In a moldering marble palace filled with dusty rococo statutary and faded giltedged furniture, a portly lawyer of advanced age and uncertain health is presiding over a political movement resurrected from the past that aims at a dominant position in Egypt's future.
He is Faud Serageddin, still known of Faud Pasha, a quarter century after that honorific was swept into history by the revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser Serageddin is the leader of the New Wafd Party, which is at once the first genuinely independent legal political party in Egypt since 1953 and an evocation of the turbulent years when the old Wafd was the dominant party under the monarchy.
The Wafd, legalized in February, is an Arab world rarity, a true opposition party that disapproves of the government's economic and social policies and says so. Its name, however, like its leaders and many of its members, is so linked to the past that many observers doubt that it can achieve power today.
Wafd is the Arabic word for delegation. At the end of the World War I, three prominent Egyptian politicians, led by the legendary patriot Saad Zaghloul, asked the British for permission to send a delegation to London to present Egypt's cast for full independence to the Versailles conference. They were turned down and sent into exile, but that group formed the nueleus of the original Wafd, a broastbased party of wide nationalistic appeal that dominated politics in Eghpt until the revolution of 1952.
Portraits of Saad Zaghloul and of his Wafdist successor, the late prime minister Mustafa Nahas Pasha, both wearing the red fez that has almost vanished from contemporary Egypt, appears with the picture of Serageddin on the cover of his pamphlet, "Why the New Party?"
His link with them is genuine. He first served as a Cabinet minister in a Wafdist government in 1942 and in the last government under King Farouk, Serageddin was secretary general of the Wafd before it was suppressed by Nasser and he, like many other politicans of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, was imprisoned.
The party's revival now fits in with two trends in Egyptian politics. One is the dismantling of Nasser's one-party socialist dictatorship by President Anwar Sadat, who has legalized independent parties and tolerates opposition. The other is the drift away from Nasser's dreams of pan-Arab leadership toward an Egypt-first nationalism, a trend Sadat encouraged with his Middle East peace initiative.
The Wafd is a thoroughly Egyptian party, at the opposite political pole from pan-arab parties such as the Baath of Iraq and Syria. For half a century it has been oriented toward Egyptian nationalism that has had little to do with the Arabs east of the Suez.
"The new party fills a vacuum that has existed in Egyptian political life for 25 years," Serageddin said in an interview. "This can be seen from how many people have asked to join, even among the youth - especially among the youth."
Just how many people do support the new Wafd, and whether their numbers include many under age 50 is not yet clear. Nor has the strength of the revived party been tested yet.
The Wafd was enable to prevent one of its members, Sheikh Ashur Mohammed [WORD ILLEGIBLE] from being thrown out of the People's Assembly, or parliament, for remarks critical of Sadat and of the assembly itself.
Sadat has referred to the leaders of the New Wafd was "mummies" back from the grave to promote outdated ideas. A year ago he proclaimed publicly that the return of the Wafd would not be tolerated because it would "turn back the hands of the clock" - a reflection of the suspicion that the Wafdists, many of whom had their land holdings taken away under Nasser, would somehow undo land reform and dismantle the state-owned industries.
Despite Sadat's opposition, however, partly organizers were able to meet the stiff conditions set down in the new political parties law, and that left Sadat little choice but to approve its legalization, if his political liberalization policies were to be taken seriously.
One of the conditions was that the party enlist at least, 20 members in the 360-seat People's Assembly. The Wafd has 24 and could probably enroll more. Some party officials are actually talking of achieving a majority in the next elections.
The Wafdists in parliament range from Marxists to Islamic fundamentalists. That may mean, as Serageddin claims, that the Wafd is reestablishing itself as a broadly based party that appeals to all economic and social classes. Or it may means, as some obervers believe, that antigovernment opportunities joined the Wafd to test Sadat's intentions and help in the establishment of a genuine opposition party, but are looking toward a day when they can branch out on their own.
"This is the party of all classes and veiws," Serageddin said. "It has always been. It had leftists in it from the beginning. In that sense it's not a party, it's a national organization."
Whether Serageddin personally has wide political appeal is uncertain - the day of the cigar-smoking, limousine-riding landowner was all but ended in the Nasser era. But other party leaders are certainly popular, notably Hilmi Mourad, renowned for having openly defied Nasser, quitting his cabinet.
Serageddin says the Wafd completely supports Sadat's foreign policy. The changes it wants are political, economic and admininstrative - parliamentary style democracy with Cabinet ministers from the membership, direct election of the president in contested elections, elimination of the obstacles to economic liberalization, an end to guaranteed government jobs for university graduates, increased productivity. He also wants a completely unrestricted press, he said, including a newspaper for the Wafd.
"I am an optimist," he said. "The defects you see all around you in our society, a cure can be found for them. They are the result of autocratic rule, and the evils will be eliminated through democracy."