brainchild of the party's leadership.

We asked judges and public figures to supervise the electoral process in order to guarantee fair results.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Egypt keeps new parties on short leash

| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's another Wednesday night in Cairo's poor Bab Al-Sharaya neighborhood and legislator Ayman Nour is leading one of his weekly party meetings, where Egypt's old-style culture of political patronage and the yearnings for democracy of a shrinking middle class collide.

Hundreds of poor constituents press up to Mr. Nour's elegant wife, Gameela, seeking help navigating Egypt's Kafkaesque bureaucracy, assistance in land disputes, or simply a little money.

It's precisely the sort of political ferment that President George W. Bush had in mind when he said the invasion of Iraq would serve as a "dramatic and inspiring example of freedom" to the region. His vision was for democratic change in an Arab world hamstrung by decades of authoritarian rule that has damaged its economies and helped Islamic militancy to flourish.Later, on the stage of a converted wedding hall, Nour delivers a rousing political speech, dismissing the government as outdated and repressive, punctuated by occasional shouts of assent from some 300 supporters.

But despite Nour's credentials as a member of Parliament, and the fact that his weekly meetings have yet to be stopped by the government, the Ghad Party operates in a legal limbo. Earlier this month, his and three other parties failed to win official approval for their organizations, making it illegal for them to attempt to widen their support before elections scheduled for next October.

"We've been promised legal status for a long time - but they never deliver,'' says Nour, who was originally elected to parliament as a member of Egypt's opposition WAFD Party, but was later kicked out of WAFD for criticizing its leadership. He remains in Parliament as an independent, since his new party is not recognized. "I'm extending my parliamentary immunity as far as a I can to allow us to operate, but as things stand we can't build the opposition Egypt needs. Egypt's politics are stagnant, and that's why the country is in so much trouble."

Over the past few years, there's been an unprecedented level of talk about reform in Egypt and other Arab allies of the US such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But that talk has translated into little action, with strict limits on political activity in almost all Arab countries.

Last week Saudi Arabia, which is planning its first-ever national elections next year for posts in its largely ceremonial municipal councils, said that women would not be allowed to vote. Even in countries that have held relatively free parliamentary elections, like Kuwait last year, there have been no real gains for the forces of reform. There, gerrymandering and strong support for Islamist candidates reduced the number of legislators who support a Western-style democracy.

But it is in Egypt, the sleeping giant of the region, where the hope for change was perhaps greatest. Formally a republic, the country had some experience with liberal politics as recently as the 1950s. A large number of activists hark back to Egypt's liberal period when it was the region's intellectual and political leader.

"We want to reinvigorate the multi-party system, which is dying out here,'' says Mona Makram-Ebied, a Harvard-educated political scientist and a supporter of Nour's Ghad Party, or party of tomorrow. "There's a younger generation thirsting for a voice. They want to make a new and modern Egypt, and there's a great nostalgia to make Egypt what it was when it was the lodestar of the Arab world. But the system we have now is ossified, and it's standing in our way."

Ms. Makram-Ebeid, who comes from a prominent liberal political family, says reformers' hopes were lifted by a promise from the ruling party last month that it would make it easier for competitors to register. To her mind, the Ghad Party had jumped through every hoop put in front of it by the government.

The party has called for constitutional reforms that would create a parliamentary democracy and help prevent another leader from dominating the way President Hosni Mubarak has for the past 23-years. Therefore, Makram-Ebeid felt that no government committed to reform could continue to stand in their way. "Yet they still block us."

As dozens of party supporters gathered outside the Political Parties Court in Cairo earlier this month, expecting to hear their application had been approved (after four earlier denials), they were met with disappointment. The panel, composed of judges and members appointed by Mubarak's government, failed to reach a quorum when most of the government appointees failed to show up, blocking the party without having to issue an outright denial.

"When the government talks of reform, they are addressing foreign nations, and trying to fool the naïve,'' says Nour, who is also a lawyer. "They're just playing games with us."

So far, Nour has played the game right back. Having identified a loophole in the country's tight party registration law, which allows new parties a four month grace period to conduct limited activities while they await approval, he's created five parties with slight variations on the "Ghad" name in the past 20 months, registering a new name every time their application has been refused.

But he says time is running out, with elections scheduled for next October and no party offices beyond the one he runs in his Cairo constituency. "We think we could make inroads in a fair election. But now, we don't have a party newspaper and we can't really reach out to the people. I'll probably have to run for office as an independent again."