* Ruling underlines change in Egypt since Mubarak toppled
* Wasat Party founded by former Brotherhood member
* Founder says success is “fruit of the Jan. 25 revolution”
* Opposition awaiting lifting of political parties law
(Adds quotes from founder)
By Tom Perry
CAIRO, Feb 19 (Reuters) - A Cairo court on Saturday approved the establishment of a political party that has been trying to secure a licence for 15 years and its founder said the decision was driven by “the winds of freedom” that have swept Egypt.
“This decision is the fruit of the Jan. 25 revolution,” Abou Elela Mady, founder of the Wasat Party (Centre Party), told Reuters in an interview, referring to the mass uprising that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power.
The ruling gave the Wasat Party full legal status.
“If it wasn’t for the winds of freedom that blew with the revolution, we would not have got this licence,” added Mady, who has tried four times to set up the party since 1996. He was thwarted on each occasion by Mubarak’s administration.
Mady broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organised political force, in the mid-1990s because of what he has described as its “narrow political horizons”.
His first attempt at founding the Wasat Party in 1996 landed him and others in a military court, accused of trying to set up a party as an Islamist front. He also drew criticism from the Brotherhood, which said he was trying to split the movement.
The attempts of the Wasat and others to achieve formal recognition as political parties were routinely rejected by a committee long chaired by Safwat el-Sherif, a leading member of the ruling party.
The committee was one of the many tools used by Mubarak’s administration to stifle political life. Opposition forces expect the military council that took over from Mubarak to lift restrictions on the formation of parties.
Each time the Wasat’s application was rejected by the committee, Mady would lodge a court appeal against its decision. These also met with failure, until Saturday’s hearing, which was scheduled before the uprising erupted.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” Mady said.
The ruling made the Wasat the first party to gain legal status since Mubarak was toppled on Feb. 11 and paves the way for it to take part in elections the military council has pledged to hold within six months.
The court ruling annulled the last decision of the political parties’ committee, clearing the way for the Wasat Party to start operating. Mady said it would begin by opening offices and building its membership.
A judicial council entrusted with proposing constitutional changes to allow free and fair elections in Egypt has nearly finished its work, the state news agency quoted its chairman as saying on Saturday.
Mady likens his party’s ideology to that of Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has roots in political Islam but appeals to a wider electorate, including secular middle class elements as well as religious conservatives.
The Wasat’s founders include Coptic Christians.
Mady repeated his view that parties other than the Muslim Brotherhood would need a year or more to get ready for an election.
Fusing a respect for Islamic civilisation with democracy, Mady expects his party to draw support from the middle classes. It supports a market-driven economy with a role for the state in defending the poor.
The Brotherhood said this week it too would establish a political party as soon as the political parties law was abolished. The Brotherhood, which is regarded with suspicion by Washington, is the biggest political group in Egypt and says it would win 30 percent of votes in an election.
Mady said Egyptians seeking to found a party should be able to do so simply by declaration.