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The Uncertain Fate Of Egypt’s Political Parties

A special report on the status of Egypt’s political parties in transition.
Egypt's interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during a news conference with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (unseen) at El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo July 30, 2013. Egypt's rulers allowed Ashton to meet deposed President Mohamed Mursi, the first time an outsider was given access to him since the army overthrew him and jailed him a month ago, but ruled out involving him in any negotiations. She revealed little about what she called a "friendly, open and very frank" tw

Polling since February has almost steadily indicated a general decline in the popularity of the country's political forces across the spectrum, suggesting a substantially independent, but equally alienated public. As the new administration appears to be leaning toward a single-candidate, plurality-based electoral system, there are worries it might foreshadow the effective death of the country’s post-January 2011 parties. Single-candidate systems in Egypt, especially in the absence of strong political parties, have tended to benefit those with large amounts of financial backing, with the (at times, not-so-tacit) endorsement of the state or with prominent families. Often, all three have ended up being the same person. This approach to elected representation does not seem like the best recipe for transitioning to a multiparty democracy, especially given the condition of many of the existing parties.

The National Salvation Front and secular-leaning parties

In a July 2013 Zogby poll shortly after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, only 597 out of some 5,000 respondents (or 12%) nationwide “expressed confidence” in the National Salvation Front (NSF), down from 1,111 respondents in favor of them in May. The front is the umbrella for secular-leaning parties and was formed in November 2012 to oppose Morsi’s constitutional declaration granting himself extensive powers. It has carried on since as an anti-Islamist political alliance, but its future remains uncertain amid internal differences and the controversial resignation of its former leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, from the country’s vice presidency.

The Zogby confidence figure for the NSF contrasts significantly with the 1,194 (24%, and only slightly down from 1,308 in May) for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and 1,118 (22%, down from 1,452) for Al-Nour, the leading Salafi party. The controversial April 6 Movement scored a remarkable 1,125 expressions of confidence (22%, down from 1,250). The Tamarod (Rebellion) campaign, a newcomer, scored the highest, with 1,635 positive responses. Most indicative, 1,387 (32% of respondents) said they had no confidence in any of the parties. Though relatively high, this interestingly represented a drop, from 1,944 (almost 40%) in May. Of course, this is all different from asking who people would actually vote for, but it is still an important indicator of tendencies and the general mood.

The constituent parties of the NSF are not in stellar positions themselves. Virtually all of them became so embroiled in the ugly political brawl with Morsi, the Brotherhood and the Islamists from November 2012 until July 2013 that they failed to focus on their internal development challenges, among them an underdeveloped discourse, insufficient fundraising and organization, unrefined programs, and fragmentation as well as a lack of presence and on-the-ground outreach beyond urban areas. The battle has left them severely drained and weary. In addition, the political influence and popularity of the NSF and its constituent parties have been far overshadowed by those of the military and the media, the latter largely being more sympathetic to the military than toward the NSF. This has forced the NSF and its parties to primarily follow the more dominant political direction and tendencies rather than shape them.

Among secular-leaning parties, Al-Wafd — which placed third, with around 7.5% of seats, in the 2012 parliament elections — appears relatively to be in the best shape. The party banks on decades-old historic name recognition (having led the country for much of the first half of the 20th century), an established presence and connections across the country and the financial support of its millionaire (and politically controversial) chairman, El-Sayyed el-Badawi, and other prominent figures in the party.

At first glance, however, Al-Wafd’s popularity appears to have largely remained static, notably in its failure to attract youths, who have largely opted for newer parties and movements. In addition, the party faces internal dissent, with the new Tamarod in the Wafd (or Rebellion in Al-Wafd) campaign calling for the chairman's resignation and reforms. It is too soon to predict whether the campaign will have any real impact on the party.

Also not in the best possible shape are the three constituent parties of the Egyptian Bloc, the 2011–2012 parliamentary alliance that came in fourth place in elections, with around 7% of the seats. The center-right Free Egyptians, despite impressive financial resources and a strong initial media blitz, appears to have been saddled with the perception of being a niche, pro-business and pro-Copt party with a limited popular following. Controversial actions and statements involving its main backer, billionaire Naguib Sawiris, have also negatively affected the party’s image.

The center-left Egyptian Social Democratic Party, from which the current appointed interim prime minister and his deputy hail, is generally respected for its organizational structure and intellectual wealth, but has a relatively limited following. The Free Egyptians and the Social Democrats have been negotiating a merger for some time, but several indications suggest the merger process is struggling, hindered in particular by a substantial ideological divide.

The bloc’s third party, the leftist Al-Tagammu’ (The Rally), one of the oldest parties in Egypt, is now largely regarded as a withering relic. The Popular Socialist Alliance, formed post-2011 has much more steam as a representative of the Egyptian left than Al-Tagammu’, but also suffers from the same troubles as most of the post-2011 parties, including limited memberships and resources. The other component of the Egyptian left, the Nasserists, have largely opted for either Hamdeen Sabahi’s Popular Current (a looser, unofficial movement) or the new Nasserist Party, formed from the September 2012 merger of four smaller Nasserist parties. There are few signs that either has capitalized significantly from the growing nationalist wave in terms of membership.

Parties stemming from the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party (NDP) did incredibly poorly in the 2011–2012 elections, winning no more than 4% of seats according to estimates. Its decline was a reflection of the national sentiment leaning toward change, as well as new, previously intimidated or apathetic voters finally turning out, to take part in unrigged elections. NDP offsprings might experience a resurgence in upcoming polls amid a public searching for stability, especially if the NDP offshoots redefine themselves within a new, nationalist political framework and include some fresh faces among their leaderships.

The Congress Party, largely an amalgamation of a number of small parties, remains untested, with little evidence yet of a particularly impressive national appeal. A post-2012 elections newcomer, the party’s main asset is the clout of its founder, Amr Moussa (since resigned), the former presidential candidate and former Arab League secretary-general. Strong Egypt, which is more centrist than expressly Islamist or liberal, appears to be losing steam despite its earlier steady momentum. This is in part due to a severely polarized national environment increasingly less tolerant of centrist positions, its internal division and heated criticism surrounding the political stances of its leader (and former presidential candidate) Abdel-Mon’eim Abul-Fotouh, as well as his background as a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. Many in the party are also former Brotherhood members, adding to the controversy.

The liberal Egypt of Freedom, founded by former parliamentarian and academic Amr Hamzawi, also remains a party with only limited national appeal. This is in part due to its relatively more liberal rhetoric, but also because of its somewhat limited resources and dependence on Hamzawi’s stardom. Hamzawi is no stranger to controversy for his persona and his embrace of more liberal positions. Most recently, he has faced a damaging media attack for criticizing the forceful dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins and for being seen as more reconciliatory toward the Brotherhood. The centrist Al-Adl (Justice), established in 2011 with some degree of optimism, is all but officially defunct.

Both Egypt of Freedom and Al-Adl were supposed to fold themselves into ElBaradei’s Constitution Party (and at one point even the Free Egyptians and Social Democrats were tapped to join as well), but the future of the merger is not bright, as the prospective mother party is itself struggling. The Constitution Party, established a year ago with the ambitious goal of becoming Egypt’s leading party, has been besieged with internal conflict and protracted organizational challenges, insufficient elucidation of its ideological stances and an active, but ultra passionate, youth base that has proven politically and organizationally difficult to manage. Most important, El-Baradei's resignation from the vice presidency and the smear campaign that ensued against him have worked against the party, which has officially distanced itself from ElBaradei’s recent positions while also condemning the campaign against him. Though a relatively star-studded party, with El-Baradei as the organization’s glue and ideological compass, his departure from the scene poses serious existential challenges to the party.

Islamist Parties

The Islamist side of the political spectrum is a bit more complicated. First, there is the question of whether the current Constituent Assembly will work toward a ban on religion-based parties. This would prompt either a political and electoral boycott by Islamists or force a pragmatic redefinition of the Islamist parties’ platforms should they decide to quietly accept the new political realities. Also, there is much speculation on to what degree the security establishment might try to tighten the space available to these parties come election time.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which ostensibly still remains the biggest and most organized political force in Egypt, won around 40% of the seats in the lower house of parliament in 2012. It now finds itself and its mother organization locked in a volcanic political confrontation that threatens its very existence. Much of the Brotherhood's first- and second-tier leadership, and by extension, the FJP's, has been apprehended and is being investigated on serious charges, likely leading to increasing internal disarray and loss of direction for the 85-year-old organization. If it survives in one capacity or another, it might boycott any upcoming elections or face legal hurdles to participation. If it does participate, it is likely to lose a significant number of the independent voters it attracted in 2012.

 Al-Nour, the largest Salafist party and the surprise winner of 25% of the seats in 2012, might be in a bit of a predicament as well. After early internal infighting, the party’s founder and organizational mastermind broke from the organization to begin yet another party, Al-Watan (The Homeland). Today, a significant percentage of Al-Nour's base reportedly appears to disagree with the current leadership over the pragmatic stance the party has taken since the June 30 uprising and the military’s intervention against Morsi. It is also widely thought that much of the party’s Cairo base took part in the pro-Morsi rallies, suggesting a deep split with the leadership’s relatively friendly stance toward the political order that ensued after July 3. In the current environment, dominated by anti-Islamist rhetoric, the party might also find itself forced to (temporarily) moderate some of its political stances, which would further raise the ire of its base.

The party's level of popular appeal is subject to much speculation. Independent voters are less likely to vote for a conservative Islamist party in the post-June 30 environment. In addition, many in the general Islamist voter base might be uncomfortable with Al-Nour’s political pragmatism and search for alternatives.

Meanwhile, Al-Wasat (The Center), a small moderate Islamist party, is primarily a Brotherhood offshoot that was initially somewhat distant from the Brotherhood but ended up being its strongest ally. It is in serious disarray following the apprehension of its top two, defining leaders and founders. Al-Raya (The Flag), a recently established Salafist party primarily revolving around Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a former presidential candidate, faces an uncertain future as its main figure and driving force is also currently being detained by the authorities. The remaining Islamist parties, including Jama’a Islamiyya’s Construction and Development and Al-Asala, arguably have largely benefited from the momentum of, and functioned in the shadow of, the two bigger Islamist parties. The fate of the FJP and Al-Nour will substantially affect theirs. Of course, some might make the opposite argument, contending that the party might benefit from Islamist voters looking for alternatives to the FJP and Al-Nour, but it is too soon to make that call without polling data. The Egyptian Current, described as centrist or moderate Islamist and founded primarily by reformist Brotherhood youth, is yet another party that appears to be stuck with limited appeal and power. Its Brotherhood background will prove to be heavy political baggage.

Survival and Reforms

Islamist parties are primarily challenged with survival by a post-June 30 environment hostile to them and therefore might find themselves, at the least, legally forced to amend their platforms if the new constitution bans religious parties. Assuming involvement in upcoming elections, they will have to move to lock in their voter bases, followed by certain-to-be difficult attempts to appeal to independent voters and repair damaged public images, especially given the absence of a sympathetic local mass media. Finding fresh representative faces would go a long way. They should, as much as possible, minimize direct confrontation with the new administration and the security establishment.

Secular-leaning parties have little option but to merge into fewer but more significant organizations, pooling resources and capacities while refining their rhetoric and programs. They too need fresh faces without political baggage who can rouse excitement. Outreach to rural areas is a matter of survival, not just growth, and direct contact with potential voters in such areas cannot be replaced by primary reliance on mass media.

Meanwhile, Egyptian political parties must fight for at least a mixed electoral system. A single-candidate system would be devastating to the efforts to build a multiparty democracy in Egypt.

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. On Twitter: @Bassem_Sabry