Egypt's opposition parties and professional syndicates sank further into irrelevance, reports Mona El-Nahhas
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'My new headquarters will be in every street, coffee shop and alleyway in Egypt.' -- Imprisoned Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour after the bloody confrontation between his supporters and opponents
Divisions, internal disputes and bloody conflicts sum up the deplorable state of the majority of Egypt's 24 opposition parties as 2008 ends. Ferocious power struggles over leading party posts are now the norm while any agenda promoting political reform has sunk without trace. Accusations of maintaining close connections with the government were repeatedly levelled at party leaders. Beyond holding occasional seminars and endlessly issuing statements, Egypt's political parties did little. Hardly surprising, then, that their mostly deserted offices and unreadable mouthpieces are generally viewed as pointless by the public.
At the leftist Tagammu, chairman Rifaat El-Said announced that he could no longer work with the party's Secretary-General Sayed Abdel-Aal, leader of the reformist camp. Clashes between El-Said and Abdel-Aal have been ongoing since last April's general conference. Tensions are expected to continue into 2009, when elections for the post of party chairman are due. El-Said has already occupied the seat of chairman for two successive terms and is ineligible for a third.
At the Nasserist Arab Democratic Party a similar scenario is expected to unravel after the party's ageing leader, Diaaeddin Dawoud, announced his intention to quit politics altogether. Dawoud's decision followed repeated calls by the party's reformist wing for him to stand down. They claim Dawoud's repeated absences from party meetings allowed Secretary-General Ahmed Hassan to concentrate power in his own hands.
The power struggle at the liberal Ghad Party culminated in a bloody confrontation in November as members of a splinter group headed by Moussa Mustafa Moussa attempted to seize the party's Downtown headquarters, owned by Gamila Ismail, wife of Ghad's jailed founder Ayman Nour. Moussa's group arrived with Molotov cocktails and aerosol cans, setting fire to the party headquarters and ensuring a tragic end to a once promising party.
Divisions also marred the performance of the Democratic Front, greeted optimistically by political analysts when it was founded in 2007. Torn by internal disputes and the departure of many leading members, the party has done little to advance the cause of political reform. Following March's internal elections it suffered from a festering dispute between chairman Osama El-Ghazali Harb and former secretary- general Anwar Esmat El-Sadat. Lawsuits contesting the authenticity of the polls were filed by El-Sadat who finally decided to drop all cases, submit his resignation and found another party.
Although the struggle for power between the Wafd Party's current leader Mahmoud Abaza and the ousted Noaman Gomaa was legally settled in 2008 in favour of Abaza the party has yet to restore any convincing presence on the political scene. Beyond announcing during November's general congress that the Wafd would revise its platform, and the formation of a loose coalition with the Tagammu, Nasserist and Democratic Front parties, little else was done.
Political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie questions "the usefulness of a multi-party system in a country where all opposition powers are infiltrated by the government". His suspicion that the hands of the regime can be detected in many of the corrosive internal battles is shared by many.
At professional syndicates the situation was not much better. The Engineers' Syndicate was the scene of sit-in strikes staged to press for the lifting of the judicial sequestration imposed in 1995. In February the Administrative Court ruled that sequestration should end and elections be scheduled but the head of the judicial committee authorised to regulate elections at professional syndicates has made no moves towards implementing the ruling.
"Setting a date for holding elections depends on the engineers themselves," said Minister of Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid, speaking in his legal capacity as the syndicate's supervisor. His stress on engineers guaranteeing that the syndicate would not pursue a political agenda was a reflection of government concerns that Islamists would gain control were elections to be held. Realising that the battle to liberate their syndicate may take years, engineers vowed not to give up.
Elections at the Bar Association have been scheduled for 18 January though they could still be halted. Lawsuits contesting the legality of election procedures and the validity of current voters' lists are now before the courts. The claimants are rumoured to have government backing.
The last elections at the Doctors' Syndicate were in 1995. Last March an emergency general assembly was held during which it was decided to continue with doctors' longstanding campaign to press for better working conditions and terms of employment.
Journalists, too, vowed to continue a longstanding battle, their goal to have custodial sentences for publication offences abolished.
In 2008, the editors-in-chief of the independent Al-Masry Al-Yom and the opposition Al-Wafd joined three other journalists in the dock, charged with violating a court ban on coverage of the trial of the murder of Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim. Meanwhile, Adel Hammouda, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Al-Fagr, is awaiting a ruling in a libel case filed against the paper by Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, grand imam of Al-Azhar.
Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent Al-Dostour, together with three other chief editors, appealed a 12-month sentence handed down against them after they were found guilty of defaming leading members of the NDP. A final ruling on the case is expected on 31 January.
Last October Eissa was sentenced to a six- month jail term by the Boulaq Court of Appeal for publishing false information concerning the health of President Hosni Mubarak. Although Eissa received a presidential pardon soon after journalists had appeared more determined than ever to continue their campaign against custodial sentences. "One pardon does not mean that journalists will no longer be jailed," announced Ibrahim Mansour, executive editor-in-chief of Al-Dostour. It is a view with which the majority of Mansour's colleagues would concur.