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Egyptian parties take first steps toward democracy

Inspired by demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters are taking to the streets in Bahrain, Iran and Yemen.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:11 PM

CAIRO - Caught in the unfamiliar glare of television lights, 20 leaders of the al-Wasat political party stood with their backs stiffly to the wall Tuesday, looking more as if they were awaiting yet another grilling by the secret police than their first real news conference.

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The press packet was a simple sheet of paper, and no sound bites had been crafted, but when party founder Abou El Ela Mady tapped the mike and sent the sound system screeching into ear-splitting life, political history was made.

Until President Hosni Mubarak was deposed, one party - the National Democratic Party - held all of Egypt's political power and privilege. Others were strictly controlled or even banned. Now the seismic force of the Egyptian revolution has shaken them out of years of somnolence. Offices where drowsy officials used to spend lonely afternoons are alive with cellphones ringing, curious citizens drifting in and invigorated members debating ideology.

Al-Wasat waited 15 years, one month and nine days for official permission to operate, which a court granted Saturday. The party, started by a group that split away from the Muslim Brotherhood to promote a more tolerant form of Islam, has little more behind it than a Web site, the bonds formed during years of suppression and a shared desire for democracy.

An organization so recently banned has no sign announcing its presence, and reporters traveled around the block a few times searching for the office, its door squeezed in between shops crowding the sidewalk with adult diapers, wheelchairs and treadmills. The climb up a dark, dirty stairway led to a red door and a new party trying to create itself inside.

"We could never meet people here in Egypt," said Tareq El Malt, an architect and member of the executive committee whose own neighbors don't know the party exists.

Elections are expected in six months, but El Malt said that before the party thinks about winning seats in parliament, it has to figure out how to organize and operate.

As he spoke, party members darted around the office - largely empty except for chairs and an ancient copying machine - with a brand-new, 12-foot-long yellow banner, as if hanging last-minute party decorations, finally thumb-tacking it to a wall: "Al-Wasat, From Liberation to Urbanization."

Reporters peppered the executive committee with questions about constitutional amendments, privatization of state enterprises, attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and positions on the emergency law. The exchanges were polite but probing, and after an hour and a half, the news conference ended and reporters jostled for position, trying to get one more quote and a new camera angle.

"Now the Egyptian people are reinventing themselves," El Malt said, "and so are we."

Organizing online

Not far away, men and women, young and old, bustled around the headquarters of the left-wing al-Tagammu party.

In a large room with a tiny stage, young people sat talking politics and carefully reading newspapers. Clumps of men argued happily while clouds of cigarette smoke drifted through the air, and women chatted eagerly in a corner. Although al-Tagammu is an older, established party, organized in 1977, it too has been deprived of any real freedom to operate and must now build an effective political operation.


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