14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The applicationBy Amira Howeidy
is the message
Last week, Islamist lawyer Mamdouh Ismail went to the Shura Council's Political Parties Committee (PPC) to apply for a licence for a political party he wants to establish under the name of Al-Shari'a (Islamic law). He was accompanied by Amin El-Demeiri, one of the founders of the underground Jihad group, and the cameras of several Arab TV stations. Ismail thus joined the long queue of those awaiting the "green light" to establish a political party, knowing only too well they will never get it. What they do get, though, is press and media attention.
The process has become an all too familiar game -- a group of men defect from an existing political party or force and announce they will establish their own; the PPC rejects their application; and the would-be founders go to the Political Parties Tribunal which, in turn, supports the committee's decision. This process usually takes up to two years of legal battling, during which the would-be founders gain a considerable amount of publicity in political and intellectual circles. The more controversial the would-be party's founders, the greater publicity they get.
A case in point was the attempt made more than three years ago by several members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to establish the Al-Wassat (centre) Party. The mere fact that they were members of the illegal group triggered a controversy about their motives and also about the Brotherhood's unity. The Al-Wassat's leading would-be founder, Abul-Ela Madi, was hurled into the limelight after he was briefly arrested in 1996 on charges of attempting to establish a political party to serve as a front for an illegal group. And because the Brotherhood's leaders were not informed, and did not approve, of Madi's initiative, they launched war against the would-be founders. This won the Al-Wassat group even greater attention. Although Madi and Al-Wassat's supporters never won the licence they sought in three years of legal battles, they are a de facto part of the nation's political map.
Hamdein El-Sabahi, head of the Press Syndicate's Cultural Committee, has defected from the Nasserist Party and will attempt to establish his own party under the name of Al-Karama (dignity). For him, Al-Wassat's experience "in gaining a de facto existence has been very encouraging."
El-Sabahi knows that the PPC will not accept his application. "There is no hope for anyone to win a licence, but one can always take a unilateral decision to establish a political party," El-Sabahi told Al-Ahram Weekly. The mere acts of applying and preparing for a new party "will allow us to communicate with the people and examine the impact of our platform," he added. In fact, what El-Sabahi is suggesting is that "a de facto existence is more important than legality although it cannot replace it."
The Al-Karama platform has so far won the formal support of 125 people in 17 governorates. The reason why he has not applied for a party officially yet, says El-Sabahi, is that the number of Christian supporters was "limited" and that certain parts of the platform needed modification. Although based on Nasserist ideology, El-Sabahi said they "do not seek to gain legality by carrying Gamal Abdel-Nasser's pictures or repeating his slogans. We want to maintain the essence of Nasserist ideology and revive the harmonious link between the three elements of our identity: Arabism, Islam and Egyptian nationalism."
Then there is the attempt to establish the Third Way Party. Coordinator Sayed Hamayel was a close aide to the late Kamal Eddin Hussein, a member of Nasser's Revolution Command Council (RCC) which took over power following the 1952 July Revolution. Hamayel presented a "draft copy" of the party's platform two weeks ago to the PPC. Hamayel initially stated that RCC member and former vice-president Hussein El-Shafei is the Third Way's "honorary chairman." But after El-Shafei denied this in an interview last week, Hamayel told the Weekly that the name of the "party's" leader, whom he described as a prominent public figure who is currently abroad, would be announced soon. He claimed that Hussein's two sons are among the would-be founders.
Hamayel believes that he can win a licence. "All those who have been applying to establish political parties over the years never got a licence simply because their platforms did not comply with the political parties law. In fact, all they wanted was to establish opposition parties while the Third Way has a unique platform that seeks not to oppose the government, but to work with it."
Hamayel said he is currently negotiating with one of Nasser's sons to join the "party". He also claims to have the support of many members of the ruling National Democratic Party "who will join the party once it is established."
The four-page draft platform of Third Way is, however, couched in generalities such as "achieving full democracy" and "modifying the Egyptian constitution to become an ideal example of an Arab-African country." It also calls for "coordination and reconciliation between the various moderate forces."
Furthermore, a source in the Political Parties Committee told the Weekly that no one from the Third Way has approached the committee with an application to establish a party.
Since 1977, the committee has continued to deny party licences. Aware of this very consistent course of action, Al-Sharia's Ismail still believes that using this channel "is the only way to get our message across." This message, he says, is that there has been a radical shift in Islamist ideology which had categorically rejected the idea of establishing a political party in the past. Indeed, Ismail, who published a book on the 1997 cease-fire initiative declared by the clandestine Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, had not been known as a political figure until he came up with his Al-Shari'a application. He too conceded that the Al-Wassat experience affected his decision "but was not the primary reason for doing so."
The increasing number of those applying for parties and their supporters, says Mohamed Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, "are of a mature age group, in their 40s, who feel it's high time their generation had a role to play." It is obvious that the Islamists are approaching the PPC although they know full well that they will never get a licence, "but since they lost the battle [of violence] they feel the need to exist, no matter how," Said added.
Against a background of splits inside almost all opposition parties, the trend to seek the establishment of new political parties, argued Said, has a positive aspect. "What is happening reflects a state of metamorphosis of the political and ideological trends and the emergence of new signs of polarisation... Egyptian politics are just maturing a bit more."