Redrawing the political map

Al-Ahram Weekly

May 26 2011

Mohamed Hafez*

Egypt’s political map has been redrawn since the 25 January Revolution, with previously unrepresented groups and actors entering the electoral fray.

Egypt’s political scene has been revitalised since the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak  on 11 February, and it is now dominated by three main forces. These include the 24 previously established political parties, forces unaffiliated with the conventional parties and represented by the recently formed Wasat (Centre) Party approved in February, the Karama (Dignity) Party currently under formation, and various protest movements, and the Muslim Brotherhood. This previously banned Islamist organisation is currently forming a political party to compete in the parliamentary elections in September, and it seems poised to hold the key to power in Egypt.

However, this open field has also drawn previously apolitical or politically less involved groups into the political fray. These include religious groups such as the Salafis, Sufis and Copts, as well as large portions of Egypt’s young people and other segments of society. These political forces, interacting with each other, are gradually reshaping the Egyptian political map.

The chief catalyst for this reshaping has come in the shape of decisions affecting the legal framework governing political activity. Foremost among these have been the suspension of the 1971 constitution and the creation of a Constitutional Amendment Committee, the amendments to constitutional articles 75, 76, 77, 88, 93, 139, 148, 179 and 189, the promulgation of the new political party law in accordance with Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) Decree 12/2011, and the 63-point Constitutional Declaration issued in February after the HCAF assumed control of the country. This clarified the roadmap during the transitional period and effectively pronounced the death of the 1971 constitution.

The new regulations have also cleared the way for more vigorous competition for the presidency, now that the amendments to articles 76 and 77 of the constitution have eased restrictions on nominations to this office. Whereas independent aspirants previously had to obtain the support of at least 250 members of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council, the lower and upper houses of the Egyptian parliament, now this minimum has been reduced to 30.

Alternatively, under the new law candidates can solicit the support of a minimum of 30,000 eligible voters spread across at least 15 governorates, provided that the number of supporters in any one of these is no fewer than 1,000. Should political parties wish to nominate a candidate for the presidency, they must have won at least one seat in the People’s Assembly or Shura Council in the last parliamentary elections.

Under the previous regulations, a party had to have been in continual existence for at least five years before becoming eligible to field a candidate. Before the recent amendments, such a party also had to occupy at least three per cent of People’s Assembly and Shura Council seats contestable at election, and any party’s prospective nominee had to have served for at least one year continuously as a member of that party’s leadership.

Naturally, the effect of the recent amendments has been reflected in both the number and the characteristics of the presidential election candidates, of which there are 19 so far from various party lists, independents and reform movements. Currently, there are 12 independent candidates seeking election to the presidency. Two of these served as ministers under the former regime and in official capacities in the Arab League: Ahmed Goweili, former minister of supply and trade and secretary-general of the Council for Arab Economic Unity, and Amr Moussa, previously foreign minister and then Arab League secretary-general.

Four candidates hail from the military establishment, these being former Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff General Magdi Hatata, General Sameh Seif El-Yazal, who has served in General Intelligence and as minister plenipotentiary at the Egyptian Embassy in London, General Mohamed Ali Bilal, who served as commander of the Egyptian forces in the Second Gulf War, and former prime minister General Ahmed Shafik.

Two women are also standing in the elections for the presidency: Anas El-Wugoud Elewa, a novelist and member of the Egyptian Writers Federation, and Butheina Kamel Rashwan, a prominent media personality and political activist. Other independent candidates include counsellor Hisham El-Bastawisi, former assistant justice in the Court of Cassation, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who recently broke with the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Muqbil, a well-known member of the medical profession, and Sheikh Mahmoud Amer, a member of the Salafist Ansar Al-Sunna group who gained notoriety for a fatwa effectively calling for the death of former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohamed El-Baradei.

So far, six political parties have also put forward candidates for the presidential elections, these being the leaders of the Ghad (Tomorrow), Nasserist, Takaful (Solidarity), Karama (Dignity), Labour and Misr Al-Hurra (Free Egypt) parties. In addition, there is a single candidate representing the movement for change, this being El-Baradei himself. With the presidential elections in mind, the parties are already gearing up for the parliamentary elections in order to meet one of the qualifying conditions for their presidential nominees, which is to obtain at least one seat in either the People’s Assembly or the Shura Council. This helps explain why there are already so many presidential candidates, despite the fact that the date of the presidential elections has not yet been set.

This map of the candidates in the presidential elections invites various observations. First, one notes that against 18 independent and political party candidates only one candidate — El-Baradei — has emerged from the ranks of the Egyptian Association for Change, the Kifaya (Enough) Movement and the 6 April Movement, which together formed the catalyst for the uprising that brought down the former regime. This suggests that these movements lack vision regarding Egypt’s political leadership over the coming phase.

Second, the liberal Wafd Party and the left-wing Tagammu Party have not yet announced their candidates. The Wafd entered the 2005 presidential elections behind its then chairman Noman Gomaa. Recently, it stated that it would be fielding a candidate for the forthcoming elections from outside the party’s leadership, but for the moment it has held off making a decision, presumably in order to avert a recurrence of the tensions that divided the party in 2005 and to better assess prospects of entering into alliance with other political forces. For its part, the Tagammu’ has not yet decided whether to field a candidate in the elections, given its own internal rifts. More than 65 members recently resigned from the party’s central committee and are currently in the process of founding three new left-wing parties.

Third, the four candidates from the military establishment have at least two factors working in their favour. The HCAF is currently running the country, and the military candidates should be able to draw on the good relations that have existed between the military establishment and the people since the 25 January Revolution.

Fourth, the average age of the candidates is relatively high. Nine of them are over 65, and three of these — El-Baradei, Moussa and El-Bastawisi — are likely to be the front runners. There are five candidates in the 55 to 65 age bracket, three of whom are party political candidates. Another five candidates fall in the under 55 age bracket. The youngest of these is Ayman Nour (47) of the Ghad Party.

Turning to the political parties themselves, Egypt’s experience with modern political parties began with the National Party, founded in 1907 by nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel. Two other parties, the Wafd and the Umma, then joined in the struggle for national liberation, after which dozens of other parties emerged during what has since become known as the liberal age of modern Egyptian history.

From the 1952 Revolution to the 25 January Revolution, party political life in Egypt can be divided into three phases, the first being the one-party system that followed the promulgation of the law banning political parties of 16 January 1953, which then gave rise to the Liberation Organisation, the National Union and the Arab Socialist Union.

The second phase, from 1977 to 1981, was ushered in as a result of former president Anwar El-Sadat’s proclamation on 22 November 1976 that transformed what until then had been called the three “platforms” of the single national party into three separate parties. These were confirmed as such under Political Party Law 40/1977, which officially relaunched political pluralism in Egypt.

Five parties came into being during this period, namely the National Democratic Party (NDP), the Socialist Liberal Party, the Tagammu, the New Wafd Party and the Socialist Labour Party. The then-officially-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Communist Party also continued to operate clandestinely.

During the third phase, from 1981 to 2011, the number of parties multiplied to 24. Of these, the NDP and Wafd Party, the leftwing Tagammu, the Arab Nasserist Party, the Liberal Party and the Socialist Labour Party constituted the major parties while the remaining 18 remained marginal. Among the latter were the Umma, Misr Al-Fatah and National Consensus Parties, whose licences were suspended following disputes over their leaderships.

Since 25 January 2011, which demarcates the beginning of the fourth and current phase, the formation and reshaping of political parties has been operating at several levels. With regard to the older established parties, the younger members of these have been clamouring for policy changes and for a stronger grassroots presence so as to be able to respond more effectively to popular demands. In some instances, these members have been demanding new leaderships, as has been the case with the Tagammu, Wafd, Al-Geel (New Generation) and Arab Nasserist Parties.

At another level, there are those parties that have either just been formed or that are in the process of being formed, such as the Wasat Party, which has an Islamist orientation and which recently received authorisation, and the Karama Party, which is still under formation. The creation of these parties combined with the impending parliamentary elections has spurred a feverish race among other political forces and movements to create new parties.

HCAF Decree 12/2011 amending Political Party Law 40/1977 has made it much easier to form new political parties. For one thing, it has cut off the avenue of bureaucratic procrastination by obliging the newly created judicial committee to respond to an application to form a new party within one month. If the committee replies in the affirmative, or if it does not issue a reply, a new party becomes legitimate on the 31st day after the submission of an application. In the event of a refusal, a party’s founders can appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court.

Also as a consequence of the amendments, which abolished a provision rendering the speaker of the Shura Council chairman of the Political Parties Committee, the ruling party can no longer control whether or not a new party can be licensed. From the inception of the original Political Party Law in 1977 to February 2011, the Committee turned down 70 applications to form new parties, most of these representing the liberal opposition. It also exercised powerful control over all other parties because it could suspend the activities of any party for an indefinite period, or even ban a party altogether.

The newly amended political party law has opened the floodgates to new parties. There are currently 74 parties, of which 25 existed before the revolution, excluding the former NDP, dissolved by court order in April. Another 49 forthcoming parties have been declared since 25 January. Of these, 27 can be classed as liberal, the most important being Free Egypt, founded by ambassador Abdallah El-Ashaal, Karama, represented by Hamdeen Sabahi, Freedom and Development, represented by Emadeddin Abdel-Rashid, Sons of the Nile, represented by Gamal Imbabi, and Reform and Development, represented by Esmat El-Sadat.

There are three left-wing parties pending, these being the Popular Alliance, the Democratic Workers Party and the Egyptian Socialist Party. There is one party that describes itself as secularist. Being formed since 2002, the Mother Egypt Party advocates what it calls a purely Egyptian and “Pharaonic” nationalism. Its application was rejected by the Party Affairs Committee in 2004 on the grounds that its platform violated the first article of the constitution.

Another 19 parties are based on a religious frame of reference. Of these, nine are Coptic and 10 are Muslim. Law 12/ 2011 prohibits the formation of parties whose principles, platforms and activities, and whose leadership and membership requirements, discriminate on the basis of religion, creed, sect, class, geographic or linguistic origin, or gender. However, many parties that would undoubtedly fall into this category, given the individuals or groups seeking to establish them, have been trying to circumvent this provision.

Those with a Coptic frame of reference and donning a liberal democratic guise include the Sons of Egypt Party represented by Hani Aziz, coordinator of the Front of Millions to Defend the Cause of the Copts, the Egyptian Union Party founded by Coptic activist Naguib Gabrael, the Youth of the Revolution Party founded by Michael Mounir, who also heads the Organisation of American Copts, the New River Party founded by journalist Arminos El-Minyawi, the Free Egyptians founded by businessman Naguib Sawiris, the Reform and Renaissance Party represented by Ayman Mursi Zaki, the Coptic Nation Party founded by a group of Coptic intellectuals foremost among whom is director of Rights Have a Say Centre Mamdouh Nakhla, the Our Egyptianness Party founded by the president of the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, and the Istiqama (Righteousness) Party founded by Adel Fakhri Daniel.

These parties’ Muslim counterparts are the Wasat Party headed by Abul-Ela Madi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party, the Union for Freedom founded by Islamist lawyer Montasser El-Ziyat, the Egypt Renaissance Party founded by defence attorney for the Islamist groups Mamdouh Ismail, the Social Tolerance Party founded by a group of the heads of Sufi orders (most notably Mohamed Alaaeddin Madi Abul-Azayem, head of the Azmiya Sufi order), and the Islamic Party for Reform and Change headed by Ahmed Sobhi, leader of the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya Youth Movement.

In addition to these, there are two Salafist parties — Al-Nour (Light) headed by Emadeddin Abdel-Raouf, and Al-Fadila (Virtue) founded by Adel Abdel-Maqsoud. The Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya Movement has also announced that it intends to form a party headed by Karam Zohdi and Nageh Ibrahim that will promote the ideas, principles and aims of this Islamist organisation. Finally, there is the proposed Nahda (Renaissance) Party whose founder, Ibrahim El-Zaafrani, has resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood and has approached Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s council, to represent the founders.

This map of the political parties also invites numerous observations, which may help in forecasting developments over the coming period.

The first observation is that two camps are vying for ascendancy, the first consisting of the religious parties, whether Christian or Muslim, that are attempting to project a liberal democratic character, and the other consisting of the actual liberal parties, whether those from the previous era, such as the Wafd, the Tagammu, Nasserist or Liberal parties, or those currently under formation, such as the Youth of the Revolution, Guards of the Revolution, or Youth of 25 January parties.

Both camps seek a majority of the seats in the two houses of parliament, and both feel that the general climate is in their favour. This has been borne out by the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude towards movements seeking to form political parties before competing in the legislative elections, for example. It should not surprise us to see that yesterday’s friendships are falling apart today.

Secondly, the political map reveals a religious contest along the lines of the Coptic-Muslim divide, testified to by the rush on both sides to form political parties in the hope of making political gains. This race is a subtle one, but it is evident in the actions of both sides. No sooner had Naguib Sawiris, founder of the Free Egyptians Party, declared that his “civil and democratic” Party was open to all Egyptians regardless of religious affiliation, for example, than Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam Erian issued a statement saying that membership of the Freedom and Justice Party would also be open to Copts and that the party would serve as “a forum for all Egyptians, regardless of their culture or their religious affiliations.”

Thirdly, the post-25 January political map reveals that the religious camps, whether Muslim or Coptic, are also rife with internal rifts and animosities. The creation of 19 Islamic and Christian parties is a clear indicator of this. Coptic activists have been unable to come to terms over the creation of a single party, or at most two parties, to represent them, and to some extent this stems from the attitude of the Church itself, which opposes the idea of Coptic political parties and is unlikely to signal its support for one.

The situation is not so very different for the Islamists. If the 10 political parties that have so far emerged from the various shades of Political Islam — the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the Jihad, the Salafis and the Sufis — tell us anything, it is that these cannot agree on a single political platform. Each group appears so bent on its own ideas and principles that it cannot make common cause with the others.

Thus, the Egyptian political map features a full spectrum of religion-based political outlooks, as well as a suppressed conflict between them the effects of which will become more visible in future. One manifestation of possible differences to come came during the referendum on the constitutional amendments in March, when the Islamists campaigned in favour of the amendments and the Copts opposed them.

Meanwhile, a fourth and final observation would be that the newly revised political party law has sealed the fate of the so-called “paper parties”, which in the past depended primarily on funding from the Political Party Affairs Committee. Under the old law, legitimate political parties were eligible for a grant of LE100,000, which increased in tandem with a given party’s representation in the country’s elected assemblies. The fact that the new law has dropped this provision means that now all parties will have to rely on their own fund-raising capacities.

Given this sink-or-swim approach, quite a few new political parties will probably disappear from the map. Moreover, this condition, together with the requirement that a proposed new party must obtain a minimum of 5,000 signatures published in the official gazette, should obstruct frivolous attempts to form new parties. As a result, those parties that are approved by the judicial committee should add a new vibrancy and robustness to political life in Egypt.

* The writer is a political analyst.

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