Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The family and political parties

Below the surface of post-revolutionary Egypt, powerful families are jostling for position and political revival, absent a mass party that represents the state, writes Hazem Omar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Statements to the press by leaders of both the Islamist and non-Islamist trends that they will include members of the former National Democratic Party (NDP) in their electoral lists for the 2015 parliamentary elections come as no surprise. These parties know that the sources of strength, expertise in communicating with public, and control over voters reside in the hands of those whose power comes from their “family” or “tribe.”

Accordingly, this article takes the “family/tribe” as a major analytical unit, as has been revealed by the evolution of the Egyptian political system. This approach is similar to the proposition of French sociologist Emile Durkheim who differentiated between societies on the basis of two forms of solidarity.

The first is “mechanical solidarity,” which is based on shared attitudes. Taking the Egyptian case, we find that Egyptians share a strong reverence for the state, considering it as something sacrosanct. If that sentiment began to waver after 11 February 2011, this was part of the condition that the state, itself, was experiencing.

The second type of solidarity is “organic” and refers to a degree of coherence that is embodied in the Egyptian family. Families in Egypt do not differ culturally or in customs and traditions, but rather politically. Prominent families in the countryside share the same habits and customs, but their political differences become particularly pronounced during elections when one might hear chants to the effect that such and such a family has “always” had a seat in parliament.

As the foregoing suggests, the political party in Egypt is not a modern organisation, even if it regards itself as such because some of its modern features, including internal elections, regular meetings, recourse to litigation in the event of disputes or attempts to disrupt the party system, and the use of political party newspapers and websites to disseminate its views.

However, the century-long history of political parties, since their inception in 1907 (with the creation of Mustapha Kamel’s National Party on 29 September and the establishment of the Constitutional Reform Party on 9 December), reveals that these entities have been and remain captive to alliances between traditional/family forces that sustain the continuity of the party and use the party as a means of perpetuating their own strength.


TRADITIONAL FORCES AND THE RISE OF MASS PARTIES: The recent announcement by the president’s office that it would not support one party over another, and the clear signals by the president that he will not join a political party, are in fact at odds with what Egyptians have grown accustomed to since the beginning of the modern era.

According to that tradition, the vast majority rallies around a single entity, movement, party or trend that voices their aspirations. One consequence of this is that, once the legal framework for the 2015 parliamentary elections (the House of Representatives Law and the Electorate District Law) was finalised, most political families opted to field their candidates as independents, even if some are still considering joining the lists of political parties whose leaders include former NDP members.

This situation, characterised by the absence of a powerful mass party, is an anomaly in Egyptian political history. Egyptians flocked behind the National Party of Mustafa Kamel, who led the Egyptian national movement. In spite of the emergence of other parties, the National Party remained the main voice of Egyptian aspirations until independence on 28 February 1922.

Following the promulgation of the 1923 Constitution, it was the Wafd Party that succeeded the National Party as the dominant party. The Wafd, under Saad Zaghloul and then Mustafa Al-Nahhas, retained a parliamentary majority and the confidence of the masses until the July 1952 Revolution.

That revolution brought various social changes that gave rise to new sets of traditional/family forces that were different from those that had prevailed during the 1923-1952 period. However, the majority of Egyptians rallied around President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who succeeded in expressing their will.

Soon those families, especially the relatively prominent ones that fell in with the reforms introduced by the Nasser regime, particularly in the realm of social justice and land ownership, became part of the National Union and then the Arab Socialist Union. These state parties voiced the attitudes and aspirations of the Egyptian majority, even if political party plurality was absent during that era.

President Anwar Al-Sadat was heir to the Socialist Union. Traditional forces remained a chief source of this party’s power until the creation of the Arab Socialist Egypt Party and the move back to political party plurality. Then, when Sadat founded the National Democratic Party (NDP), which he headed, this party took over as the voice of the majority.

However, when it came under control of politicians who did not subscribe to the populist outlook, the party’s popularity declined. As a result, the traditional/family forces broke away in order to field their candidates as independents, standing against NDP candidates, although they would re-join the party after the elections as they recognised the need to be linked with the strong party organisation.

The party began to lose its popularity after some of its leaders began to snub the traditional families. These families ended their support for the party’s positions, and even for the party itself, when the January 2011 revolution erupted.

One year after the January revolution, the traditional families that suffered offences from Islamist forces and revolutionary forces, and had been accused of being “remnants” of the old regime and tainted by its corruption, found an opportunity to reassert themselves. In the presidential elections of May-June 2012, their support was a major reason why Ahmed Shafiq succeeded in placing second in the first round, enabling him to enter the runoffs against Mohamed Morsi.

Although the final results were in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, who went on to become president, that win was by a tiny margin and suspicions of electoral tampering continue to hover around it.


THE FAMILY AND ATTEMPTS TO SUSTAIN ITS COHESION: Just as the state derives its prestige and influence in large measure from the coherence of its institutions, the family/tribe derives its prestige and influence from the coherence of its members. Therefore, the major families in the provinces, especially in Upper Egypt, struggled to regain the prestige they lost after the January revolution, especially with the rise of smaller families that had allied with Islamist forces during the period of the bid to hijack the state.

In their attempt to regain or preserve their status, the families decided to agree on a particular candidate to field in parliamentary elections. This gave rise to a kind of “electoral college” designed to ensure a minimal degree of unity among their members, so as not to appear divided and disunited before other families.

To family dons, such measures were seen as particularly necessary to counter the attempts of some of the newer political parties founded after the revolution, or even some of the pre-revolutionary parties, to include second-tier leaders of the prominent families in their electoral lists, out of the belief that this would win the support of those families.

In the first parliamentary elections after the January revolution, the behaviour of both new and old political parties revealed the extent to which they all, regardless of their ostensible political or ideological orientation, believed that these families were the key to seats in parliament.

Family leaders became candidates on party lists, but with conditions such as having to head the list or at least to have a major say in the makeup of the list. The elections also gave an indication of the strength of the family itself. Many fielded members for the third of the seats reserved for individual tickets in spite of the larger size of the electoral districts at the time.

Their successes furnished proof that the strength of these families was not derived from the regime but rather from their social status and the services they perform in their communities. Quite a few of their candidates, including the late Abdel Rahim Al-Ghoul from Qina, and others from other governorates, reached the runoffs. Add to this the fact that among the parliamentary elites of the first legislature after the revolution were MPs who had been second- or third-tier members of the NDP.

As the foregoing demonstrates, even if political parties in Egypt are modern products they remain tied to traditional structures such as the family and tribe, which are still a chief unit in the political process. It also demonstrates the strength of the family with respect to political parties. Not only are there instances in which the individual members of some families control the political party, it is often the case that political parties cannot begin to contemplate entering an electoral process without allying or coordinating with the influential families.


THE FUTURE OF TRADITIONAL/FAMILY FORCES: Politics is not always about conflict and societies are not immutable. Indeed, they are always changing. Change is the law of life and a precondition for the continuation of a system of government — any system of government. But this does not mean an abrupt break with the past and cultural, historical and social legacies.

Traditional forces continue to influence politics. The major families still exercise their influence over their offspring, in spite of the changes in society and the challenges to familial commitment that have been bolstered by the 25 January Revolution as well as by other factors such as education.

With the 30 June Revolution, traditional forces regained their influence in the countryside as they supported the state in its drive to regain its prestige. This revolution was different from its predecessor, the 25 January Revolution, in terms of the geographic scope and the rural-versus-urban composition of its supporters. The traditional forces also responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to the then defence minister’s appeal to march in favour of a mandate for him to fight terrorism.

In short, “the family” has been the chief player since 30 June. As the second juncture of the roadmap to the future showed, political parties were unable to promote any viable candidate while “the family” came out in overwhelming support for Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

As the 2015 parliamentary elections draw nearer, political parties have been growing increasingly active in their attempts to curry favour with prominent rural families and to persuade their members to join their electoral lists. However, opinion polls indicate that the forthcoming elections might be different from their predecessor as this time the families have begun to announce their candidates openly.

Otherwise put, the role of the leading family continues to prevail. If political parties are the heart of the political process in some countries, it appears that the family/traditional forces remain the centre of politics in Egypt.

The period that immediately followed the January revolution, which saw the rise of Islamist trends, presented a grave challenge to the status of the traditional families and their political influence. The threat was aggravated by the rise in religious extremist rhetoric, the proliferation of takfiri groups, and accusations of heresy and corruption levelled against tribal elders and family dons.

At the same time, the family/tribe was losing its control over its younger members due to their increased exposure to the outside world, which was a major reason behind the splitting of votes and divergence of political outlooks within a single family during that period. This caused rifts in the social fabric that, as a consequence, became vulnerable to a larger conspiracy aimed at the destruction of the Egyptian state.

After 30 June the families returned and political parties began to turn to them again. Yet the fact that they have not yet come together clearly, even with regard to political parties whose leaders hail from the NDP, can be explained by the fact that the families have not found a party that they believe expresses the idea of the state or the nation.

As a result, those forces are working in a vacuum. Ultimately, the future of “the family” is contingent on a mass party that envisions the family as a basic unit of the state. This is what Egyptians have become accustomed to. Their desire for powerful political organisations is as strong as their desire for a peerless leader.


The writer is  a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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