A number of pro-state and opposition political figures made the case on Sunday for restrictions on political parties to be lifted during a well-publicized debate session of the National Dialogue.
Of Egypt’s 109 political parties, only 13 hold seats in the House of Representatives. Groups with state backing, like the Nation’s Future Party, hold over half the seats and dominate the legislature’s floor.
Sunday’s was the second session in the political stream of the National Dialogue, a forum which was proposed by the president last year to enliven a stagnant political order and curate a more varied set of approaches to the pressing social, political and economic issues facing the country.
The National Dialogue has emerged slowly, with over a year of preparatory work to select an agenda and participants. Early setbacks for the state-led process included demands from opposition groups for the release of political prisoners as a guarantee of the forum’s seriousness.
Ongoing push for prisoner releases
Some figures continue to boycott the debates, including members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, despite the Saturday release of imprisoned party member Wessam Saleh, along with 12 other political detainees.
Thirty representatives from parties within the Civil Democratic Movement opposition alliance spoke during the seven-hour back-and-forth, bringing the conversation back to the issue of party members and others in prison for voicing their opinions and pointing to ongoing arrests. Among them was Khaled Dawoud, assistant rapporteur on the National Dialogue’s Political Parties Committee, who listed imprisoned blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, political activist Ahmed Douma, lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer and activist blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim.
The name of forcibly disappeared student activist Moaz al-Sharqawy was added by Bread and Freedom Party member Mostafa Shawky, who said Sharqawy “has been arrested for 11 days and we haven’t heard anything about him.”
Shawky also called for the release of Strong Egypt Party chair Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh and deputy chair Mohamed al-Qassas.
“We strained ourselves to participate in the dialogue despite the fact that at least five party members are currently behind bars,” he said.
Lifting barriers to party formation
A consensus emerged from Sunday’s debate to put work into amending the law on party formation to lower barriers for entry.
Barriers raised for consideration during the session included state and security harassment targeting particular parties, representation in the media, nationality requirements for party officials, and the number and spread of members necessary to qualify for party status.
Representatives of the Civil Democratic Movement spoke to assert that the state is responsible for the death of party life in Egypt.
Some parties are allowed to hold mass conferences and rallies in streets and squares to sell goods nationwide, said members of the bloc, while others can’t rent a hall in a hotel or a club to host a Ramadan iftar.
The comments were rebutted by a representative of the Nation’s Future Party, Nageh Galal, who stressed that the current political climate guarantees parties’ rights to exercise their activities.
In retort, the assistant rapporteur of the dialogue’s Committee on Exercising Political Rights and Parliamentary Representation, Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, argued that “some” parties are major not because they have a large social base but because they are supported and sponsored by the state.
Participants on Tuesday ultimately agreed on recommendations that state agencies should maintain a consistent level of distance from all parties and that political parties of all stripes should be allowed equal access to airtime and column inches in the state-owned media, with the dialogue’s general coordinator, Diaa Rashwan, indicating that this includes newspapers and media affiliated with the National Press Authority and the National Media Authority.
A proposal was also put forward to annul a requirement for parties to have 5,000 members spread across a minimum of five governorates, with support expressed by the Reyada Party, the Bread and Freedom Party, which is yet to gain official party status, and the Conservative, Reform and Development, Communist and Socialist parties.
Fewer members should be required, they argued. Rashwan proposed reducing the number to just 3,000, while Shawky of the Bread and Freedom Party proposed that 1,000 should be sufficient.
All of Tuesday’s participants, meanwhile, agreed to support the annulment of a prohibitively expensive requirement in the political parties law that party members’ names be published in two widely circulated newspapers. Instead, members’ names could be published on the website of the Political Parties Affairs Committee, they said, while parties are currently allowed under the law to establish websites and television channels with an exemption from the normal fees stipulated in the law regulating the Supreme Media Regulatory Council.
Nationality requirements for party officials in the political parties law were also disputed. Reyada Party representative Kamal Hassanein suggested that party heads should be born to Egyptian parents, not only an Egyptian father, as is stipulated in the current law. A more progressive amendment was suggested by Bread and Freedom Party representative Suzan Nada, who suggested that the current law stipulate that the head of the party be of Egyptian father or mother to ensure gender parity in the context of party formation.
A reinstatement of government financial support for political parties — an allocation of LE100,000 per year and party that was halted in 2011 — was also proposed, along with a proposal for public figures to be allowed to donate to political parties and for such donations to be deducted from net taxable income.
Parties should also be considered civil institutions, the speakers agreed, and as such should be allowed to practice profitable commercial and investment activities as was recently allowed under the civil institutions law. Tagammu Party representative Atef al-Maghawry also called for parties to be exempted from taxes and fees and for the commercial rate for utilities.
Lively discussion around the oversight and enforcement of regulations on parties was also had on Sunday. In place of the existing Political Party Affairs Committee, Justice Party representative Abdel Moneim Imam suggested a new commission to manage the affairs of political parties and to ensure the financial and administrative governance of the parties.
Opposing the suggestion was Hassan Badrawy, assistant justice minister and vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who said that parties are a key tenet of democracy and that the governance and internal democracy of parties should not be a reason for interference in party affairs. If there is an internal problem in the party, he added, it must either resort to the judiciary or to the media and the court of popular control, but the state cannot interfere in party affairs.
But Reform and Development Party leader Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat and the dialogue coordinator Rashwan supported a party commission with the same judicial composition as at present, along with a technical secretariat to assist the judicial committee. Rashwan agreed that there should be an entity for parties whose role is not limited to granting notice.
Discussions of economic and social affairs are to continue under the National Dialogue over this week.