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Egypt keeps new parties on short leash

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Over the past few years, there's been an unprecedented level of talk about reform in Egypt and other Arab allies of the US such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But that talk has translated into little action, with strict limits on political activity in almost all Arab countries.

Last week Saudi Arabia, which is planning its first-ever national elections next year for posts in its largely ceremonial municipal councils, said that women would not be allowed to vote. Even in countries that have held relatively free parliamentary elections, like Kuwait last year, there have been no real gains for the forces of reform. There, gerrymandering and strong support for Islamist candidates reduced the number of legislators who support a Western-style democracy.

But it is in Egypt, the sleeping giant of the region, where the hope for change was perhaps greatest. Formally a republic, the country had some experience with liberal politics as recently as the 1950s. A large number of activists hark back to Egypt's liberal period when it was the region's intellectual and political leader.

"We want to reinvigorate the multi-party system, which is dying out here,'' says Mona Makram-Ebied, a Harvard-educated political scientist and a supporter of Nour's Ghad Party, or party of tomorrow. "There's a younger generation thirsting for a voice. They want to make a new and modern Egypt, and there's a great nostalgia to make Egypt what it was when it was the lodestar of the Arab world. But the system we have now is ossified, and it's standing in our way."

Ms. Makram-Ebeid, who comes from a prominent liberal political family, says reformers' hopes were lifted by a promise from the ruling party last month that it would make it easier for competitors to register. To her mind, the Ghad Party had jumped through every hoop put in front of it by the government.

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