Five Challenges Facing Egypt's Liberals
Author: Bassem Sabry Posted September 5, 2012
Egypt’s liberals and moderates may have helped spark the revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but they have lost out in the new post-Mubarak political order. The first loss came during the parliamentary elections, when Islamists took 75% of the seats. The second loss came when the presidential run-off came down to a choice between two extremes: the old guard, represented by former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the eventual winner, Mohammed Morsi.
But the liberals and moderate opposition are trying to not get left out of the game again, and they were busy this past week assembling, dismantling and reassembling a variety of new political parties, coalitions and associations in preparation for a new round of parliamentary elections, expected to be held in the coming months.
Starting last Wednesday, Mohammed El-Baradei launched his Al Dostour (Constitution) Party, to much fanfare and hype. The following Saturday, news reports circulated about a liberal electoral and political alliance dubbed the “Democratic Civil Current,” made up of more than 15 political parties.
The same day, former presidential candidate and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh announced that he was working on “a wide alliance” that would “bring together all the people who believe in the goals of the revolution.” He pledged his that his new alliance would be dedicated to “public and personal liberties” and “full equal citizen rights.”
On Sunday, Egyptian media reported talks were taking place to form a new coalition between Al-Dostour, an alliance of liberal parties, called the “The Third Current,” and the new leftist grassroots-oriented movement led by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, called “The Popular Current.”
As if that was not enough, a day later, former Arab League secretary-general and former presidential candidate Amr Moussa announced the “Alliance Of The Egyptian Nation,” featuring possibly 10 parties and groups, including 2005 presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s “Ghad Al-Thawra” Party as well as the nearly century-old Al-Wafd party.
A couple of hours later that same day, news leaked that Al-Wafd was calling for an “emergency meeting” of its high board to discuss a possible withdrawal from the alliance, arguing that what was eventually announced by Moussa was different from what was agreed upon initially. Interestingly, among all of these reports of talks, coalitions and alliances, some parties appeared to be involved in virtually all of them.
All the while, many in Egypt greeted the introduction of Al-Dostour and the various alliances with excitement that the opposition was actually uniting, albeit with concern about the seemingly haphazard way in which it all seemed to be happening. One official with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party greeted the news more tepidly. In a tweet, FJP acting head and presidential adviser Essam El-Erian welcomed the Dostour Party onto the playing field, then went on to state that other Egyptian political parties will “come and go” but “only the FJP will remain for a true democratic life in Egypt.”
Despite the tone, El-Erian has a point. Business as usual for Egypt’s liberal and moderate opposition means that they would indeed just “come and go.” If they want to stick around, here are five key issues the opposition should address as they consider their strategy for running candidates in the next round of parliamentary elections:
1-Electoral Law: What the coming parliamentary elections will actually look like remains undetermined, nor when would they take place. With Egypt’s Constitutional Court controversially dissolving the previous parliament based on what it deemed to be the unconstitutionality of the electoral law, it is pretty much a given that a new law is set to be devised. Such new law is likely to take form after the adoption of the country’s new constitution, which could very well happen before the end of this year. But debate on the details of the law have begun trickling out.
Some have been calling for a full nationwide closed-list proportional representation system, others are considering a similar system but with a separate list for each of Egypt’s 27 governorates, while others remain in preference of a mixed system that would grant a chance to individual independent candidates in addition to party lists. The latter is more likely to come out as law in one form or another, I suspect. On one hand, the traditional argument goes that expanded proportional representation helps ensuring individual votes around districts aren’t lost, a concern for liberals. On the other, single-candidate elections could be better with regards to dampening some of the conservative-liberal polarization through the personalization of the race and using the own candidate’s personal appeal.
We also do not know whether or not the stipulation that at least 50% of parliament would be allotted to workers and farmers would succeed in turning the previous tide against it and remain in the new law, in one form or another.
2-Coalition: while almost every non-Muslim Brotherhood/non-Salafist opposition movement and party has expressed its (honest) openness and eagerness toward forming both an electoral and a political alliance, transforming this apparent goodwill into a concrete reality will be somewhat of a more complex undertaking. On one hand, there have been public calls for Al-Dostour to absorb, merge with, or at least form an alliance with parties such as the Social Democrats, Free Egyptians and The Justice Party. While mergers — assuming they do work — could bring greater strength, resources and star power to Al-Dostour, they could also bring significant political baggage associated with each one.
One example is association with one of the Free Egyptians’ leading figures, Naguib Sawiris, a man who could attract capable operatives and bring substantial resources into any political endeavor, while also remaining a controversial and polarizing figure, one who could alienate many voters following a post-revolution foray into public life that featured what were deemed to be several faux-pas from a now-political figure.
Then, there is the question of setting the organizational formula for such an alliance. The opening section of this article demonstrates how increasingly complex, in flux, rapidly transforming, disparate-yet-connected the map of Egypt’s politically-liberal opposition is. How these forces could be integrated under one umbrella and how each block’s leading figures could be made to work together under one structure, assuming their willingness in both cases, both remain issues of some debate. Among Al-Wafd, Al-Dostour, Sabahi in particular and — to a lesser extent — Moussa, one could expect diverging paths toward spearheading any alliance.
3-The Islamist Alliance And Ground Work: Recent rapprochement between the Brotherhood and the Salafists makes it a bit less unlikely that Egypt could witness the birth of a joint “Islamist Coalition” between the winners of around three-fourths of the previous parliament. Such an overwhelming alliance would owe its power to the powerful on-the-ground networks they both have (Brotherhood is much more organized however) as well as a potential ensuing increased conservative-liberal electoral polarization that is likely to largely play into the Islamists' favor.
A sufficiently visible and effective ground network is potentially the only way the opposition can reach out to swing voters in non-urban areas, which is a necessity for any decent gains in the elections. In addition, an overall strategy, essentially rooted in new and more evolved rhetoric, must be developed to disarm the potential likely polarization.
4-Messaging And Platform: A failed strategy for the opposition would emerge if the elections remained essentially centered on identity politics (as they have largely been thus far) as well as on the (at times, hyperbolic) critique of the Brotherhood and Islamists. The latter is also likely become even more elusive as President Mohammed Morsi seems to be more comfortably settling into his office and increasingly succeeding at diffusing critique against him, while the Brotherhood is likely to be more mindful of its recent mistakes and plot a media and political effort that could substantially ameliorate its image just before the elections.
Rather, the opposition must make these elections focused on policy, and learn how to effectively lead the discourse rather than react to it. The opposition should also feature a strong and intelligent centerpiece message at the heart of their campaign, one that focuses on improving the livelihood of Egyptians, rather than just de facto campaigning as the “non-Islamists.”
If, come election time, people believe that the Brotherhood will do them well in politics, the opposition needs to convince people they can do even “better,” and not simply focus on warning against the “Ikhwanisation of the state.” Another serious consideration is also how to argue for progressive ideas in a manner that is mindful and respectful of a substantial conservative preference within society. Some intellectual entrepreneurship is due.
5-The Return Of Ahmed Shafiq: One more conundrum is how would liberal parties react if former Mubarak-era prime minister and former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq returns — as he had announced before — to Egyptian political life and form a political party.
Shafiq, a figure heavily associated with the former regime, came in second place in the first round of the presidential elections and won nearly half of the votes in the run off. Some have went as far as speculating that he could potentially stage a Viktor Yanukovich-like post-revolution return to power one day.
The former presidential candidate remains a self-declared “liberal” and a staunch Brotherhood critic who theoretically commands substantial support. The Catch-22 is that if Shafiq’s potential party is allowed to join a wider liberal alliance, then such an alliance would be setting itself up to PR attacks that could well damage it. On the other hand, if Shafiq’s party goes into the elections on its own, it could eat away votes that would otherwise go to a potential liberal alliance. Either way, a Shafiq return could cause substantial damage to liberal hopes of a strong electoral showing.
Bassem Sabry is a blogger and writer who specializes in Egyptian and Middle Eastern affairs. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and The Atlantic. He blogs at http://anarabcitizen.
Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/five-questions-egypts-liberal-op.html