Formed in 1919 by prominent Egyptian politician Saad Zaghloul Pasha, the Wafd (Delegation) party has gone from majority status in the 1930s and 40s to forming the official opposition in the late 1970s.

But internal divisions in Egypt's longest-surviving opposition group came to the fore when its headquarters was sacked last week by rival factions fighting over who should run the party.

The first sign of a crack in the party appeared following September's presidential elections when Wafd leader Numan Jumaa received fewer than expected votes, coming in third behind Ayman Nour and Hosni Mubarak.

Calls by party reformists Mahmoud Abaza, Mounir Fakhri Abdul Noor and Mustapha al-Tawil for Jumaa to step down were heightened after November's parliamentary elections in which the Wafd party performed poorly.

In January, the party's Higher Council forced Jumaa to step down but he refused to relinquish control of many responsibilities and later announced he was forming his own Wafd Party newspaper to replace the one already in circulation.

Embarrassment

After 10 hours of battles between the dissenting factions on April 1, the Wafd Party's headquarters in the Dokki residential area of Cairo was left ransacked and gutted and one member was killed in a gunfight.

The melee ended when security forces finally arrested Jumaa and his supporters on charges of vandalism, arson, possession of firearms, and attempted murder.

How the parties fared

Out of 444 contested seats in last year's parliamentary elections, official political parties won only nine (al-Wafd 6, Tagammo 2, al-Ghad 1). The Nasserist party failed to win any seats.

But Egyptian analysts fear the fallout of the Wafd War – as labelled by the press - could produce a domino effect which would weaken other opposition parties.

El Badri Farghaly, senior member of the opposition Leftist Tagammo Party said the crisis in the Wafd Party should serve as a wake-up call for other opposition groups.

"The atmosphere of dissatisfaction and dissent in the Wafd party might exist in other opposition groups as well."

He warned that disputes in his party could boil over if they are not handled through mediation and dialogue.

Reform needed

Mohamed Saeed Saeed, an analyst at the Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, believes the problems in Egypt's opposition parties predate the Wafd incident.

He said the structure of Egypt's laws governing the formation of political parties is itself flawed, leading to a host of other problems such as lack of a stable hierarchy which leads to dictatorial leadership.

Committee matters

The Political Parties Committee is empowered by the People's Assembly to license political parties in Egypt. It is comprised of three judicial officials and three independent observers, as well as the head of the Shura Council, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs. Opposition parties have accused it of being loyal to the NDP and have called for its abolishment.

"The reason behind what happened in Wafd is the misjudgement of its former leader Numman Gumaa and his dictatorship. When you combine those two things, the result is always a disaster."

Some political pundits have criticised the irony of it all – opposition parties calling for more civil liberties and democratic reforms are themselves in need of reform.

Mustapha al-Alem, an independent elections monitor and professor of communications at Cairo University, says democratic institutions in political parties must be taken seriously and party leaders must accept reforms.

He says party leaders have since the 1970s been loath to relinquish leadership positions.

In such a climate "I have no doubt that the accumulated events in Wafd party that lead to such crisis will affect other opposition parties", he said.  

Disputed ruling

Although Jumaa has been remanded to police custody, political wrangling continues to threaten the party.

The Political Parties Committee of the People's Assembly, which in the past has mediated internal disputes, refused to intervene when the Wafd crisis first unfolded in September.

The Committee advised the two camps to reach an internal resolution or resort to the courts.

But, on Monday, the Committee surprised political observers when it ruled Mustapha Al Tawil was the legitimate new leader of the Wafd Party.

This has created a further rift in the Wafd party as well as other opposition parties.

While Yaseen Tag el-Deen, Deputy General Secretary of the Wafd party told Al Jazeera.net he welcomed the Committee's ruling saying it had acted reasonably in the dispute, others were highly critical of its motives.

Some within the party believe the crisis was allowed to fester to the point where it threatened the Wafd's unity and credibility.

Abou El-Ela Madi, co-founder of the Islamist Al Wasat party and a prominent figure in the vociferous Kifaya opposition movement, believes the Egyptian government is ultimately to blame for the rifts in the beleaguered opposition movements.

"The government wants to kill the parties' political life," he said, criticising the powerful role the Political Parties Committee plays in the rise, or fall, of an opposition party.

No Egyptian party can operate legally unless granted a licence by the Political Parties Committee.

In 2000, the committee suspended the license of the Labour Party after a similar rift emerged over contested leadership.

The danger that the committee would also suspend the Wafd's licence weighed heavily on the internal disputes, said Mounir Fakhri Abdul Noor, a prominent Wafd member and former MP. He is thankful the committee delayed its intervention.

Opposition parties have long laboured to get the Committee abolished saying it contributed to the stagnation of political freedoms in the country.

But Safwat Sherif, head of the Political Parties Committee and the Shura Council (a consultative body to the People's Assembly) strongly rejected such claims saying he has always urged impartiality in resolving internal disputes.

Loss of credibility

The latest Wafd episode may be the stake through the opposition's credibility among Egyptian voters.

When Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party chief Nour was jailed on charges of corruption and fraud following his second place win in the presidential elections, many analysts warned of possible government pressure on other opposition figures.
 
Nour denied the charges claiming they were trumped up to remove him as a serious opposition figure.

Now, with the recent Wafd turmoil, many question the viability of opposition and reformist movements saying control of the country is firmly in the grip of the NDP.

Muhamed Abu El Ela, deputy leader of the Nasserist Party, cautioned that opposition movements stand to lose popular support if they do not follow democratic guidelines in the formation of their parties.

He has called for democratic reforms – "real democracy not only token slogans and logos" – to be adapted to existing party structures.

Reformists in the Wafd Party told Al Jazeera.net that they would initiate many fundamental changes targeting fundamental the roots of the party's political structure.

They have promised a newer, more liberal and democratic Wafd in the weeks and months ahead.

However, Al Wasat's Madi believes the damage may have already been done.

"The Wafd Party has now lost its credibility for at least the next 10 years."