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Egypt's lawmakers consider merging small parties

The idea of merging small political parties is a subject of debate between two camps in Egypt: One thinks it would lead to real competition, while the other believes it would stifle public participation.

CAIRO — Does Egypt really need 107 political parties? That question is sparking debate between politicians who want to preserve the status quo and those who advocate shaking things up in Egyptian politics.

A number of Egyptian parliamentarians are calling for Egypt's 107 political parties — some of which aren't even active — to merge into four or five powerful parties. Ahmed Refaat, a member of parliament’s Communications and Information Technology Committee, told Al-Monitor he has prepared a bill to that effect.

Refaat said he is currently collecting signatures from parliament members to have the bill discussed. As of late April, he had collected about 30 signatures; 60 are required.

According to Refaat, the proposed legislation aims to establish a Political Parties Committee whose members would be appointed by parliament and would be tasked with monitoring parties' work. The committee would encourage national parties to take part in local elections and establish offices across Egypt's provinces.

Refaat said the draft aims to merge weak parties so partisan efforts aren't splintered. Many parties aren't even big enough to warrant a single representative in parliament, so their causes never see the light of day.

On the other hand, Sayed Abdel Ghani, the head of the Nasserite Party, told Al-Monitor that instead of merging all the parties into four or five, the state should support the existing parties and give them the opportunity to raise their visibility and garner public support.

Abdel Ghani said that in the 1970s, when there were only four parties in Egypt, political life neither progressed nor prospered because the state kept tight control over them. Some people, he said, are trying to promote the idea that if the parties were merged, political life would thrive, but there's nothing to back up that claim, and the idea lacks a clear vision and purpose.

However, Yasser Qora, the assistant to the head of the Wafd Party for political affairs, told Al-Monitor that having so many parties serves no purpose, but merging them would allow for larger political bases across Egypt, invigorating the country's stagnant political life. His party, one of the oldest in Egypt, is all for the idea of combining smaller parties and welcomes any of them wishing to merge under the Wafd banner, he said.

Mohammed al-Dabaa, the spokesman for the Nation’s Future Party, told Al-Monitor that he believes all Egyptian parties will at least tolerate the merger idea, provided it takes into account the ideological approach of these parties. He said that several parties representing similar political directions would be stronger if they banded together.

Merging parties would require several steps, Medhat al-Zahid, the head of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, told Al-Monitor. The decision shouldn't be imposed by the president, Cabinet or parliament, because that would raise fears of a totalitarian regime. Instead, he said, a merger should emanate from parties that share the same programs and vision, and from a consensus among those parties rather than coercive measures. Additionally, a merger should aim to strengthen the parties’ financial and political resources.

Zahid said the real question, which needs a serious answer, is: What can mergers achieve at this point? Egypt's parties have been fragile because of restrictions on their work during the past four years. Mergers alone are not the necessary solution, for several reasons, he added. The public is afraid of participating in politics, and the press is facing restrictions as dozens of news websites such as El-Badil and Albedaiah have been blocked for no apparent reason. Media outlets owned by businessmen, such as ONTV, are biased toward the government. Meanwhile, journalism trade union members are harassed and prevented from expressing their opinions.

If the state is serious about breathing new life into Egypt's politics, then it must first lift the restrictions on the media, welcome the public's participation in politics and then allow parties to decide for themselves whether to join the merger depending on their political ambitions, he said.

Dignity Party Secretary-General Mohammed al-Bassiouni told Al-Monitor that merging parties with similar ideologies and leanings should be conducted democratically by the parties themselves. This happened, for example, between the Dignity Party and the Egyptian Popular Current, which merged into the Dignity Current following discussions between leaders and members of the two parties. Bassiouni said it would be unacceptable for mergers to be imposed by the president or parliament.

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