Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two parties in one

It is inevitable that Egypt's ruling party splits between centre right and centre left currents to ensure real grassroots presence, argues Amr Elchobaki*

The National Democratic Party (NDP) was founded by a decree issued by president Anwar El-Sadat in 1978. It was born under the authority of the regime and has so since remained. Closely associated with the institutions and bureaucracy of government, it is frequently referred to as the state party.

The centralised state in Egypt has a long legacy, that it is an inherent feature of the Egyptian river society, organised around the control of the sole source of life giving. Following the Egyptian revolution in 1952, this heritage intertwined with contemporary political currents to give rise to the governing institutions of the new regime.

In recent years, especially after the rise of the ruling NDP, the post-1952 coherent political vision faded in favour of "piecemeal policies" in an attempt to placate all parties to the state bureaucracy, as well as businessmen, non-Islamist religious conservatives, and secularists both within and outside the NDP. Because of this rather eclectic approach, NDP rhetoric and initiatives had a tendency to appear somewhat feeble and ineffectual.

From the outset, the newly created party covered a broad swath of the Egyptian political and non-political spectrum. In addition to the civil service sector, many professionals and a large segment of the business community joined the NDP. The latter would become increasingly influential in the party, to the extent that in the first decade of the second millennium one of the wealthiest and most powerful business magnates in the country became the party's secretary general.

Although the way the NDP was founded and its dependency on the state bureaucracy affected the way it performed and its efficacy, this does not mean that it has to abandon its character as an all-embracing party when it severs the umbilical cord with the state. This step is inevitable if the party is to make the transition from a state entity to a grassroots entity with more distinct political ideas and principles, as opposed to the generalities and ambiguities the NDP currently falls back on.

True, the NDP describes itself as a centrist party, but its use of the term is very loose, covering the whole gamut of opinion from the centre left to the centre right. Indeed, it sometimes seems that it wields its "centrality" as a means to avoid being pegged down politically and even to place itself above the political and ideological fray.

The future of the NDP will undoubtedly be more closely connected to its centre right than to its centre left. It will also be contingent upon its remaining a part of the post-1952 order, or more accurately, continuing to voice the republican principles espoused by the July 1952 revolution.

However, the NDP will simultaneously need to be more focused and, hence, effective in airing the views of the centre right as well as the moderate trend in Egypt and the Arab world. One can also foresee another party emerging from the current NDP fold, one more inclined to the centre left. For such a transformation to take place, the party must develop for itself a distinct and separate identity from the state.

In fact, it will be impossible to speak of such a development until the NDP introduces the dynamics that generate a real and vibrant political sifting process, thereby ensuring a constant injection of new life into the party and enabling it to shed its current stagnation. In order to take this first step towards the reform and revival of political party life, the NDP must change from a "regime establishment" to a "social establishment" in the sense of acquiring a true grassroots presence.

In order to do this the NDP must split into two parties, one located primarily in the centre right of the political spectrum, the other in the centre left. As the NDP currently stands, some of its members are more progressive than others; some, at least secretly, see the US as the torchbearer of democratic reform in the world while others reject US domination; and some firmly believe in Egypt's Arab identity and inviolable affiliation to the Arab world, while others are exclusively and staunchly Egyptian in their outlook.

The creation of two parties will permit for some natural ideological sorting between these divergent views and encourage the formulation of distinct political platforms. This will naturally change people's criteria for membership. Instead of signing up with a state organ because of the access to services or advancement opportunities it offers, or for other non- political reasons, people will begin to choose their party affiliation on the basis of political/ideological reasons.

Indeed, the decision to sever the connection with the state apparatus will naturally lead to the division of the NDP into two or more parties. The split, moreover, will arise more from general disarray, chaos and decline in public performance than from pressures from opposition parties and forces. This will compel members of the administration and reformist elites in the NDP -- and outside of it -- to search for ways to enhance public performance in Egypt and, in turn, to search for truly reform-minded individuals in the NDP. Perhaps, too, the split of the NDP will also enhance the performance of the entire system, as it would pave the way to real political competition with opposition forces.

I include, here, the Muslim Brotherhood on the condition that it respects the republican order and the civic state. On the other hand, the NDP would also have to pay a price for accepting the creation of a civic Muslim Brotherhood entity that respects the constitution, the republican order and, in theory and practice, the principle of free and equal citizenship. The NDP would have to develop itself into a truly powerful and professional political party that can succeed in free democratic elections and compete effectively against any rival political party, be it the Muslim Brothers or any other.

The peaceful assimilation of a large section of political Islam, inclusive of the proposed Centre Party, has been put off for nearly 20 years. This stagnant situation should not be allowed to persist through the procrastination of this and other problems related to democratisation for yet another 10 years.

* A political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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