Selecting the opposition

In theory it’s very simple. A group of people get together to form a political party, then the voters decide if their policies are worth supporting. But in those Arab countries where parties are allowed – which rules out Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for a start – they usually function not so much by right as through the grace and favour of the regime.

In 2004 the Arab Human Development Report observed:

States which allow party activity … try to trip up the opposition parties, by depriving them of resources and media exposure, controlling nomination and election procedures, using the judiciary, the army and security services to curtail their activities, hounding their leaders and activists while tampering with election polls.

Some states have witnessed a massive rise in the number of political parties (27 in Algeria, 26 in Morocco, 31 in Jordan and 22 in Yemen). Some see this as a reflection of the divisions among political and cultural elites, or of the ruling regime’s manoeuvres to divide the opposition, rather than a sign of democratic vitality. Fragmented as they are, these parties are incapable of rallying popular support to achieve the objectives for which they were created … 

On the other side, governments deliberately freeze and ban parties that rally popular support: in Egypt seven out of 17 licensed parties have been frozen, in Mauritania six out of 17 and in Tunisia three out of 11. (p131)

Last month – for the fourth time – the Egyptian authorities refused a permit for the Wasat party, described as “a reformist Islamist party including several activists who left the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1990s”. According to the Arab Reform Bulletin it was rejected because its political platform “is similar to current parties and therefore offers nothing new”.

Many established democracies have rules governing political parties – for example, requiring large donations to be publicly disclosed. Apart from that, though, how the parties conduct their business and what policies they adopt is a matter for themselves, and for the electorate. However, the laws in Arab countries often stray beyond ensuring paries are properly constituted and funded into questions of their general suitability and acceptability.

In Egypt, parties’ platforms must “constitute an addition to political life according to specific methods and goals” and must not contradict “the requirements of maintaining national unity [and] social peace”.

Naturally, this creates opportunities for the regime, rather than the voters, to pass judgement on their suitability and the task of interpreting these requirements in Egypt is entrusted to the Political Parties Committee (PPC), a body where eight of the nine members are appointed by the president. 

The PPC has often rejected parties on the grounds that their policies are “not sufficiently distinct from those of existing parties”, while others have been rejected for espousing “a radical ideology”. One party – al-Karama (“Dignity”) – was rejected on separate occasions both for being too similar to other parties and also for being too radical. 

A report by Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago noted that over a 27-year period from its creation in 1977, the Egyptian PPC rejected 63 parties’ applications and approved only two.

As one opposition politician quoted in the report put it, “Under the terms of the political parties law, the ruling party has the right to select its opposition, on its own terms.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 September 2009.