CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently reiterated his call for political parties to merge under the banners of four or five strong parties to boost democratic competition, which he said has become stale.
There are more than 100 political parties in Egypt, the majority of which were established after the 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Sisi told reporters during a Dec. 26 news conference in Fayoum governorate, “We have talked a lot about having over 100 parties. I am not saying all of them should be merged, but there could at least be four or five entities they could be joined under, so as to be able to achieve political reform as soon as possible in terms of parties and their masses.”
Sisi's frequently repeated proposal has been well-received by the Wafd Party, one of Egypt’s largest and oldest political parties. The nationalist liberal organization has 36 seats in the 596-seat parliament, which is dominated by independents who are generally loyal to Sisi. While many of the independents were financed by political parties, these legislators are prevented from formally joining the parties by the constitution; a way around this issue may be sought.
Bahaa Abu Shoqa, leader of the Wafd Party and head of parliament’s Legislative Committee, told Al-Monitor the president’s call is a positive step. He said the Wafd Party believes the presence of three strong, competitive parties is a basic pillar of democracy necessary for the public good and is discussing Sisi's plan. He expects parties and political forces to consult with each other to activate the president’s proposal.
He said, “The Wafd Party ... supports any discussions or constructive dialogues" on the matter, adding, "The party’s door is open to all the national forces.” Abu Shoqa said he hopes that mergers can take place before the next parliamentary elections in November. Another party that said it is amenable to Sisi's proposal is the center-left Homeland Defenders Party, which has 18 seats in parliament.
Salah Abdullah, deputy secretary-general of the Egyptian Islamic Labor Party (which has no seats in parliament), has been calling on Sisi to quickly establish a ruling party. He told Al-Monitor that many parties would want to join this ruling party, and that there would also still be the Wafd Party to represent right-leaning and capitalist forces and the National Progressive Unionist Party (with two seats in the parliament) to continue representing left-wing forces. He also said a national party would be formed to represent various Egyptian political currents, or that the Labor Party, which has been inactive, could be revived.
Article 5 of the Egyptian Constitution calls for Egypt to have "political and partisan multiplicity." Abdullah said the plethora of political parties has made it so that partisan multiplicity is ineffective, and called for changes in the party system in order for the state to achieve greater political stability. He said the system needs to be changed to prevent it from being exploited by extremist groups seeking to remain on the scene. He also would have the state provide financial support for these parties, which currently are dependent on outsiders for income.
Sakina Fouad, a former presidential adviser for women's affairs, called for the various political parties to engage in dialogue about the president's proposal for parties to merge and for a tangible action plan to be developed ahead of the next elections.
The proposal, she told Al-Monitor, is a serious desire of the regime that was established after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood following the mass protests of June 30, 2013, and subsequent coup.
However, Fouad rejected the idea of Sisi establishing a political party, saying he is the president of all Egyptians and must express their free will.
Gamal Abdel Gawad, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told Al-Monitor the president’s proposal is necessary to fill any vacuum that banned groups and currents might take advantage of to return to the political scene.
Abdel Gawad called on politicians and party members to hold serious discussions that would result in strong and effective parties ahead of the elections so that the next parliament can truly represent the public.
Socialist Popular Alliance head Medhat al-Zahid called for the president to include in his proposal the immediate release of political detainees, and freedom of the press, which could pave the way for a strong partisan and political life. His party has no seats in the parliament; it and the Social Democratic Party, which has four seats, are part of a civil alliance subject to security constraints and arrests.
Zahid told Al-Monitor that partisan political life is closed off by harsh restrictions; for example, representatives of civil society and the Alliance of Hope were arrested in June to prevent any expression of opposition. The alliance is a coalition of politicians, journalists, human rights activists and businesspeople.
He said the president’s proposal should be implemented through negotiations between those who share the same ideas and vision and who decide to merge as a result, but not via orders and instructions.
Farid Zahran, the head of the Social Democratic Party, said, “The president's proposal can be considered a political breakthrough, but [only] under certain conditions, foremost of which is allowing the parties to hold mass conferences, lifting the restrictions imposed on them and releasing political detainees.”
According to Human Rights Watch and the Arab Network for Human Rights, the number of political detainees in Egypt since 2013 has reached 60,000, a figure Egyptian authorities reject.
Zahran demanded that authorities leave room for democracy and allow the parties to consult with each other, communicate with the masses and form alliances or mergers on their own terms based on serious dialogue — and not through directives from on high.
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