November 23, 2010

V. Stifling Political Parties

The Political Parties Committee (PPC) remains the ruling party’s primary lever for drastically narrowing Egypt’s political landscape.[49] The PPC can refuse to register new parties, freeze existing parties’ licenses, close party newspapers, reverse party decisions, or halt party activities based on undefined “national interest,” and ask the Supreme Administrative Court to dissolve the party and redistribute its funds. July 2005 amendments to the political parties’ law changed the requirement to register as a party from receiving permission from PPC to one of notification, putting the onus on the committee to object within 90 days.[50] The 2005 amendments also guarantee an approved party’s right to “promote by lawful means its ideals and disseminate information on its activities,” participate in elections and referenda, and, importantly, to “use state-owned audiovisual mass media, particularly during the election campaign, according to the regulations.”[51] The amendments did not, however, eliminate the vague, subjective, and unnecessarily restrictive criteria that allow the government and the PPC to continue to prevent the establishment of new political parties.

The law establishing the PPC gives it “the competence to examine and consider notices of the establishment of parties” and requires that a party’s “founding pillars, principles, goals, programs, policies, or methods of the party in carrying out its activities” should not contradict the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, “being as it is, the main source of legislation”; “the principles of both the July 23, 1952 and the May 15, 1971 revolutions”; or the requirements of “preserving national unity, social peace, the social democratic order, and the socialist gains.”[52] The law further specifies, in article 4, the following criteria necessary for a party to be recognized:

  • “The uniqueness of the party’s programs and policies or methods for achieving these programs, in a manner clearly different from other political parties”;[53]
  • “Its principles, programs, activities, and means of choosing its leaders and members” should not contradict “edicts … concerned with the protection of the internal front and social peace, or [be based] on classicist, ethnic, factional, or geographical foundations, or on the basis of discrimination based on gender, origin, religion, or faith”;[54]
  • The leaders or members of the party may “not be affiliated with, related to, or in cooperation with any party, organization, group, or political power” that has called for the abrogation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel;[55] and
  • The party may not be a reincarnation of a party the government had previously banned.[56]

If the PPC determines that an already-recognized party has violated any of these principles, the chair may request that the appropriate body in the Supreme Administrative Court dissolve a party, liquidate its funds, and determine which other party will absorb its members, elected officials, and assets. [57] Parties may appeal an order of suspension, but only after three months. The parties law also empowers the PPC to determine whether “the party’s platform shall constitute an addition to political life,” and whether its establishment or existence would harm “national unity.”[58]

Amendments passed in 2005 expanded the PPC’s membership from seven to nine and reduced the number of seats allocated to cabinet ministers. But the president still appoints all but one of the committee’s members. The head of the Shura Council, who chairs the PPC, serves ex-officio and is not directly appointed by the president, but he can hardly be considered independent, since the president appoints one-third of the Shura Council directly and the NDP dominates the rest of the body, with the result that the chair of the PPC is invariably a leading member of the ruling party. The PPC now comprises, in addition to the speaker of the Shura Council, the minister of the interior, the minister for People’s Assembly affairs, “three former heads or deputy heads of the judiciary bodies who are not affiliated with any political party,” and “three public figures who are not affiliated with any political party.” The president appoints the three former heads or deputy heads of judiciary bodies and the three public figures for renewable three-year terms.[59]

Almost all of Egypt’s 24 licensed non-ruling political parties are small and ineffectual. Between 1977 and the end of 2009, the PPC rejected 63 applications to establish new parties and approved only four: the Wifaq al-Watani (National Accord) Party (later suspended), the Gil al-Dimoqrati (Democratic Generation) Party, Hizb al-Ghad (Tomorrow Party), and the Democratic Front Party.[60] On January 3, 2009, the Political Parties Court at the Council of State refused to register Nahdet Masr(Egypt’s Renaissance) and Al-Salam al-Dawli(International Peace), allegedly because of failure to comply with the requirements of the Political Parties Law. There are at least nine parties still trying to register.[61]

Al-Karama and Al-Wasat have tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to register, highlighting the PCC’s subjective and arbitrary decision-making. Hamdim Sabbahi, and Amin Iskandr left the Nasserist Party in March 1996 to set up Al-Karama.The PPC rejected the party’s initial application on the grounds that its platform “was not sufficiently distinct from those of existing parties.” The founders applied to register with the PPC again in September 2004, but the PPC again rejected the application, this time on grounds that the party “espoused a radical ideology.”[62] “Under the terms of the Political Parties Law,” Sabbahi told Human Rights Watch, “the ruling party has the right to select its opposition, on its own terms.”[63]

Abd al-`Ila Madi started the Wasat Party in 1996 with others who had left the Muslim Brotherhood because, in his words, they “wanted to see the Brotherhood choose between being a da`wa [proselytizing] organization and a political party.”[64] He described the Wasat Party as “a civil party informed by the ideals of Islam,” and has likened its philosophy to that of Germany’s Christian Democratic Party.[65] On four separate occasions since Al-Wasat first applied in January 1996, the PPC has denied the group permission to operate because its platform was “not sufficiently distinct from existing political parties.” The PPC’s most recent refusal to register Al-Wasat, in August 2009, stated that “the party’s platform is no more than a set of unclear phrases and does not offer anything new to the political life of Egypt.”[66]

The only party recently able to successfully register was the Democratic Front Party, set up by former National Democratic Party policies committee member Osama Ghazali Harb, who left the ruling party in 2006. The decision to approve a new party was a surprise to many. One Democratic Front Party member told Human Rights Watch, “The government doesn’t see us as a threat because we don’t do street activism. They see us as a group of intellectuals who will hold a lot of seminars. Plus there was a lot of pressure on the government at the time to accept new parties.”[67]

[49] Law 40/1977, art. 8.

[50] The People’s Assembly approved the amendments on July 4, 2005, as Law No. 177/2005.

[51] Law No. 177/2005, art. 9 (bis) leaves these “regulating rules” undefined.

[52] Law 40/1977, art. 4.1.1-3.

[53] Ibid., art. 4.2.

[54]Ibid., art. 4.3.

[55]Ibid., art. 4.5-7.

[56]Ibid., art. 4.8.

[57]Law 177/2005, art. 17. The State Council (Maglis al-Dawla) is a quasi-judicial body comprised of 15 persons: seven judges of the first circuit of the Administrative Court and eight “public figures known for their efficiency and good reputation.” The minister of justice selects these public figures, including the president, subject to the approval of the Supreme Judicial Council. The Ministry of Justice, in turn, determines the composition of the Supreme Judicial Council, the body that nominates, promotes, and gives judges their assignments. The Minister of Justice may appoint any competent judge to occupy eight of the Supreme Judicial Council’s 15 seats. The seven other members—the general prosecutor, the minister of state for justice, the head of the Court of Cassation, two other justices from the Court of Cassation, the president of the Court of Appeal, and the chief justice from the Tribunal of First Instance in Cairo—occupy their seats by virtue of their positions. Since the executive appoints the general prosecutor, the minister of state for justice, and the head of the Court of Cassation, 11 of the 15 Supreme Judicial Council members are directly appointed by the executive. This makes it easy for the executive to determine which judges sit in key seats, such as those that result in appointment to the Supreme Judicial Council itself or the State Council —and thereby determine who will hear appeals on failed attempts to register political parties.

[58]Law 177/2005, art. 4.3. and art. 4.2.

[59]Law No. 177/2005, art. 8. T.

[60]Mona el-Nahhas, “Changing Tactics,” Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), December 2-8, 2004. The PPC approved the Labor Party in 1977 but subsequently suspended its activities. The Open Egypt Party and the Social Justice Party were created by an order of the Supreme Administrative Court’s State Council reversing the PPC decision. The PPC has since suspended the Open Egypt Party, the Social Justice Party, the Populist Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party (one of the three established by President Sadat; see above). See also Tamir Moustafa, “The Law Versus State: The Judicialization of Politics in Egypt,” Law and Social Inquiry (Washington DC: American Bar Association, 2003), p. 14.

[61] For a list of parties trying to register see the website of the Democratic Front Party: http://www.democraticfront.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=213&Itemid=61.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Amin Iskandr, Cairo, November 24, 2006; Mona al-Nahhas, “Tomorrow’s Party Today,” Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), November 4-10, 2004, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/715/eg6.htm (accessed December 22, 2006).

[63] Human Rights Watch interview with Hamdim Sabbahi, Cairo, November 24, 2006.

[64]Human Rights Watch interview with Abu al-`Ila Madi, Cairo, July 19, 2006.

[65]Ibid.

[66] Hossam Sadka and Mahmoud Gaweesh, “Parties Committee Rejects Al Wasat for the Fourth Time,” Al-Masry al-Youm,August 18, 2009, http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=222971 (accessed November 7, 2010).

[67]Human Rights Watch interview with M.N., Cairo, March 17, 2010.