Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What's in a name?

Amira Howeidy on the proliferation of political coalitions with grand titles and vague platforms

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Political premiers. Clockwise from top: Moussa and Badawi in the Coalition of the Egyptian Nation; Sabahi and the Popular Current; Al-Baradei, co-founder of the Constitution Party

Former secretary-general of the Arab League and ex-presidential candidate Amr Moussa recently acquired new titles. He is now leader of the Coalition of the Egyptian Nation, the Congress of the Egyptian Conference Party as well as honorary president of the liberal Wafd party.


Welcome to the shifting sands of Egyptian politics, 20 months after Hosni Mubarak's ouster and post three elections, two of them -- the upper and lower houses of parliament -- likely to be repeated following judicial rulings that the regulations under which they were conducted were unconstitutional.

One consequence of interrupting parliament's five-year term less than six months after the People's Assembly was elected is the deluge of political alliances, coalitions and initiatives, the whole panoply of party machinations the goal of which is to secure more seats in the next parliament. Then there are the ex-presidential candidates who are hoping to entrench their power bases among supporters. Yet rather than reshaping the post-revolution political map this vast array of activity appears to be exacerbating existing fault-lines, most notably the Islamist-secular divide.

Take the case of Amr Moussa.

Within two weeks he has come to preside over two new groupings -- the Coalition of the Egyptian Nation and the Congress of the Egyptian Conference Party -- both comprising a range of political parties, many of them unknown quantities, that say they have chosen to unite because they share vaguely articulated nationalist or patriotic principles but which stress only the "civil" nature of their bloc-building, civil being a euphemism for secular.

Hizb Al-Moetamar -- the Conference Party -- is an attempt to merge over 20 existing parties. It is an ambitious project that will require the constituent parties to disband. If it goes ahead, many party leaders will find themselves suddenly demoted to rank and file members of the Conference Party under Moussa's leadership.

The Coalition of the Egyptian Nation, on the other hand, is just that, a coalition, though it remains unclear whether it's a political or electoral alliance. Along with initiatives like ex-presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi's Popular Current and the Social Justice coalition of left-wing and liberal parties, it is part of a growing trend to forge political alliances in the hope of challenging the dominance of the Islamist parties which won 71 per cent of seats in the now dissolved People's Assembly, 85 per in the existing Shura Council and, courtesy of Mohamed Mursi's election victory, control the presidency.

With six political alliances and coalitions involving tens of political parties from left, right and centre emerging to date (see attached coalitions guide) it's no surprise that many commentators see this bloc building momentum as a qualitative shift in the political map.

"Congratulations Egypt," tweeted Gamal Eid, an outspoken left-leaning rights activist, referring to the new alliances and the formation of Nobel laureate Mohamed Al-Baradei's Dostour (The Constitution) Party.

But are congratulations really in order?

Few Egypt watchers are taking the current jockeying for position seriously. Many are sceptical about the impact of the alliances given their absence of a grassroots presence.

Ashraf Al-Sherif, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, sees the sudden proliferation of coalitions as symptomatic of the way politics continues to be conducted "from above".

"It's not how you build a political party. You can't hold a press conference to announce a political entity and then go the street and create it," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Al-Sherif sees the emergence of new groupings as a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Not that there is anything novel about the trajectory they then follow. They are moving, he says, in the same old political orbit, protesting against the Islamists' ascendancy without offering a clear alternative.

"Demonising the Islamists isn't enough to stake out your own political ground." Nor, he adds, is the personal charisma of an ex-presidential candidate enough to compete in the next parliamentary elections "which will require money, rank and file and close [social] networking".

"Electing MPs is about voting for people you know. It's about presence and fact is it's the Islamists who are present."

Predicting the outcome of elections is always an approximate science. Predicting the outcome of Egypt's next parliamentary poll is not even that since the results hinge on two yet to be determined factors -- the final shape of the constitution currently being drafted and the parliamentary election law.

The constitution has been the focus of bitter political battles since March 2011. Once finalised it will remain a subject of contention, and the emerging coalitions are likely to shift shape again as their constituent parties begin to define themselves in terms of their differences with other parties and not just their position vis--vis the Islamists.

The parliamentary election law remains up in the air. Will it be based on party lists, individual candidacy or a mixture of the two? In the 2011 parliamentary elections it was a mixture, with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice (FJP) and Salafist Nour Parties faring slightly better as individuals and less as party candidates. Leaks from the Constituent Assembly suggesting that a majority favours party-based proportional representation has led to optimism among secularists that they may do better this time round.

Pre-election manoeuvring cannot help but resonate within the government (not overtly FJP but widely viewed as such) and condition its performance in the coming months. Austerity measures such as cutting subsidies on energy and the way strikes demanding, among other things, better wages, are handled, will have immediate consequences for the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity, a fact that goes a long way to explaining the contradictory official statements on cutting subsidies issued before and after the 22 September Administrative Court ruling upholding the dissolution of parliament.

Such confusion could serve opposition forces but it will take a more logical map of alliances to capitalise on government disarray.

"How," asks independent Nasserist and rights activist Mahmoud Kandil "can liberals and Nasserists unite against the Islamists when they disagree about everything else?"

Another question poses itself: given that Sabahi's Popular Current comprises a central committee whose members represent liberal, socialist and Nasserist parties that are at odds over everything from social justice and the private sector to relations with the US and Israel, who do you speak to when approaching the cocktail?

"Who do we negotiate with over there? Sabahi? Or the Karama Party representative on the Popular Current?" asks Mohamed Othman, a founding member of Misr Al-Qaweya (Strong Egypt), the would-be party of ex-presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

Othman is taking the plethora of new coalitions with a grain of salt. "All of this will change," he says. "The real alliances will emerge in the last hours of the elections and not before."

Whether Amr Moussa's coalition of 20-something mini parties will be among them remains to seen.

Political coalitions and new parties: a guide

Tahalof Al-Umma Al-Masriya (Coalition of the Egyptian Nation): Amr Moussa, Wafd Party president Sayed Badawi

A political alliance of an unspecified number of secular parties -- including the Wafd, Ghad, Liberal Egyptians -- would-be parties and public figures. The coalition's parties have signed a vague "document of principles" which stresses the importance of a modern constitution guaranteeing national unity within a "civil" state based on democratic foundations.

Al-Moetamar Party (The Conference): Amr Moussa (leader) and Ayman Nour (secretary general)

An attempt to forge a single party out of 20 smaller political groups, according to Moussa the Conference is part of the Coalition of the Egyptian Nation. Launched on 17 September at a five-star hotel presser, by Monday 24 September nine parties had merged beneath the Conference umbrella. Another 14 parties are expected to follow "soon". Moussa has reportedly met with former members of Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party and is quoted as saying he doesn't mind fulul (remnants of the regime) becoming members.

Al-Tayar Al-Shaabi (The Popular Current): Hamdeen Sabahi

Neither an election coalition nor an alliance, ex-presidential candidate Sabahi describes it as a "current" of "civil", ie secular, forces in society. The current's central committee comprises liberal, leftist and Nasserist figures who are already members of other political parties and whose ideologies are often conflicting. The only common ground appears to be a rejection of the Islamist current, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis.

Al-Tahalof Al-Dimocrati Al-Thawri (Democratic Revolutionary Coalition)

Hastily announced, the Democratic Revolutionary Coalition lumped left-wing parties together without consulting them. As it stands, the coalition comprises Al-Ishteraki Al-Masri (Egyptian Socialist), Al-Tahalof Al-Shaabi (The Popular Coalition), Egyptian Communist and Tagammu parties, the would-be Workers and Farmers Party, the Mina Daniel Movement and the largely unknown National Coalition Against Corruption.

Social Justice Coalition: Spokesman Nasserist TV host Hussein Abdel-Ghani

An election coalition of "civil forces" comprising the left-wing Al-Tahalof Al-Shaabi (Popular Coalition), Al-Ishteraki Al-Masri (The Egyptian Socialist), the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic and Mohamed Al-Baradei's Dostour parties.

The Nasserist's initiative: An attempt by several Nasserists to form a coalition

The Karama (Dignity Party, originally founded by Hamdeen Sabahi who resigned from it last year), The Arab Nasserist parties and the would-be Al-Moetamar Al-Shaabi Al-Aam (The General Popular Conference) and independent Nasserists are due to meet tomorrow, 28 September, at Gamal Abdel-Nasser's mausoleum following the Friday prayer.

Hizb Masr Al-Qaweya (Strong Egypt Party): Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh

The candidate who came fourth in the first round of presidential elections is building on his campaign's slightly left-leaning, centrist Islamist project to form the Strong Egypt Party which is expected to launch mid-October.

The would-be party hasn't joined any coalitions yet, though it has taken part in three meetings with the Wasat (Centrist), Adl (Justice), Reform and Development, Civilisation and the would-be Egyptian Current parties and discussed a possible coalition.

The Dostour (Constitution): Mohamed Al-Baradei

Though a co-founder of the party, Nobel laureate Mohamed Al-Baradei wasn't present when the party's papers were presented to the authorities. The Dostour is, nonetheless, widely viewed as the Baradeists' political camp.

Key founders: former culture minister Emad Abu Ghazi, former Kifaya (Enough) figure George Ishak, Ahmed Harara who lost his eyes during the revolution, Salafi activist Mohamed Yousri Salama, ex-Ghad Party member Gamila Ismail, Nasserist legal expert Hossam Eissa.

The Dostour has yet to join any wider political alliance.

Hizb Masr (Egypt Party): Televangelist Amr Khaled

Preacher-turned-politician Amr Khaled says his party "isn't political Islam" but "right at the centre", between Islamist and liberal parties. It will target "youth" and focus on development work.

Khaled hopes to build on the success of his Life Makers social development organisation which has branches in Egypt, the UK and Morocco.

Hizb Al-Umma (The Nation Party -- Hazemoon): supporters of disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail

Die-hard supporters of Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail are close to establishing their own political party. Since they took to the streets in April to protest against Abu Ismail's disqualification from the presidential race on the grounds that his mother possesses a US passport (the presidential election law stipulated that both parents and spouses of a candidate have to be Egyptian), his supporters -- a mix of Salafis and religious Egyptians with no previous political affiliation ---- have demonstrated that the Salafi current is both numerous and nuanced.

Abu Ismail has endorsed Hizb Al-Umma without joining the party.

Observers say it could pose a challenge to the Nour Party which won 25 per cent of seats in the dissolved People's Assembly but is currently mired in internal divisions.

Hizb Al-Umma's general coordinator Ali Sakr -- an ex-independent candidate in the 2011 parliamentary elections -- has been quoted as saying that they will not seek an election alliance with the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice or the Nour parties.

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