Egyptian parties take first steps toward democracy

By Kathy Lally
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.

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.

"We were a legitimate party, and we often applied for permits to demonstrate," said Hany Abdel Rady, 22, a student. "Our applications were rejected and regarded as evidence against us."

If the party managed to gather 100 protesters in defiance, Rady said, 10,000 police officers would surround them. The intimidation worked, making it difficult to attract members. Now, even though much of the membership comes from the older generation, Rady is sure the party can organize online.

"Everyone is on Facebook," he said. "I don't see what we really need in terms of headquarters or supplies. All we need now is ideas."

Talaat Fahmi, a civil engineer who has belonged to the party for 30 years, says Egyptian parties - and there are about 20 of them, some with only a few members - suffer from having been created and forced to survive under draconian laws that prevented real contact between parties and the people.

"Most parties have lost whatever base they had," he said. "They had such a small space in which to work, they lost their voice. And now people don't trust them."

Shake the party up

Over in the upper-class Dokki part of town, the al-Wafd party operates from a mansion with grand Corinthian columns in the lobby, a large lushly colored stained-glass window and enormous wooden doors. This is the oldest party, dating to the monarchy.

Alaa Kandil, a lawyer and member, has come to see Mustafa Raslan, whose uncle was a founder of the party. Kandil wants to shake the party up, frustrated with the air of quiet - and remote - dignity. Let's go out on the streets and find out what people want, he says.

Enough of the streets, Raslan says, mystified that his own children, who won't clean their rooms, joined the revolution and swept the streets. Now is the time for stability, he argues, not disruption.

"Yes, change the party," he said, "but do it through the rules."

Kandil shakes his head. "I believe in freedom," he said, "and he believes in regulations."

Earlier, Rana El Bakry, an 18-year-old student, had dropped into the new al-Wasat office, invited by a friend to see what this party was all about, and how the first buds of democracy were sprouting in Egypt.

"I'm very happy with what I heard," she said later. "I hope they can do what they say."

Special correspondent Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company