|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
31 Dec. 1998 - 6 Jan. 1999
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Party or bust
If there is one thing people active in party politics in this country seem to agree on, it is the generally uninspiring performance of the opposition. Emphasis may be put on different aspects of the political party phenomena in the attempt to explain this situation. The way the parties were initially established, the lack of inner party democracy, and/or a general political environment not yet adapted to democratic functioning are all cited as "the root of the problem".
At its most extreme, the situation of the country's legal opposition verges on the farcical. Take for example, the case of Haj Ahmed El-Sabahi, head of the Umma (Nation) Party and member of the Shura Council, vs. the government. El-Sabahi sued the government for an LE1 million monthly subsidy. When he was refused the stipend, he established the El-Sabahi Effendi International Centre Internet site. The site, a tactic to generate alternative funding, features "dreams interpretation [sic] locally and internationally" for $20, as well as "astrologic [sic]" services for $30, while under "self waves" you can discover "future propabilities [sic]" as well as a full listing of El-Sabahi publications, including such bestsellers as Distiny [sic] horoscope... your luke [sic] from the zodiac, featuring "Dream interpretation for prophets, kings and presidents", as well as "Clues for luck and personality in the horoscope, sex and marriage".
El-Sabahi's site may not do much to inspire confidence. But then are others faring much better? For example, the Green Party. The three contestants for the position of top man reached a deal in April 1995 which would have given the winner and runner-up consecutive one-year chairmanships, to be followed by a two-year chairmanship for the unlucky person who came third. The deal fell through, however, and the contestants are still arguing.
Then, there is the Misr Al-Fattah (Young Egypt) Party, whose rival factions have gone to court to decide who has the right to be their leader. Or the memorable battle within the Social Justice Party, which included in its ammunition dinner boxes from Kentucky Fried Chicken side by side with forged documents and countless accusations and counter-accusations of theft and corruption.
The death, during 1998, of Liberal Party leader Mustafa Kamel Murad opened a Pandora's box of party in-fighting, wherein rivals for the party leadership brought in bands of thugs to beat each other up.
What is most striking is that all these groups have passed the scrutiny of the Shura Council's Political Parties Committee. This is the same committee that held back for years on legalising the Nasserist Party, and still will not grant the Islamist-oriented Wassat (Centre) Party recognition.
Neither are the "mainstays" of the opposition system to be envied. On the one hand a battle of generations has been raging. "Historic" leaders who have passed the age of 70 continue to monopolise power, denying younger cadres the opportunity to play a dynamic role. There were no spectacular events this year to rival Hamdin El-Sabahi's expulsion from the Nasserist Party in 1996 or the split in the Wafd Party led by Magdi Serrageddin. However, during a conference on democracy held by the opposition parties and forces in December, one member of the younger generation commented, "The political parties are always talking about the need for succession of power and yet none of them have made any change in their own leadership structure for years."
Some activists, such as prominent left-wing columnist Salah Eissa, have argued that this stasis is inevitable. "The present leaders remain the most capable of running the existing parties," argued Eissa, "because they are charismatic and have a long political history behind them. Because of the severe restrictions on political life, the opportunity to develop other leaders is limited. And since these parties were created from above, each has within it contradictory political trends which leads to frequent in-fighting."
Also, the opposition parties' choice of issues on which to campaign sometimes have the public wondering what year this is. For example, the end of 1998 saw the Wafd party raging for weeks over the alleged squandering of Egypt's gold reserves by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's regime -- some 40 years ago.
One major event on the legal opposition front in 1998 was the fourth general congress held by the Tagammu Party on 22 and 23 July. The declared objective of the congress was to debate a new platform for the 22 year-old party, the first change in the programme of this leftist coalition since 1980. The issues dominating the congress included the redefinition of socialism following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the position to be taken on political Islam and Arab-Israeli peacemaking, as well as relations with the government and modifications to the party's internal structure. However, debates were caught up in the generation gap between aging leaders and younger, more aggressive party members. As a result, many of the decisions reached were dismissed by younger party members as nothing but "old wine in new bottles."
The year ended on an up-beat note for the opposition, however. All the major legal opposition parties, as well as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Communists, joined hands in condemning the US-British strike against Iraq, organising a number of joint protest actions. Though their attempt to organise a march to the Abdin Presidentail Palace on 23 December came to nothing, when security bodies denied them permission to stage the march, opposition leaders took pride in the joint rally held that same evening at the headquarters of the Wafd Party and attendended by several thousand supporters. The rally came up with a number of unified opposition demands, the most significant of which called upon the Egyptian government to defy the Security Council sanctions against Iraq.
This was not the first time the major opposition groups of the country issued a joint list of demands, however, and as far as most political analysts are concerned, it will take much more than a successful rally or high-sounding joint communiqué to pull Egyptian opposition parties out of rut in which they have been stuck for years.