Monday, February 7, 2011

The Revolution's Significance for Political Parties

The complete control of Egypt's political system by President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), combined with its monopoly on access to government resources, has prevented the development of viable opposition parties and facilitated the growth of an authoritarian regime. None of Egypt's 24 approved political parties nor its many unapproved political movements could be considered true political parties, according to international standards. The NDP is no more than a patronage organization that buys votes, either by providing citizens with government-funded social services prior to elections or actually paying them to vote NDP.

The 24 approved political parties do not offer citizens a legitimate means of political expression, nor do they engage in serious competition and dialogue. The five major approved parties neither represent citizen interests nor promote long-term citizen involvement in the electoral system.  They also do not use modern methods of governance or of selecting candidates. They have limited outreach at regional and local levels.  Some of these parties have boycotted multiple elections, which they knew were rigged.

The NDP has used constitutional provisions, laws, policies and administrative practices to stifle any true partisan political competition.  When I was living in Egypt in 2005, President Mubarak, the NDP leader, jailed the leader of the newly approved Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, Ayman Nour, after he had come in second in the Presidential elections.  Questionable schisms within the Al Ghad and Wafd Parties appeared to have been fomented by the NDP, in collaboration with State Security.

The NDP exercises effective control of the Political Party Affairs Committee, which has the authority to approve political parties. While the Committee has approved seven parties within the last six years, it has frozen some parties and denied or delayed approval to parties representing secular, Nasserist, and moderate Islamist leanings.  In addition, the Government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood since 1952 and prevented it from organizing a political party. 

In 2005, USAID provided funding to the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to assess Egyptian political parties and to devise programs for modernizing them on a non-partisan basis. After undertaking assessments of some of the major parties, these Institutes were prevented by the Egyptian Government from registering officially.  The Government "froze" them, neither asking them to leave nor allowing them to undertake activities in Egypt. With these constraints, neither of them could undertake meaningful activities to strengthen the parties within the country. Instead, both of them organized political party training outside Egypt. NDI also made major progress in building the capacity of NGOs to monitor elections.

In post-revolutionary Egypt, if Constitutional, legal and regulatory changes open up the system for truly competitive partisan elections, both existing and new political parties will require time and assistance to develop their potential.  If they are able to access assistance from the donor community, they will still not be ready to compete effectively in the Presidential elections scheduled for September 2011.  They also might not be ready to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood for many years, if it is permitted to establish a party or field candidates.

Donor assistance for political parties, which would be required over many years, should focus on organizational development, electoral development and party governance. Implementers of such programs would need to build skills in the following areas: strategic planning; research; party building; professionalization; organizational management; building local organizations; fundraising and financial management; developing agendas and platforms; recruiting, managing and retaining members and volunteers; media communications; outreach; voter mobilization; running campaigns; recruiting and training candidates; canvassing voters; targeting women, youth and the disadvantaged; improving party governance; building a loyal opposition, and managing power. 

This vast effort would entail a long effort and a sustained commitment by the international community.  It also would require being responsive to the expressed needs of the political parties, rather than imposing a standard package of assistance. Regardless of how long it takes for parties to develop, it is clear that they will operate in an environment of freedom that has not been seen in Egypt for over sixty years. 

Rick Gold

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