Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
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Democracy between four walls

By Fatemah Farag

The third democracy conference, organised by the Committee for Coordination between Political Parties (CCPP), took place on Sunday at the downtown headquarters of the leftist Tagammu Party. The flow from the podium was basically academic in nature, but the counter-flow from the floor was more concerned with politics on the ground. The contrast made the conference seem more lively than it actually was.

"The CCPP is getting weak," argued Hussein Abdel-Razeq, principal coordinator of the annual meeting and a member of Tagammu's political bureau. "The internal problems of political parties have cast shadows on our organisation."

The three-session event was entitled "Towards a Democratic Parliamentary Republic". The day started with opening statements from Abdel-Razeq in the name of the CCPP, Khaled Mohieddin for Tagammu, Ma'moun El-Hodeibi for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Yousri Zaki for the communists, who are also illegal. These were followed by the presentation of three papers: "The authorities of the president", by Essameddin Hassan of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Centre; "A republican government in a parliamentary system", by Atef El-Banna of the Wafd Party; and "The independence of the judiciary", by the Brotherhood's Seif El-Islam Hassan El-Banna.

The event was a far cry from the first democracy conference in 1997. During that three-day conference, all political parties and forces came to an agreement on a minimum agenda for political reform. The next year, two reports were presented at the event, which is usually held in December. One reviewed the implementation of the 1997 resolutions and was extremely critical. The second outlined the basic features of the domestic political scene. The outcome of the 1998 event was a decision to establish a united front that would include not only political parties but also NGOs and syndicates.

This year's conference said a lot about progress to achieve last year's aims. "We made great strides towards a united front. Then, all of a sudden, the political bureaus of the Tagammu and the Nasserist parties, as well as others, began to back down," said Abdel-Razeq. Party activists present at Sunday's event explained that certain considerations, such as the presidential referendum and preparations for parliamentary elections in the year 2000, made the idea of a united front less attractive than it might have seemed initially.

Political developments have created an even more complex reality. "With the passing of the NGO law, and the protests that it triggered, we found the opportunity ripe to deal with protagonists outside political parties. And NGOs discovered that it was impossible to defend human rights in an undemocratic society and, consequently, coordination with political parties became a necessity. Political parties, which are also concerned with the defence of human rights, found that 'those people' can be dealt with," explained Abdel-Razeq.

The fruit of this understanding was a statement calling for political reform, signed by the heads of political parties and 150 NGOs and political activists, and sent to the president.

Abdel-Razeq, however, could not understand why there were intra-party committees dealing with the same issue. "Political reform is not going to descend on us with a parachute. We need a strong unified committee that would make the upcoming elections its primary concern," he said.

The audience, on the other hand, was especially disappointed by the academic nature of the presentations from the podium. "All this sounds very nice. I have been active in politics for five years and in those years I have taken part in many conferences and listened to a lot of talk. But this talk is always confined to four walls," said Yousri Abdel-Fadil, a member of the Liberal Party representing the Cairo district of Al-Khalifa.

Abdel-Fadil was more concerned with the people's day-to-day problems. "I live in the Moqattam area which houses the victims of the 1992 earthquake. Since 1992, we have not been supplied with basic services, such as a hospital and a police station. When I get back home, what can I say to the people of my district that will solve their problems?"

Promoters of the CCPP argue that this kind of criticism is out of place. "It is not the coordination committee's mandate to work directly among the people. Political parties should be doing that. People who complained today would be better served if they addressed their criticism to their parties. If the parties mobilise, so will we, by definition," countered Abdel-Razeq. Moreover, the authors of papers, such as Atef El-Banna, explained that their academic effort was aimed at serving those who had more practical concerns.

Despite the fact that several political parties have not paid their shares of the CCPP financing, and although the organisation has lost much of its momentum, people like Abdel-Razeq argue that there is still hope.

CCPP activities in the near future will be focused on the upcoming parliamentary elections. "We will have a two-pronged approach," explained Abdel-Razeq. "On the one hand, all political parties have adopted [Tagammu leader and MP] Khaled Mohieddin's programme to amend the election law and this will be presented once again to parliament. On the other, we will see about coordinating on who to nominate and support in the coming elections."

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