Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Party fatigue

Egypt’s political parties were supposed to be the engine leading the country to a democratic future. Now, writes Khaled Dawoud, they resemble clapped out cart horses ready for the knacker’s yard

Al-Ahram Weekly

When Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, then defence minister, sided with protesters against the Muslim Brotherhood on 30 June, 2013, subsequently removing Mohamed Morsi as president, he was keen to send the message that he had the support of secular political parties that had gathered under the umbrella organisation of the National Salvation Front (NSF.)

The NSF’s leader, Mohamed Al-Baradei, stood alongside other key political, religious and military figures as Al-Sisi read out a statement announcing Morsi’s removal. It was a highpoint in the short life of the political parties that emerged following the 25 January uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

The cabinet formed by interim president Adli Mansour included members of the Popular Trend, Dostour, Egyptian Social Democratic (ESDP) and Wafd Parties. The experiment was short-lived. Al-Baradei tendered his resignation as vice-president in protest of the violent dispersal of the sit-ins held in Rabaa and Nahda Squares by Brotherhood supporters. In late February, 2014, ESDP member Hazem Al-Biblawi was replaced as prime minister by Ibrahim Mehleb, a technocrat with a background in construction and close links to Mubarak.

When he became president 13 months ago Al-Sisi kept Mehleb as prime minister. The newly elected president was not in any rush to meet the leaders of political parties. They seethed as Al-Sisi met with television presenters, sports celebrities, artists and businessmen, waiting by their telephones for the call that came a full seven months after Al-Sisi was elected.

In the state-owned media, and on television channels owned by businessmen who had cosied up to the Mubarak regime, it was open season on political parties. They were accused of incompetence, of pursuing partisan interests at the expense of national goals, and the interests of their leaders at the expense of the public. They weren’t given a look in when it came to apportioning credit for Morsi’s removal: that as heaped on Al-Sisi and the army.

As President Al-Sisi seemed keen to remind the public that he would not be in the position without the support of the Egyptian people. Yet there appeared to be no attempt to reign in his supporters who insisted on portraying him as a singular hero behind whom the nation should unite. There was, they implied, no need for political parties or a parliament.

The election law issued by Mansour on his last day in office in June 2014 ignored the demands of key political parties, spurning their suggestion that the electoral system be weighted in favour of proportional representation.

Egypt’s parliamentary system has had a chequered history. Two years after the 1952 Revolution Gamal Abdel-Nasser dissolved political parties and established a single political organisation, the Arab Socialist Union.

Anwar Al-Sadat slightly eased the restrictions on political activity in 1977 by recognising three political parties in an attempt to satisfy his new US ally, though it was only the National Democratic Party (NDP), the political organisation Sadat established to replace Nasser’s Socialist Union, which had any real power.

Hosni Mubarak adopted his model established by his predecessor. The NDP remained the dominant political organisation, home to the regime’s powerbrokers, while over a dozen political parties sat on the sidelines fighting over a handful of parliamentary seats.

In the wake of 25 January Revolution dozens of new parties were formed. Yet in the first elections held after the 25 January Revolution, in late 2011, newly created secular, leftist and Arab nationalist parties, together with long established groups such as Wafd, won just 25 per cent of the vote. They were far outflanked by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and by the Salafi Al-Nour Party, which between them took 70 per cent of the vote.

During Morsi’s year in office the nascent secular parties spearheaded opposition to Brotherhood rule. Remnants from the Mubarak regime, the so-called feloul, waited in the shadows for the outcome of that confrontation, forming their own political parties such as the National Movement, headed by Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik.

There are 103 political parties in Egypt now, many of them riven by internal divisions, says Rifaat Qomsan, a member of the government appointed committee tasked with drafting the new election laws. Yet despite the proliferation in the number of political parties only two per cent of Egyptians belong to one. This, says Qomsan, is why the government had opted for an election system weighted in favour of independent candidates.

Medhat Al-Zahed, acting president of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party (PSAP), says Qomsan’s statement reflects the mindset of the regime which “seeks to further weaken newly created political parties and thus compromise Egypt’s democratic experience”.

“It’s the number of votes political parties win not the number of people who are card carrying members that counts. In a country with over 50 million voters, that two per cent are members of a political party is not bad. What we should be doing is taking steps to build on this level of political participation, not seeking to weaken the democratic experience.”

The secular parties that once made up the NSF first fell out over Al-Sisi’s presidential bid. A majority of the NSF parties, including Wafd, the Free Egyptians, and the Tagammu, supported Al-Sisi. Six smaller parties  – the Popular Trend, Dostour, PSAP, Al-Karama, Misr Al-Horreya and Al-Adl – favoured his only rival, Hamdeen Sabahi. These six went on to form the Democratic Trend Alliance.

Parties critical of the 25 January Revolution and comprising figures known for their close links to the Mubarak regime – the National Movement, the Congress Party, Misr Baladi and others – saw the removal of the Brotherhood as their opportunity to stage a comeback, utilising  the widespread network of connections they had built over Mubarak’s 30 years in office, and the fortunes they had amassed, to this end. They could not, however, buck the legacy of six decades during which political parties were absent. 

Political parties headed by wealthy figures who could afford to finance them, and those with few resources to rub together, all found themselves in the doldrums.

Wafd, with a history dating back to 1919, is now a divided party, and speculation is rife it could split in two. Wafd President Al-Sayed Al-Badawi is being challenged by leading figures in the party who accuse the wealthy businessman of running the party as a personal fiefdom. Even Al-Sisi became involved in the dispute, raising eyebrows by intervening to try and solve Wafd’s internal problems. The intervention did not succeed. Hundreds of its members met in Sharkiya to demand Badawi’s resignation.

The Free Egyptians Party, bankrolled by billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris, has also fallen prey to internal strife. Divisions have arisen over the party’s decision not to enter into any electoral coalitions ahead of the parliamentary poll and to field candidates who were once members of the NDP.

“Not all of them were corrupt, and we need to pick candidates who can win,” insists Sawiris.

Many members of the Free Egyptian Party have resigned, either because they object to the policies being adopted by the party, or out of resentment at not being picked as possible candidates.

Shafik’s National Movement Party, too, is a hotbed of personal disputes. The party’s Secretary-General, Safwat Al-Nahas, recently resigned, complaining there was no clear hierarchy or division of tasks within the party. The current acting president, Yehia Qadri, faced sharp criticism from members over the composition of a delegation that was to be dispatched to the United Arab Emirates in order to persuade Shafik himself not to resign. The party ended up forming two delegations, both of which have delayed their trip to the UAE.

The Congress Party, founded by former Arab League Secretary-General, Amr Moussa, is equally shambolic. Forged from 20 small liberal parties, many with affiliations to the Mubarak regime, the party has suffered repeated resignations and changes in leadership. Former deputy president Salah Hasaballah recently resigned only to announce he was forming a new party, Al-Horeya, which will include former members of the Congress Party and Shafik’s National Movement.

The Mohafizeen (Conservative Party) Party, headed by Akmal Qortam, a wealthy businessman who ran as an NDP candidate in 2010, recently saw a wave of resignations of members disgruntled at not having been selected as parliamentary candidates.

The Tagammu Party, one of the three parties Sadat allowed in 1977, has lost many members to the leftist parties that emerged following the 25 January Revolution. The party had long been accused of lending itself to the Mubarak regime’s democratic window-dressing. Tagammu’s honourary President Rifaat Al-Saeed had a long history of siding with the Mubarak regime while current Tagammu President, Sayed Abdel-Al, was a vociferous supporter of Al-Sisi’s presidential campaign.

The party has been sharply attacked in the media because it recently held a singing contest in which two young women members danced in a manner many commentators deemed erotic. What, they wondered in print and on the airwaves, are political parties in Egypt for?

The six parties that make up the Democratic Trend Alliance are in no better shape.

“We are honourable and principled but poor,” Sabahi, the former presidential candidate and leader of the Popular Trend, once said. Yet faced with routine attacks against political parties and the arrest of young secular activists for violating the Protest Law. The Popular Trend Party is facing difficulties collecting the 5000 signatures needed for it to become an officially recognised party.

The departure of Nobel Peace Prize winner Al-Baradei as leader of Dostour Party was just the start of its problems. The party is routinely attacked in the media as being too westernised. Its young members are over whether they should remain loyal to the goals of the revolution or move closer to Al- Sisi on the grounds that Islamists groups pose the greatest threat. More than four months after Hala Shukrallah – the first woman to be elected as a party leader in Egypt – resigned the party has yet to hold internal elections to choose her replacement.

“Since 30 June, 2013 we have witnessed the death of politics in Egypt,” says Ahmed Abd Rabbo, professor of political science at Cairo University.

“The spread of terrorism and violence, the security mentality now in control of the country and the way the presidency has monopolised major decisions have all contributed to the end to serious political life in Egypt.”

Even if parliamentary elections – promised by presidential candidate Al-Sisi before the end of 2014, and now promised by President Al-Sisi before the end of 2015 – are held, “the election laws guarantee a strong parliament will not emerge,” says Abd Rabbo.

“Parliament will be incapable of overseeing the government or formulating new legislation. It will simply rubber stamp decisions taken by the president.”

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