Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Getting it together

Liberal and leftist political parties are reorganising their ranks to face what they see as a threat to the civil nature of the state by the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Khaled Dawoud

A lengthy series of meetings were held this week among dozens of liberal, nationalist, leftist and radical parties in order to form new political alliances aimed at confronting the Muslim Brotherhood and increasingly influential Salafi Islamist groups in the upcoming parliament elections, expected to be held by the end of this year.

The meetings also aimed at taking a united stand in the ongoing debate over drafting a new constitution in order to assure protection of the civil nature of the state and key basic rights.

With the Muslim Brotherhood now firmly in command, with President Mohamed Mursi fully exercising his powers following the exclusion of the top military leadership from the Hosni Mubarak era, traditional and new liberal and leftist parties agree that they now have no other choice but to work together on the ground to counter the strong influence of political Islamist groups.

In parliament elections that ended in January, the first after the 25 January Revolution, the newly formed political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), together with the Salafist Nour Party won nearly 70 per cent of parliament's 498 seats. Liberal and leftist parties together, including those with a long tradition, such as the Wafd Party, hardly won 25 per cent of the vote. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces dissolved the parliament in mid-June despite strong opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood. President Mursi failed to force the return of the Islamist-dominated parliament by presidential decree, after it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Experts say that many Egyptians considered the few opposition parties that existed under Mubarak as part of the old regime, having no credibility, and that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups were the ones with the most active social services network on the ground, together with their influential religious rhetoric and their reputation as "true opponents" who suffered long prison sentences under Mubarak. The number of political parties nearly tripled after the 25 January Revolution, reaching 64, including many new religious, liberal and leftist parties.

Although some of the new alliances and groupings that were taking shape this week looked promising and capable of competing against Muslim Brotherhood candidates, experts and figures who took part in the negotiations expressed fears that they might not last long, or would not be able to score well in the upcoming elections due to personal and ideological differences that have historically led to protracted divisions among liberal and leftist forces in Egypt.

At least five wide alliances seem to be forming, and that alone could weaken the chances of liberal and leftist parties in the upcoming elections that look set to pit religious candidates versus those who support the civil state.

Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third with nearly five million votes in the first round of presidential elections in May, following President Mursi and former Mubarak-era premier Ahmed Shafik, is leading a largely leftist alliance concentrated on social justice and national independence. That alliance, likely to be named the "National Front" includes the Sabahi-led "Popular Trend", which is a gathering of mostly Arab nationalist and Nasserist figures who supported his presidential campaign; the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, a new party that emerged after the revolution and includes mainly liberal leftists; the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, also a new party with a clear socialist agenda; and a few other socialist and Nasserist parties.

Originally, the newly created Constitution Party led by former presidential hopeful and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed El-Baradei was believed to be part of the "National Front". But a brief statement issued by the party Tuesday indicated that not all was going smoothly. The statement said that the Constitution Party welcomed the opening of channels of communication with all political parties, but was still busy at this stage building up its ranks and leadership. As in similar previous attempts at forming unified alliances, it was not clear whether either of the two charismatic figures El-Baradei and Sabahi would be willing to relinquish the leadership position. Both El-Baradei and Sabahi have networks of supporters nationwide, complicating the choice of which of them would lead were they to work together in one political front.

Similar issues are facing liberal parties who are trying to unite. The Wafd Party called a meeting of at least 50 prominent, mostly liberal, figures that support the open market economy and declared the formation of the "Alliance of the Egyptian Nation". Participants included Wafd Party leader El-Sayed El-Badawi, former presidential hopeful and ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who came in fifth with nearly three million votes in the presidential elections first round, legal expert Yehia El-Gamal, and former National Democratic Party member Mustafa El-Fiqi, among others. El-Badawi said the alliance was aimed at assuring the democratic nature of the state and respect for citizenship rights.

Meanwhile, Ayman Nour, leader of Ghad Al-Thawra Party, a prominent liberal figure who dared to compete against ousted president Mubarak in presidential elections in 2005 and spent four years in jail thereafter, went further than forming an alliance. He announced Monday that at least 20 small political parties that were formed after the revolution would dissolve themselves and unite in a new party, with a new name and a new leader. He said that former presidential candidate Amr Moussa was likely to become the leader of the new party, which could be named the "National Congress", similar to that of India, as it also united several small political currents that were fighting against British occupation. Nour implied that he was disappointed with the result of negotiations within the alliance led by the Wafd Party.

"The challenge is not to unite and to form new alliances, but to agree on candidates who would run in the upcoming elections under a liberal agenda so that we won't compete against each other and end up losing to the political Islamist groups who enjoy a far higher level of discipline," Nour said.

Despite a lengthy session of negotiations between members of Nour's newly proposed party and Wafd leader El-Badawi on Monday, the talks appeared to fail to reach agreement on forming a united election front. A statement by the Wafd Party said that it would continue its coordination effort with all other liberal political parties, but it would still run its own lists of candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Many Wafd figures believe that any alliance should be under its banner due to its long history, which is unlikely to be accepted by newly formed liberal political parties.

Radical socialist leader Kamal Khalil, meanwhile, also called for the formation of his own alliance, the "United Revolutionary Front", made up mainly of small socialist, communist and radical parties. Khalil said the demand for social justice was the main drive during the 25 January Revolution, "and this would be the main line of difference between us and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are strong supporters of the capitalist economy". He called upon Sabahi and El-Baradei to join his front on these grounds, but there were no responses from their sides.

Finally, the popular former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh might also end up framing an electoral alliance. Abul-Fotouh was expelled from the Brotherhood after he rejected the group's initial decision not to compete in any presidential elections, though the Brotherhood ended up running their own candidate later. He came fourth in the first round of elections with nearly four million votes and continues to enjoy wide support among Salafis and supporters of a moderate political Islamist agenda. Earlier he announced the formation of a new political party, named "Misr Al-Qaweya" or "Strong Egypt", and has been involved in negotiations with other moderate Islamic parties, such as Al-Wasat (Centre Party), Al-Adl (Justice Party), Al-Tayar Al-Masry (the Egyptian Current) and Misr Al-Mustaqbal (Egypt's Future) led by popular Islamic preacher Amr Khaled, in order to coordinate together in the upcoming elections.

Besides overcoming their own differences, both political and personal, what will greatly determine the chances of success for the newly emerging alliances and fronts will be the performance of President Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming months. If the president manages to improve the economy, restore security and prove that many of his recent appointments of ministers and governors were wise choices, it could make firm the Brotherhood's control over the state for some years to come.

"If we lose badly in the upcoming parliament elections, failing to make a good showing and present strong opposition to the Brotherhood, that would be the beginning of a long era of dominance by political Islamist groups," said Mohamed Naaim, a leader of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party. "Therefore, we have no other option but to work together as leftist and liberal groups," he added. (see p.5)

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