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President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party have used the Political Parties Law to maintain a virtual monopoly over political power in Egypt by denying opponents the right to form political parties, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

On January 6, Cairo’s Supreme Administrative Court will rule on the appeals of 13 prospective parties whose applications the Political Parties Committee has rejected. Human Rights Watch urged the court not to erect unreasonable restrictions blocking the formation of political parties.

“The government has for decades used the political parties law to fix elections before they begin,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt needs a new political parties law that respects Egyptians’ rights to form political parties and to vote for whomever they choose.”

The briefing paper, “Monopolizing Power: Egypt’s Political Parties Law,” outlines the sweeping powers the Political Parties Law grants to the Political Parties Committee, a body dominated by the president and the ruling party, to license and suspend political parties. The law gives President Mubarak and the ruling party broad authority to choose who may compete against them and under what terms.

Human Rights Watch said that reform of the law is particularly important given the possibility that the government might bring back party-list voting, which would require voters to choose parties rather than individuals. In the November-December 2005 parliamentary elections, members of the Muslim Brotherhood running as independents won a record 88 seats in the Parliament. In reaction to their strong showing, President Mubarak in a December 26 speech and senior officials of the ruling National Democratic Party have suggested a return to party-list voting, which would prevent members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other unrecognized parties from running as independents, effectively excluding them from the political process.

“There’s nothing wrong with party-list voting so long as there aren’t unreasonable barriers against parties’ participation,” Whitson said. “But coupling party-list voting with the current political parties law would mean excluding much of the opposition.”

The Political Parties Law places excessive restrictions on the basic rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly. It requires that parties’ platforms not “contradict the requirements of maintaining national unity [and] social peace,” and should “constitute an addition to political life according to specific methods and goals.” It also allows the Political Parties Committee and the Supreme Administrative Court to suspend or dissolve parties “as may be required for the national interest and in the case of urgency.”

The government has abused these vague requirements to exclude political opposition, Human Rights Watch said. Since the introduction of a multiparty system in the 1970s, the Egyptian government has refused to license dozens of peaceful political parties and has suspended several it did license. The government has, for example, repeatedly refused to license the Wasat (Centrist) Party, which describes itself as “a civil party founded on the ideals of Islam,” and in 1996 detained its leader, Abu al-`Aila Madi. It has refused to license the Karama (Dignity) Party, an offshoot of the Nasserist Party, on the grounds that it advocates “a radical ideology.”

Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right of peaceful assembly and the rights of freedom of expression and association with others. The Egyptian government’s restrictions on political parties effectively deny Egyptian citizens meaningful exercise of these rights in the context of their right to organize and associate according to their political beliefs.

The ICCPR also guarantees the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through freely chosen representatives, and the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections. These rights entail participation in, and voting for, political parties. They are guaranteed “without unreasonable restrictions.” The broad power and unfettered discretion of the Political Parties Committee to exclude and restrict political parties, and the laws it relies on to do so, are unreasonable restrictions, and undermine the rights set forth in the ICCPR.

“President Mubarak has spoken of his desire to reinvigorate political parties,” Whitson said. “He should begin by proposing a new political parties law.”

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