Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2011
Issue No. 1041
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Party time

While hailing the new law regulating the foundation of political parties as a positive step towards democracy political forces still have reservations, reports Mona El-Nahhas

During a press conference on Monday the Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) announced the issue of a new law regulating the founding of political parties .

The law was approved by Essam Sharaf's cabinet on 23 March and was referred to the HCAF on the same day.

Prepared by the committee that drafted the latest constitutional amendments, the new legislation annuls eight articles from the 1977 political parties law which hindered the registering of political parties.

While the new law was generally accepted by a wide majority of political powers, a set of conditions were included to ensure party founders were serious and to limit the number of parties in the coming period.

Under the new law political parties can be legally registered just after notifying a seven-member judicial committee. If the judicial committee does not raise any objections within a period of 30 days then the party can continue with its activities. Should any objections be raised they must be referred within eight days to the Supreme Administrative Court which would either confirm or quash the objection. Once founded, parties could still be dissolved if they are found to have violated any of the conditions mentioned in Article 4 of the new law, in which case the judicial committee can once again refer the case to the Supreme Administrative Court.

The basic role of the judicial committee under the new law is to examine the procedural conditions for founding a party. The 1977 law left everything in the hands of the Political Parties Committee headed by the speaker of the Shura Council, invariably a leading member of the then ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Those interested in setting up a political party can now apply to the judicial committee after procuring 5,000 signatures of potential members. The putative membership must be drawn from 10 or more governorates and the source of party finances be declared.

Besides examining the papers of new parties the judicial committee must ensure that the party is not founded upon any basis, including religion, that differentiates between citizens.

In fact, such prohibition satisfied a large number of liberal and leftist political powers, that were lately obsessed with the idea that a large number of religious parties would jump into the political scene.

Legal experts believe that while effectively banning overtly religious parties the new law will not prevent the formation of civil parties with a religious background. A party that offers a manifesto that approaches current issues from a religious perspective is likely to be allowed to take part in the political life which means that the Muslim Brotherhood, now in the process of founding the Freedom and Justice Party, is set to become a major political player.

"The MB group will not turn into a party. The political party we are now founding is a civil one, based on the principles of citizenship," says leading Muslim Brother Essam El-Erian.

While welcoming the new law many political groups have objected to the way in which it was issued.

"Although we agree that the law has several positive aspects we are against the issuing of laws without first consulting a range of political forces," says Ali El-Salmi, assistant to the Wafd Party's chairman.

Amin Iskandar, a founder of the would-be Karama (Dignity) Party, believes the 5,000 signatures may present a hurdle to some groups.

"For us it will be no problem at all to gather the necessary number. But for beginners I think it's a big problem."

He suggests a figure of 1,000 would be fairer.

Rifaat El-Said, chairman of the leftist Tagammu Party, argues that the MB is the only group capable of collecting so many signatures across such a large geographical swathe.

El-Said also complains about the abolition of the LE100,000 annual subsidy allocated to political parties.

"There is no democratic country in the world that does not allocate a financial subsidy to political parties. They are an essential part of the state system," he says.

Political analyst Amr Hashem Rabei agrees with El-Said.

"I agree that the law is generally positive. However, I don't really understand why they have annulled the state subsidy."

"Nor do I understand why they insisted on amending the old law instead of abolishing it altogether. It would have been better if they issued a new law with no connection to the old one."

Before the issue of the new law for any party to get registered its founders would be forced through a labyrinth of complicated procedures often leading nowhere. Any new party had to have a political programme completely distinct from existing parties. The Political Parties Committee was the sole body authorised to assess such programmes and, by extension, decide whether or not the party should be registered. It was not strange that dozens of applications for founding new parties were daily quashed. Founders known for their ties with the regime were the lucky ones who got permits. However, if they crossed the red lines, the price would be freezing their parties.

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