Conflict & Justice

New political parties in Egypt

By Ursula Lindsey Protesters already burnt the headquarters of President Hosni Mubarak's party to the ground in January. Now that Mubarak's party has been officially dissolved, many in Egypt are celebrating what they hope will be a new era of democratic competition. Under Mubarak, a government committee reviewed applications of anyone wanting to start a political party and it denied most of them. That's what happened to the Wasat Party, said Wasat spokesman, Yamen Nouh. "We were trying for 15 years to get the license to participate in the political life as a formal party," Nouh said. Wasat – or the Middle Way party – is a moderate offshoot of the Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, though Wasat is open to Christians as well as Muslims. The party aims to meld development and democracy with Islamic culture. The Wasat party was fighting for recognition in court when the Egyptian revolution broke out this winter. Days after Mubarak stepped down, a judge ruled in the party's favor. And in March, the current military authorities passed a law making it pretty easy for any group to form a party. The once-illegal Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will do so, and so have dozens of others. They're all looking to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for this year. Political virginity According to Nouh the more parties, the better. "It's a very good thing that we have many parties and we start practicing after 30 years stuck in the dead area of the regime of Hosni Mubarak," Nouh said. "Let's say we have political virginity." Nouh is referring to the fact that for decades the Mubarak regime stage-managed politics, never allowing parties to really build a following. As I interviewed Nouh, two would-be members dropped by Wasat's offices and sat with one of his colleagues. The two were basically shopping around for a party to join. Mohamed Osman, a middle-aged engineer, said he's a part of "the silent majority" who never joined a political party before because they didn't see the point. Now Osman wants to find a way to make his voice heard. "The time of sitting at home and expressing our anger on the internet is over," Osman said. "We need to get out." Many other parties are planning their strategies as well. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party's youth committee, which met on this day in a bookstore in downtown Cairo, is one of several new liberal parties. It emphasizes development, social justice and a secular state. On this night, the group discussed organizing activities in universities and putting up flyers in low-income neighborhoods. Everyone, it seems, has come to the conclusion that they should be doing something, but what and how? Political action committees Some have decided that forming a political party isn't their best option, but creating a political action committee is. Hundreds of young people packed into a large auditorium in Cairo. The revolution will not be over, the speaker said, until all the old regime's cronies are brought to justice. The event was organized by the April 6 Movement. Launched online four years ago in solidarity with labour strikes, the movement was one of the forces behind the fall of President Mubarak. Like all opposition groups, the movement was tightly restricted by the Mubarak regime. Amr Ali, one of the young founding members, said they would never have been allowed to have a conference like this during the Mubarak years. "There would have been intelligence officers at the door. People were afraid to approach us," Ali said. "Today no one is afraid – on the contrary. The Egyptian street is hungry for real political participation." Another founder, Amal Sharaf, said April 6th believes it can best work for change by not being a political party, in part because the movement encompasses people with different ideologies. "We have the very liberals, leftists, and Islamists. We have everybody in the movement. If we make a party, we will have to be committed to one ideology," Sharaf said. She added that when they founded the movement, they decided not to seek political authority. In fact, the purpose of this new political action group is to lobby for a law that would allow the creation of new political action committees. It's a novel idea here. At the conference, a flyer is circulated that cites the pro-democratic advocacy group MoveOn.org and the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC as examples April 6 would like to emulate. The earnest conversation – one of hundred, if not thousands, taking place every day across the country – goes on. Talk of politics in Egypt used to be full of jokes and cynicism. Now that something might really be at stake, the tone has changed.

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