CAIRO: A gunfight that broke out at the headquarters of Egypt’s oldest opposition party on Saturday served to underscore the plight of Egypt’s political opposition, in a state of disarray since parliamentary elections were held three months ago.
“The incident is proof that none of the secular opposition parties are capable of resolving their rapidly growing internal differences, said veteran local journalist Gamal Essam El-Din. “It comes as little surprise that people resort to violence when they’re prevented from engaging in free political activism.
Violence first erupted on Saturday at the headquarters of the Al-Wafd Party. Followers of former party chief Nomaan Gomaa, who was ousted in January by party reformers, attempted to take control of party offices. One person was killed and another 27 injured in fighting between Gomaa’s supporters and those of rival leaders within the party. Prosecutors reportedly ordered the arrest of Gomaa shortly afterward amid expectations of an official investigation into the affair.
Press Syndicate Chairman Galal Aref, speaking on Arabic-language news channel Al-Jazeera, called the incident “a catastrophe . for politics and party life.
Al-Wafd had already been in crisis before the incident. In January, the party’s reform-minded members rebelled against Gomaa, who was long criticized for his allegedly autocratic management of party affairs and his circle of old guard loyalists. The party headman was also widely blamed for Al-Wafd’s poor recent electoral performances. Gomaa came in a distant third in September’s presidential elections, while the party picked up only six seats in parliamentary elections held between November and December.
The liberal El-Ghad Party, established in late 2004, has fared no better. Party chief Ayman Nour, who came in second after NDP incumbent President Hosni Mubarak in last year’s presidential race, is now serving a five-year prison sentence for forgery. As a result, the party which won only a single seat in parliament has been cleaved in two by rival claims to its leadership.
“With [Ayman Nour] in jail, the party’s in jail, said Cairo-based political analyst Josh Stacher. “Nothing’s been heard from El-Ghad in weeks.
Egypt’s longstanding leftist parties are in similar states of confusion. The leadership of the leftwing Tagammu Party has been embroiled in a series of mutual incriminations after winning only two parliamentary seats, while the pan-Arab Nasserist Party has seen several defections after failing to win a single seat in the national assembly.
“Both of these parties are disintegrating, said Hisham Kassem, vice-chairman of independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Now, the leaders of these old opposition groups are only interested in keeping their positions as the heads of their parties.
According to Emad Gad, a political analyst at the government-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the crisis of the secular opposition can be attributed to a longstanding government strategy of pre-empting the emergence of non-religious alternatives to the NDP, in power for a quarter century.
“If the secular opposition wants to form a new party, it must apply to the government for a license, he explained. “But if the party looks like it might have a real chance at success, the license will be refused.
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, while boasting considerably more electoral success, has recently been subject to a wave of arrests by state security. Officially banned as a party since the 1970s, the Brotherhood nevertheless managed to win 88 seats in the elections, despite numerous allegations of vote-rigging by agents of the ruling NDP.
In the latest parliamentary elections, seats were divided largely between the NDP and the Brotherhood, whose candidates must run as independents given the group’s lack of official party status. Secular opposition parties, meanwhile, whose platforms range from socialist reform to pan-Arab solidarity, picked up only nine of 444 contested seats.
The Islamic group’s impressive electoral showing, however, has not been enough to save it from a recent government crackdown. While by no means a recent phenomenon, the tempo of arrests of Brotherhood members has quickened in recent weeks, bringing the total number to 37. “Some were arrested through March, while others have been held ever since the parliamentary elections, said leading brotherhood member Essam Al-Aryan.
On March 31, several members of the group were arrested by security forces in the coastal city of Alexandria, while another prominent member was detained, along with his son, in Ismailia, some 125 km northeast of Cairo.
According to the Muslim Brotherhood Web site, such arrests show that the government is intent on warning the group that its leading members “aren’t immune from crackdowns. State security also raided and shut down the group’s Alexandria bureau on March 6, the site noted.
“Anyone who seeks to oppose the government is targeted by such means, Al-Aryan said. “Take the case of former El-Ghad party leader Ayman Nour, for example, who is currently in jail.
The crackdown comes despite announcements by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that the government was considering the cancellation of an emergency law, which has granted the state wide powers to arrest anyone perceived as a threat to national security since 1981.
“The end of the emergency law would positively affect all Egyptians, not just the Brotherhood, said Al-Aryan.
However, Al-Aryan went on to voice fears that draft anti-terrorism laws, which are expected to replace the current emergency law, will be utilized to maintain pressure on the opposition. “I have a very strong fear that the anti-terror laws will mean that the situation won’t improve, he said.
Meanwhile, the Al-Wasat Party, formed by a breakaway group of Muslim Brotherhood members, is expected to soon acquire legal party status from the Political Parties Affairs Committee following a 10-year struggle for recognition, said local analysts. IRIN