Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1409, (13-19 September 2018)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1409, (13-19 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Seeking a democratic path

Gamal Essam El-Din asks Essam Khalil, chairman of the Free Egyptians Party, about the party’s performance in parliament and the future of multi-party democracy in Egypt


Seeking a democratic path
Seeking a democratic path

Essam Khalil became chairman of the Free Egyptians Party in January 2016. Between April 2014 and December 2015 he served as the party’s secretary-general. The Free Egyptians Party won 65 seats in parliamentary elections, making it the largest party in the House. In 2016 it joined the Support Egypt coalition, formed to defend the policies of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.


How do you assess the parliamentary performance of MPs affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party?

The party’s MPs did a very good job last year. They actively discussed new legislation and were particularly keen to ensure the poor and unprivileged were protected from the impact of economic reform.

Our MPs also supported laws to create a more liberal and attractive investment climate in Egypt. Together with the majority Support Egypt bloc they approved the agreement with the IMF, and tried their best to guarantee that those on fixed incomes did not bear the burden of reforms.

In supervisory terms, the party’s MPs used all the tools available to them to ensure that the government did its job effectively. Our MPs head some influential committees — Foreign Relations Committee and Energy — and used their posts to summon cabinet ministers to answer MPs’ questions. The criticism levelled by some of our deputies led to the dismissal of a number of ministers and provincial governors.


But why did about 20 MPs decide to leave the party’s ranks at the end of the 2017/2018 parliamentary session?

Anyone joining the party should do so because they believe in its platform and ideology. Party membership is not for sale. But the fact is some people join parties to promote their own interests. Our party is not that kind of party. Those who join should do this for ideological reasons rather than to personally profit. Our party defends the state and puts national interests first.


And did you react when MPs left the party?

The party’s leadership decided they should be stripped of membership. A list of their names was sent to parliament so action could be taken. It is now up to parliament to decide what happens. But what I want to confirm is that membership is not for sale, and that anyone who wants to join the Free Egyptians should realise national interests will always come first.


What is the ideology of your party?

Our party stands for liberal economics, religious tolerance and the rejection of political Islam. In this context we supported the 30 June Revolution which removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power. We also appreciate the role of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who sided with the people and the revolution and moved against political Islam.


Some legislators want political parties which have no seats in parliament to be dissolved. Do you agree?

I agree it would be better for Egypt’s democratic future if there were fewer political parties. The existence of 104 parties harms rather than benefits political life.

To be effective a political party must have a platform that appeals to a significant public. It should also be active in political circles, which means it needs to command a parliamentary presence, and be able to hold public rallies and conferences. It should also have a nationwide representation. Most existing political parties do not have any kind of presence on the ground. All they have is an office in Cairo, and sometimes no more than 20 members.

The 2014 constitution stipulates that a multi-party system be the basis of political life. Sadly, this has been used by some to form cardboard parties with no voice, and whose aim is to profit from politics.

As a party we are seeking to amend the Political Parties Law in a bid to reform political life and ensure that the main players have real popularity and a strong voice and are active nationally. We think there should be three or four strong political parties that can contest all kinds of elections and help implement the principle of the rotation of power.


Many argue the authoritarianism of earlier regimes lies behind the poor performance of political parties and the stagnation of politics in Egypt…

Weaknesses in Egypt’s political life date back to January 1953 when political parties were dissolved. A one-party ruling system was created to monopolise political life. Even when the country re-adopted the multi-party system in 1977 a ruling party — the National Democratic Party — was formed within a year to monopolise political life.

Opposition parties were mired in stagnation and irrelevance. What would you expect if the state ordered the closure of faculties of medicine and engineering? The result would be there were no doctors or engineers. The same is true of political parties and politicians.

After 2011 political parties faced enormous challenges. After years of being vilified by the regime they were suddenly expected to stand up to Islamist forces armed with huge financial resources and emerge fully formed into a political arena from which they had hitherto been excluded.

Now we are trying our best to urge academics, politicians and experts to join our party ranks. We tell them that institutional rather than individual work is what Egypt’s political life desperately needs in the coming stage.


How do you view President Al-Sisi’s calls for political parties to merge?

After the 25 January Revolution in 2011 some political parties, including ours, tried to merge, but the results were a disaster. There were a lot of disagreements and disputes over who should be president or vice president or secretary-general. We came to the conclusion that any merger would be on paper only given the lack of teamwork and a liberal political culture that accommodates diversity and places national goals over personal interests.

We are in the process of drafting a new law on the regulation of political parties which will address all of these problems. I hope that we can reach a consensus on the articles of this law and that it will be passed by parliament in its new legislative season.


What of religious parties?

Religious parties violate the 2014 constitution. It is sad they still exist. The 30 June Revolution was mainly against religious authoritarianism. It is deplorable that as a force committed to liberal democracy our party did not pay sufficient attention to the issue of religious parties in its early years. It was not on top of our agenda.

Religious parties are a threat to the future of Egypt. Since it was created 90 years ago the Muslim Brotherhood has spread its malicious ideology across Egypt. Religious parties target all forms of culture. They spread divisions and foment sectarian strife. This is what we have seen in Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

We need collective and organised action to stand up to religious parties.


What of your differences with Naguib Sawiris, the founder of the Free Egyptians Party?

Our differences with Sawiris were over a long time ago. We agreed the party should remain intact even though differ on many issues.


How do you view the security situation in Egypt?

We are happy Egypt has achieved stability after years of chaos. The tide of terrorism in North Sinai which claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and policemen has been stemmed and security forces have disrupted plans to target churches and Copts, particularly in Upper Egypt.

Some countries, particularly Qatar, still give financial and media support to terrorist groups and Islamist movements. But the alliance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has been able to contain Qatar and its malicious plans.


How do you assess the performance of President Al-Sisi since he came to office in 2014?

President Al-Sisi has achieved a lot in a short period of time. He was able to bring stability to Egypt, implement an ambitious economic reform programme and lay the foundation for mega development projects in Suez, Dabaa and the New Administrative Capital. He has restored Egypt’s prestige in Arab and African circles and forged strong relations with China and Russia.

President Al-Sisi was also able, to a large extent, to neutralise the US even though he insists that Egyptian-American relations will remain strategic.


Will the Free Egyptians Party field a candidate in the 2022 presidential election?

It is too early to say. We won’t even be looking at the question until 2021.

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