Thursday, 24 March 2011

Egypt's parties law - not so liberal after all?

The new version of the Egyptian law regulating political parties, approved by the cabinet on Wednesday, was been widely interpreted as a more liberal version of its predecessor, which was in practice highly restrictive. The headline in the state newspaper Al Akhbar said the law made it possible to form parties freely, merely by notification of the authorities, and a widely reproduced Reuters story initially took a similar line. Liberal blogger Zeinobia welcomed the law as "very reasonable", without going into much explanation. But my reading of the law, at least in the detailed version printed in Al Akhbar on Thursday, suggests that the changes are largely superficial and the new law retains many of the flaws of the old.
     The main change, and this at least is significant, is that the regulatory authority will be a panel of three judges - the first deputy president of the Court of Cassation as chairman, plus two deputy presidents of the Council of State in the appeal courts. The Council of State, roughly speaking, is the judicial body with jurisdiction over disputes over the powers of the state. Under the old law, the regulatory body was part of the Shoura Council, the upper house of parliament, which was fully controlled by the old ruling party. The chairman was Shoura Council speaker Safwat el-Sherif, an old-style authoritarian who abused his role to withhold recognition of any parties the government did not like.
     But it is not true that people are now free to form political parties without restriction. The text states quite clearly that people who set up parties can start operating 30 days after notifying the parties committee “provided the committee does not object”. In other words the committee retains a veto over parties that it considers do not meet the necessary requirements.
     The substantial restrictions appear to be largely unchanged. The principles, objectives, programmes, policies and methods of a party must not contradict “the basic principles of the constitution or the need to protect Egyptian national security or to preserve national unity, social and democratic peace”. Parties cannot be set up on a religious or geographical basis or on the basis of discrimination between citizens because of gender, origin, language, religion, belief or any other reason.
     The ban on parties based on religion was originally designed primarily to thwart any attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party and it will be interesting to see whether and how the Freedom and Justice Party that the Brotherhood now plans to set up will be able to draft a programme that circumvents the ban. I have not yet seen any Brotherhood comment on the new law, which Al Akhbar describes as merely a draft approved by the cabinet.
     The other potentially troublesome restriction lies in the apparently innocuous phrase “social peace”, which in the 1970s was clearly understand as directed against any attempt to seek recognition for a communist party, on the strange grounds that communism is more of a threat to “social peace” than other political ideologies.
     The ban on parties with a linguistic or regional agenda seems rather authoritarian and unnecessarily restrictive, especially given the unusual homogeneity of Egyptian society. Would the sky really fall in if those who speak Siwi (in the remote western oasis of Siwa) or the various Beja-type languages on the southern stretch of the Red Sea coast campaigned for their native tongues? Europe is awash with regional-based parties (Bavaria, northern Italy, Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Galicia, Navarre, the Basque country and no doubt more), all within a manageable democratic framework.
    If the military council approves this law, the extent of change will depend to a large degree on the good will of the regulatory committee.

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