CAIRO – Egyptian political activists announced Tuesday the formation of three new parties, the first groups with no religious affiliation to emerge from the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The new parties, two of them liberal and the other social democratic, have attracted a following among Egypt's protesters, who were seeking to find a counterbalance to the country's largest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood in advance of elections, set for September.
Many fear the Brotherhood, outlawed under Mubarak, will sweep the elections and set an Islamic tone for the country's new constitution, to be written by the new parliament.
The Brotherhood, founded 83 years ago, is Egypt's largest and most organized bloc, setting up a huge network of social services and outreach programs over the decades.
Resurgent political activity is sweeping the country with the fall of the Mubarak regime, which severely limited formation of parties. The Brotherhood was outlawed for half a century, and Mubarak's own dominant party effectively had a veto over creation of other political parties. The ones that survived in his parliament got the reputation of being close to the regime, as opposed to a viable opposition to his rule.
Under the new rules, which require parties not to ban segments of society and then simply to register, the new groups are optimistic.
"We got 50,000 members in the last 50 days. That is a great achievement. It is also when the work begins," said Rawi Camel-Toueg, deputy director general of the Free Egyptians Party. It is a liberal secular party backed by Coptic Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris. He said his party is open to all Egyptians.
Bassem Kamel, a founding member of The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said the grouping has so far nearly 40,000 registered members, three months after its launching.
"This is the first civil party after the Islamic parties registered," he said. "We are now celebrating."
The Brotherhood, for its part, began seeking an alliance Tuesday with about a dozen parties, including the country's oldest party and several liberal factions, ahead of the elections.
The Brotherhood has come under criticism for what many perceive as attempts to control the political transformation of Egypt, while ignoring the more secular character of the protesters who led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
Essam el-Erian, a leading member of the newly launched Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said the aim of its wider alliance would be to begin consultations ahead of the elections and ensure a representative parliament.
"This is a message to the people -- that the political parties can find a minimum to agree upon and try to coordinate ahead of the elections," he said. "If we succeed in this, it would be great."
The Brotherhood earlier announced it was forming a coalition with the Wafd Party, the country's oldest liberal group, aimed at coordinating their candidates ahead of the elections.
Umbrella groups and wide alliances were common in Mubarak's era in attempts to mount a united challenge to his iron grip on power, but they often failed to achieve internal accord. Smaller political parties often also sought help from larger ones to secure representation in parliament.
Potential participants in the new Brotherhood alliance say they are seeking to heal growing mistrust between Islamic and non-Islamic forces around the divisive issue of when to hold the elections and who gets to write the new constitution. Many in Egypt are seeking to postpone the elections, fearing that new parties would not have enough time to organize and campaign, while the veteran Brotherhood is already established and could win a disproportionate amount of the vote.
Then the critics say, the Muslim Brotherhood would have a critical say on writing a constitution, because the committee to draft the constitution will be chosen by the new parliament.
Mostafa el-Naggar, a founding member of the newly launched liberal Adl or Justice Party, who participated in the Brotherhood's alliance meeting Tuesday, said the divisive issues were not discussed.
"We are all feeling the danger of the polarization between Islamists and secular parties," he said. "This is a moment to for inclusiveness, not competition."
Camel-Toueg, of the Free Egyptians party, said his group declined the Brotherhood's invitation because the alliance's goal is not clear, and it includes a mix of ideologies.
"It has to be harmonious to work," he said.