Thursday,18 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)
Thursday,18 January, 2018
Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond electoral alliances

What Egypt needs most is not temporary electoral alliances, but permanent political blocs, so as to create a vibrant coming parliament and counterbalance the executive, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Electoral alliances are not new in Egypt — they are just ephemeral. Hardly are they formed than they quickly crumble due to ideological and personal clashes, the heavy security presence in the public sphere, politicians’ impatience and shortage in altruism, the decline in political party membership and grassroots bases, and the lack of a spirit of initiative and leadership skills among party leaders. Add to all this restrictions that so much hampered political parties in the pre-January revolution era that we had “political parties without people and people without political parties”.

The foregoing are symptoms of a chronic ailment that keeps parties and individuals from rallying together in robust and lasting political alliances, ones capable of sustaining unified positions in the face of an unjust ruling authority in the past, and another authority that is slowly but surely moving in the same direction in the present, ones that might even propel their leaders to merging two or more parties into a single one on the basis of similar political outlooks and goals.

Political alliances in Egypt share a number of characteristics that have become crystal clear over time:

— They are a recurring phenomenon in contemporary Egyptian history. In 1984, the Wafd Party allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1987, the Labour and Liberal parties allied with the same Islamist group. After the January Revolution, when parties began to prepare for the People’s Assembly elections in 2011, four major alliances coalesced: the Democratic Alliance led by the now-dissolved Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Islamic Alliance led by Al-Nour Party, the Egyptian Bloc, and the Revolution Continues alliance.

— Most generally alliances are forged more to confront a political adversary than an electoral rival. In 2011, the alliance that had been forged to confront the parliamentary elites of the former National Democratic Party (NDP) now sought to confront the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

—  Although these alliances are forged to contend with a “political adversary” they do not last. It is as though the leaders who form the alliance do not feel that the adversary in question, regardless of the degree of its despotism and corruption, is sufficiently formidable to necessitate an on-going unification of ranks. The alliances that were formed before the January Revolution quickly fell apart, with some of their members bowing in submission to the Mubarak regime and contenting themselves with political hand-outs, or in some cases concluding secret deals with it. After the revolution, the alliance formed to confront the “remnants” of the NDP fell apart primarily because its major component — the Muslim Brotherhood — actually had another agenda, as subsequent days would reveal.

 This trait persists as disputes and tensions prevail between the parties in current alliances that are raising the implicit banner, “Parliament without extremist political Islam”.

—  There will always be a party that strays from the unanimous stance of a collection of political parties, or their desire to ally. The Tagammu Party refused to boycott the 1995 parliamentary elections along with the other political parties. The Wafd refused to enter into the Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance after the January Revolution. Currently, it appears that the Free Egyptians Party is set on entering the forthcoming legislative elections on its own, banking on its material capacities, media resources and a strategy focussing on seats reserved for individual candidates as opposed to lists.

One factor this year has rendered alliance-making almost obligatory or not voluntary. The current electoral law has compelled political parties to enter into alliances suitable to their particular circumstances in light of the conditions of the closed list system. Under the 2014 Constitution, these lists must ensure representation of certain social groups: youths, women, Christians and persons with special needs. Article 244 in the section on Transitional Provisions states: “The state shall endeavour to ensure that youth, Christians, persons with disabilities and Egyptians living abroad are appropriately represented in the first House of Representatives to be elected after the promulgation of this Constitution, as regulated by law.”

Alliances formed under such conditions carry the seeds of their own demise. Quotas can be explosive. The numbers of people eager to be nominated are many times more than the numbers the law allows for a single list. This places party leaders under constant pressure from prospective nominees. Some or these might threaten to quit the party if their names are not entered onto a list. Others might band together and split off to form a new party, which has a fairly high probability given the culture of political splintering and fracturing that continues to prevail, together with the persistence of many of the problematic traits that plagued political parties before the revolution, such as fragility, inflexibility and opportunism.

Also, since the need to comply with quotas may force parties to ally with others that are not ideologically compatible, meaningful coordination becomes both difficult to attain and short-lasting if attained at all. This is all the more the case in light of the sharp socio-political polarisation in Egypt as a consequence of broad class disparities due to policies that led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few while a majority of the people fall between poverty and the poverty line, due to the erosion of the middle class.

Although the alliances are presumed to occur between political parties, in fact they are desperate attempts to attract prominent independent figures to place at the heads of their lists in order to attract more voters. This celebrity factor has become increasingly important in view of the extensive geographic domain of the districts allocated for the list system that makes it difficult for conventional and local parliamentary candidates to mount strong competition.

One can see four scenarios for the alliances: lasting until the elections and then collapsing, continuing through the legislative term as an opposition bloc, continuing to hold together so as to form a government in the event that the president’s nomination of prime minister fails to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote and, fourthly, falling apart before ballot day.

No matter how closely constituents of an alliance coordinate and stick together, they will be unable to overcome a painful reality: their membership and potential sympathisers are far less than the number of people who are unaffiliated with a political party, nonpartisan, or have no faith in political parties at all due to the systematic attacks and distortions on the part of media figures keen to revive the totalitarian state. In addition, there is also the problem that political parties and their activities remain concentrated in the capital and major urban centres and have little or no presence and influence in smaller towns and villages throughout the country.

In all events, the continuity of all or some party alliances and their transformation from a temporary electoral arrangement into a unified political bloc, whether in the government or the opposition, is contingent upon the number of seats they obtain in the forthcoming parliament vis-à-vis the independents. It is also contingent on their ability to resolve other matters, most notably the question of leadership of the alliance, whether in terms of the dominant party or the person of the leader.

The foregoing gives rise to the following question: what impact will electoral alliances have on the performance of the forthcoming parliament, especially in light of Article 146 of the 2014 Constitution?

To begin with, real democracy cannot exist without political party plurality functioning within a just framework that guarantees the right to differ, the peaceful rotation of authority and safeguards for civic freedoms. Accordingly, political parties, whether they ally or go their separate ways, have three basic courses of action open to them:

— Playing a marginal role or the part of the accessory needed to complete the outward democratic credentials of the current regime, much as was the case with how political parties had functioned in the period before the January Revolution. Such a scenario means yielding to pressures to create an “understanding parliament” whose determination to cling to its constitutional powers will be outweighed by its eagerness to please the executive.

— Functioning as a real opposition, especially in the event that political parties obtain a minority in parliament in the face of a majority of independents, either fully in line with the president, or keen to please him after their elections, or convinced that the current circumstances demand solidarity with the executive.

— Working to act as a real partner in power, whether by forming a government in the event that parliament rejects the president’s candidate for prime minister or by reaching an agreement with the president from the outset over the choice of prime minister or ministers representative of their parties.

The forgoing options will only become available after the results of the elections and parliament convenes. Before the elections, the parties have the following alternatives open to them if they resolve to work together:

— To coordinate in the framework of total party autonomy from the executive and security agencies with the aim of giving root to a civil democratic state and strengthening political party plurality by sustaining and maximising the gains won by the January Revolution.

—  To keep coordination directly linked to arrangements with the executive or security agencies in the context of a general unanimity among the civil political parties, the presidency and the government over the need to counter “political Islam”.

— To coordinate in the framework of a tacit understanding with the executive or a convergence of interests between the parties and the executive in confronting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

If political parties take the first route, they will have chosen well, as the other two options — explicit or implicit arrangements or coordination with the executive — will have grave consequences for evolution of the political party experience, perhaps setting it back to pre-revolutionary conditions of weakness, dependency and decay. While interests may converge today between the executive and the various civil (non-Islamist) parties, they could diverge tomorrow, especially if the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood fades or it loses its ability to influence or threaten the state.

Some constitutional articles open the door to rivalry or conflict between parties and the executive. This could be harmful to political life and public welfare, but it could also be beneficial if it gives rise to an effective balance in the distribution of powers and authorities, without tensions having to reach the point that raises the spectres of a presidential dissolution of parliament, or a parliamentary withdrawal of confidence from the president.

The best option is for the parties to move from merely coordinating for the purposes of the ballot box to lasting coalitions or blocs or, preferably, merger so as to give rise to several large and strong political parties committed to protecting plurality, propelling democratic transformation forward, and preventing an overbearing executive.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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