Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

New leaders for the ESDP

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party has managed to keep itself together and elect a new president, yet many challenges remain, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

With an edge of only four votes Farid Zahran and Bassem Kamal were declared the winners of the two top posts in the first elections held for president and vice-president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) on Friday.

As soon as the results were announced, the two stood holding hands with rivals Nour Farahat and Ziad Bahaaeddin insisting that the “Party will remain united.”

However, this may be easier said than done, considering the narrow victory achieved by Zahran and Kamel, which left the party split into almost two halves. There are those who believe that the ESDP should be more outspoken in opposing the policies of President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi and others who consider that the current political and economic difficulties facing Egypt require rallying behind the president. The party should avoid being dubbed an “opposition” party in the first place, they say.

The ESDP has been one of the few political parties created after the 25 January Revolution that has managed to stay intact despite its difficulties. Created by Mohamed Abul-Ghar, 76, a veteran opponent of former president Hosni Mubarak who enjoys widespread respect, the ESDP introduced itself as a “social democratic” party that strongly believes that political and social rights should go hand-in-hand in a mostly poor country like Egypt.

After five years as president, Abul-Ghar decided he did not want to run for a second term, saying the time was ripe for a new and younger leadership to take over.

Like many parties that emerged after the revolution, the ESDP enjoyed popularity and support from businessmen, especially Coptic Christians who were satisfied with its relatively moderate positions. However, the situation radically changed after 3 July, 2013, when the army intervened to remove former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from office after mass protests.

When the then defence minister, Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi, decided to run for president, the party witnessed its first major split. After a critical internal vote, it decided neither to support Al-Sisi nor his only opponent Hamdeen Sabahi. That left several key members, especially Coptic businessmen, unhappy, and they decided to split and move to the Free Egyptians Party headed by Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris.

Considering that the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State were the major threats facing Egypt, conservative and mostly older members of the party thought this was not the right time to oppose Al-Sisi. However, the party’s younger membership held more radical views and said that the ESDP should remain loyal to the demands of the 25 January Revolution.

The arrests of dozens of young men and women over charges of violating the Protest Law that was approved when former ESDP member Hazem Al-Beblawi was prime minister after Morsi’s ouster and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and the media were also among other factors leading younger ESDP members to demand more outspoken opposition to the president’s policies.

Abul-Ghar, who writes a weekly column often critical of government policy, tried to hold the middle ground. “We are neither an opposition party nor a pro-government party,” he said in a recent interview. “When the president does something good, we support him, and when he adopts what we believe are the wrong decisions, we speak out against those decisions,” he added.

However, the long-time opponent of Mubarak admitted on Friday while waiting for the results of the elections for a new party president that “the security agencies do not like us very much”. He added “that’s why we don’t get any support from businessmen anymore.”

Lack of funds and declining support from the business community have been major problems facing the new political parties that emerged after the revolution, especially those which are not seen as wholehearted supporters of Al-Sisi.

With the exception of Sawiris’ Free Egyptians Party, the Wafd Party headed by Sayed Badawi who owns a pharmaceuticals company and a television channel, and The Nation’s Future Party headed by a young man, Mohamed Badran, who has been seen on many occasions with Al-Sisi and has admitted receiving funds from business tycoons, the majority of Egypt’s political parties face major financial difficulties and in some cases can hardly pay the rent on their offices.

Zahran, the new ESDP president, is known as more of a leftist than a democrat, raising chances that the more conservative party members who voted for Farahat and Bahaaeddin might quit or join the Free Egyptians Party.

The narrow victory he achieved with the party’s deputy Kamel implies that the two men will have to work hard to convince the half of the party’s members who did not vote for them that they will not radically change its policies.

“Being a leftist is not going to influence the way I will preside over the party,” Zahran told reporters after the results were announced. “Yes, I have always been a leftist, but my ideas have evolved in order to match those of the ESDP and its membership. I will not exclude anyone, and I am proud of every party member,” he added.

A leading member of the ESDP who supported Farahat and Bahaaeddin and requested anonymity was not convinced, however.

“We have lost two experienced figures who could have benefited the country,” she said in a reference to Farahat, a veteran legal expert and law professor at Zagazig University, and Bahaaeddin, a respected economist who served as deputy prime minister in the first government formed after the ousting of the Brotherhood in July 2013.

“We do not need a president who knows nothing but leftist slogans and populist policies,” she added.

However, leading ESDP members said that her camp would not necessarily leave the Party right away. “We will have to wait and see,” she said. “If Zahran shows he is only there to oust his opponents, of course we will not stay,” she added.

Only 800 members of the ESDP’s General Congress were allowed to vote for president, according to Party by-laws. Zahran and Kamel won 331 votes, while Farahat and Bahaaeddin won 327.

The General Congress members also elected a new secretary-general of the Party, Khaled Rashed, who belongs to the more conservative camp inside the ESDP. However, his victory was not enough to keep that camp satisfied.

Only the future will tell if the ESDP will remain united, or whether it will suffer more splits as the case has been with the majority of Egypt’s political parties, whether those that emerged after the 2011 Revolution, or under former president Mubarak who stayed in office for 30 years.

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