Party Politics

One of the many political absurdities left behind by Mr Anwar Sadat is something called “The Political Party Affairs Committee.” This thing, composed exclusively of NDP members, gets to cherry pick the regime’s opposition (see Law 40/1977). This means that we have opposition parties headed by the likes of Shaykh Ahmad al-Sabahy, president of al-Umma Party (right). Shaykh al-Sabahy includes among his many preoccupations the mandatory return of the fez, the intricacies of dream interpretation, and the mysteries of astrology, all veritable burning issues in Egyptian politics. During the presidential elections campaign of 2005 in which he served as one of the principal contestants, al-Sabahy simply could not contain his admiration and support for President Mubarak, and vowed to vote for him on election day. Yes. Shaykh Ahmad al-Sabahy presides over a legal opposition party in Egypt, but Islamist Abul Ela Mady and Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy (no relation to Shaykh Ahmad) are repeatedly and unequivocally turned down when they avail themselves of established channels for forming legal opposition parties. What’s wrong with this picture?

On Saturday, when Sabahy and Mady were turned down by the Political Parties Court for the second and third times, respectively, they greeted the news with a nonchalance that verged on the triumphal. Mady and members of his Wasat party unfurled pre-made banners that condemned the verdict; they had arrived hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Wasat member Essam Sultan (top) made biting remarks to the media: “This verdict today means that all young people in this country are barred from entering politics to make room for one person only and his name is Gamal Hosni Mubarak.” Al-Karama party’s Hamdeen Sabahy was similarly blunt: “This is a clear message from the regime to all Egyptians: forget about forming real political parties.”

Indeed, it is no small irony that the verdict came days after Hosni Mubarak’s proposed constitutional amendments. Mubarak’s rationale for re-amending Article 76 is to “activate our political life and bolster pluralism and political party activities, leading to strong political parties capable of enriching the democratic experiment.” Apparently, the Wasat and Karama would-be parties are not deemed the right kind of parties to “enrich the democratic experiment.” Just like Ayman Nour’s Ghad party, after an initial green light in October 2004, was also deemed unfit to enrich.

It’s fair to wonder why real politicians with real constituencies such as Sabahy and Mady appeal to the farcical Political Parties Committee in the first place. Why go to the government and ask: can I please oppose you?! Who in their right mind would go to the likes of Safwat al-Sherif, Kamal al-Shazli, Habib al-Adli, and other Committee members and ask them to pretty please allow some opposition?! And who in their right mind could take seriously a process that ends with Committee members handing down a report inevitably rejecting new political party applications as not “distinct” enough from existing parties?!

Would-be party leaders offer several good reasons why they engage in this bizarre charade. For a long time, the Political Parties Court proved more independent and serious than the Committee, overturning the latter’s decisions and allowing several parties to see the light of day. Thus it made sense to bank on the Court, even though it is an irregular body composed of senior administrative court judges but also “public figures” (a trusty tool to pack the court with regime loyalists and assorted nobodies). Saturday’s verdict, however, put an end to any lingering hopes that the Parties Court can carve out some autonomy and efficacy separate from the Parties Committee.

Another reason offered is that playing by the regime’s absurd rules exposes the fraudulence of its democratic claims. Following all instructions, filling out all application papers, and meeting all deadlines but still getting turned down enables opposition party leaders to call the regime’s bluff, demonstrating to domestic public opinion and influential foreign parties that the regime has made zero progress on political reform. A third reason is that going through the cumbersome legal process allows opposition parties to carve out a margin of manoeuvrability; they can profitably use the “under construction” label to begin work as a de facto political party, recruiting members, contesting elections, and developing internal party organs.

The most interesting aspect of Saturday’s verdict is not the Court’s complete rejection of 13 party projects, but what the leaders of Karama, Wasat, and other real would-be parties will do next. The rationales they have been working with so far are no longer compelling. The Political Parties Court has for some years now lost what sliver of autonomy and credibility it had accrued. Exposing the regime’s repression and political manipulation no longer carries the same rhetorical and material force that it did when Mubarak’s reform pledges were still credible. And seizing the political opportunities offered by the “under construction” status are no longer as attractive given Kifaya’s example of working openly without any government sanction.

A festive air hung over everyone arrayed on the court steps on Saturday after the court verdict. Heartfelt greetings, jokes, and congratulations were exchanged. Curious passers-by and motorists slowed down to gaze at the puzzling spectacle, only to be firmly rushed along by police and State Security officers. Courthouse secretaries giggled as they navigated around the assembled men to descend the steps and move on to more pressing domestic matters.

The coming months will demonstrate whether these creative, committed political activists will leave the court steps and join the public on the streets to form real, representative political parties. Perhaps like students, engineers, and workers, they will resist government repression by establishing alternative organisations legitimised by the general will of their electors. Only then will we see real opposition parties emergent from the ground up, without the Mubarak regime’s blessings, without the patronage of the Americans and Europeans, and without the geriatric leadership throttling existing opposition parties.