After a six-year power struggle, the Liberal Party finally has a new leader. Mona El-Nahhas
Two weeks ago, and after six years of struggle, the Political Parties Committee -- an affiliate of the Shura Council -- suddenly decided to name a chairman for the Al-Ahrar or Liberal Party.
During a meeting held on 22 December, the committee chaired by Shura Council Speaker Safwat El-Sherif decided on Helmi Salem, one of the 13 competitors claiming the post, as the party's sole legitimate chairman.
On Sunday, and by means of a decision by the attorney-general, Salem was handed the key to the Abdin headquarters of the party, which was placed under sequestration last June in response to the ongoing internal power struggle.
Salem hailed the decision of the Political Parties Committee as "reflecting an unprecedented democratic development in Egypt today".
For his part, El-Sherif said that the decision had been taken after a thorough study of the case by the committee's members. The committee's decision, however, has already been contested before the Administrative Court by the party's former deputy chairman Talaat El-Sadat.
El-Sadat, who was one of the competitors for the post, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decree constitutes a flagrant violation of the law. "The decision is null and void, simply because the committee is not authorised by the law to resolve power struggles inside parties. Such matters should be settled by the judiciary in the case that the rivals fail to reach a solution of their own," he said.
Salem, meanwhile, viewed El-Sadat's appeal as having no legal grounds. According to Salem, "El-Sadat was stripped of his membership on 6 December during a party congress, at which the members chose me as the party chairman."
The struggle for leadership between the 13 leading members of the party goes back to 1998, following the death of party founder Mustafa Kamel Murad. Since then, each of the rivals has had time to hold a separate general congress and claim they have been elected as chairman by the members.
Results of the endless congresses were subsequently submitted to the Political Parties Committee, which preferred in the past to remain in the role of by-stander, insisting that power struggles inside parties are a purely internal affair.
Yet, since last July, and following El-Sherif's appointment as speaker of the Shura Council, the committee has undergone a change of attitude. After more than two decades during which it had systematically turned down requests to found new parties, two new parties were licensed in October and November of last year.
Following his victory, Salem has already sought to improve relations with the government. Unlike the rest of the opposition parties, which have placed the priority on amending the constitution and abolishing the presidential referendum system, Salem told the Weekly that his party does not support these two demands. "The time is not ripe for amending the constitution. Such a step should only be taken after the parliamentary elections, once President [Hosni] Mubarak has started a new term in office," Salem said. He also declared that from now on, Islamist extremists will have no place inside his party.
The Liberal Party, founded in 1977, previously formed an alliance with the banned Muslim Brotherhood group in 1987 in advance of that year's parliamentary elections. The party aimed to ride the coattails of the Brotherhood's great popularity in the hope of winning a large number of parliamentary seats.
"The Liberal Party will no longer form alliances with any other party or group, for we do not need such alliances now," Salem said.
In moves to purge the party of any persisting influence by the Brotherhood, party sources asserted that Salem intends to close down one of the party's newspapers, Afaq Arabia (Arab Horizons), which is financially and administratively controlled by the Brotherhood.
However, when questioned, Salem denied this claim, and insisted that none of the party's newspapers will be shut down. Instead, they will all be subject to the direct supervision of the party, including Afaq Arabia, and clear criteria will be established to guide their editorial policies. "This will put an end to any possible excesses," said Salem. "It's illogical to find one of the party's newspapers turning into a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood."
Moving on to discuss the party's future agenda, Salem said that he intends to play a significant role in the national dialogue between the ruling NDP and the opposition parties, which is scheduled to take place later this month.
"We have been preparing a paper including the party's priorities for the coming reform plan. Abolishing the emergency law, and amending the political parties law and the law on practicing political rights, are at the top of our demands," he told the Weekly.
The Liberal Party is also actively preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections. "To reach our goals, we first need to increase the size of our membership which has shrunk tremendously as a result of the six-year crisis," Salem declared. "Then, we will be able to improve our performance."