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Politics suspended between old structures, modernisation - Daily News Egypt

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Politics suspended between old structures, modernisation

New post-revolutionary parties moved away from the idea of the “one leader”

ESDP executive bureau member Bassel Kamal (Photo from Bassel Kamel's Twitter account)
ESDP executive bureau member Bassel Kamal
(Photo from Bassel Kamel’s Twitter account)

Since the passing of Egypt’s new constitution in January 2014, political parties have urged for parliamentary elections to be held. They repeatedly claim their readiness to step in for reform in the decision-making process, currently concentrated in the hands of the government.

Affected by the elections’ delay and the state’s crackdown on political life, parties are left to face their internal pending issues coming to the surface, and to the public. The crisis of the Al-Wafd Party revealed a malfunction in the structural composition of the party itself. The past couple of weeks witnessed the fragmentation of Al-Wafd, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Egyptian history, known as the “house of the nation”.

To understand the current organisation of new political parties, we must go back to the political events that played a role in what those parties have now become. With no parliament in the picture, Egypt’s political parties are generally marginalised from the political scene.

Politicians are rarely interviewed on TV. There are almost no political discussions in mass media, except for a few political elite’s articles in newspapers, despite some political parties having their own media outlets.

After 2011, the political sphere seemed to be booming after the end of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), with the establishment of many of the parties we hear of today. Unlike older parties, their internal hierarchy was less formal and more flexible, shifting away from the one-leader strategy.

For Al-Wafd, El-Sayed El-Badawi has the final say on all party matters, in addition to a party policy that provides him with significant authority. “He is a little dictator,” as his opponent Essam Shiha, a former member of the party’s High Committee, puts it.

Another example of a political party that was established under NDP rule, is the Al-Geel Democratic Party. It has 25,000 members and follows the traditional structural division between political and executive bureaus.

Despite party President Nagy El-Shehaby claiming that majority votes are the decisive tool inside the party, he also declared that in situations of high conflict, they are resolved by the party president.

On the other hand, the founding and development of the post-revolutionary has been tied to the unstable political events of four different regimes since Hosni Mubarak, which have had an influence on their structural organisation. Besides the NDP, the Muslim Brotherhood was the most organised entity on the political scene.

Yet in the parliamentary elections of 2011, held under the transitional period of the Supreme Armed Council Forces (SCAF), the liberal, social and leftist parties formed the Egyptian Bloc, against the alliance of the Al-Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

After former president Mohamed Morsi took power in June 2012, those political parties were often in opposition with the Brotherhood, until their fall in the 30 June popular uprising and the military intervention on 3 July.

“30 June widely affected the practice of politics in Egypt,” explains Bassem Kamel, a senior member of the Executive Bureau of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP).

“On the one hand, some saw that the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood was removed, and therefore there is no need for politics,” he said. “On the other hand, many retreated and took to the streets after feeling the revolution was still incomplete and the regimes had not really changed.”

According to Kamel and other politicians, all political parties witnessed withdrawal after 30 June.

Kamel, along with Emad Raouf, a member of the Political Bureau of the Free Egyptians’ Party (FEP), believes the current political conditions have become unfavourable towards political parties.

Kamel said political parties served their role in promoting 30 June as a revolution, then making sure that the draft constitution was acceptable, and then “we were not needed anymore”.

“It is not explicitly stated, but with no parliament and a crackdown on political activity in the streets, NGOs, universities and the media, there is scarce space,” he said.

Moreover, Raouf said the electoral system comes to the advantage of individuals and independent politicians rather than political parties. This issue was particularly highlighted by politicians regarding the parliamentary elections’ laws.

Since the cancellation of parliamentary elections due to the unconstitutionality of certain laws, media attention was drawn to Al-Wafd’s recent crisis. The party has suffered a deep internal crisis to the extent that [President Abdel Fattah] Al-Sisi had to call party leader El-Sayed El-Badawi and his opponents to a meeting in his office.

Nevertheless, El-Badawi dismissed seven of his opponents nearly a week after the meeting, leaving the party to face its image in front of the public.

Since the revolution, another party that was most prone to dissolution was the Al-Dostour Party, founded by post-30 June former vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei.

Since its establishment, Al-Dostour has witnessed intense internal conflicts. Its president, Hala Shukrallah, explained in an earlier interview with Daily News Egypt that this was mainly because the party did not have a specific ideology to unite people around one vision.

Emad Raouf, member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptians Party (Photo from Emad Raouf's Twitter account)
Emad Raouf, member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptians Party
(Photo from Emad Raouf’s Twitter account)

At some point, a party member confirmed that on one occasion the internal conflict was so heated that a member threatened another one with a knife in the middle of a meeting.

Shukrallah announced she was not going to run for a second term, and the party still lacks an official nominee for its presidency, according to its spokesperson Samah El-Ghazawy.

While Al-Wafd’s crisis reveals many buried internal issues, recent developments within parties’ internal structure indicate that some need to fix their internal issues first, reconsider their structure and re-establish their identities before coming out again to the public, which has in recent times lost confidence in the effectiveness of political parties.

Another two modern political parties to look at would be the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) and the Free Egyptians Party (FEP), which had founded the Egyptian Bloc in the 2011 parliamentary elections. In comparison to Al-Wafd, those parties are smaller in numbers.

ESDP had reached 19,000 members by 2012, while FEP claims to have a database of 180,000 members. While Al-Wafd’s most important body, the General Assembly, comprises 3,600 members, those parties have barely over a hundred members in their highest committees.

During its founding, current ESDP president Mohamed Abul-Ghar did not have the official title, but it was “agreed that he was the president because he was the strongest figure of the party”, Kamel said. The party first functioned through a steering committee, but soon held internal elections to define its structural body.

The party held its first internal elections in 2012, and its High Committee had around 170 or 180 members.

The party’s structure is renewed every two years, but the party has not held internal elections since, which Kamel justifies through the unstable political life and uncertainty regarding parliamentary elections. “It would stir tensions in the party and we can’t have both elections at once,” he said.

“On a further note, new members are not allowed to vote in internal elections during their first three months, and our voters ‘database is updated accordingly to avoid electoral fraud,” he said. Meanwhile, the FEP’s unique organisational system has no president for the party, since its first president resigned for personal issues.

“It was decided by the High Committee to keep the party running that way, especially since the delay of parliamentary elections was a source of instability,” said Emad Raouf.

“It is true that the secretary-general is overloaded but it’s more effective this way, and every internal body is independent. In comparison to Al-Wafd, we don’t want the party to be represented through one figure. If we depend on one person, like the idea of the leader, the party would fall,” Raouf said.

Because the FEP is based on decentralised institutions, Raouf believes that a conflict like Al-Wafd’s would have been resolved differently, and would not have required the interference of the president of the country.

Decision-making and conflict resolution

Nonetheless, Abul-Ghar’s leadership of the party is limited by internal regulations. An example given by Kamel was during the latest parliamentary elections, expected to be held last March before they were cancelled.

On one hand, Abul-Ghar, Vice President Ziad Baha’a El-Din, and Secretary General Ahmed Fawzy thought it was useless for the party to compete on parliamentary seats elected through lists. They preferred to run for individual seats only, whilst the party’s Executive Bureau had a contradicting opinion.

The High Committee’s meeting was decisive in favour of the second opinion according to a majority vote, which Abul-Ghar described as a “democratic decision”, according to Kamel.

Like all parties, the ESDP was not exempt from internal conflicts. Collective resignations happened and disputes erupted over supporting Al-Sisi in the presidential elections, versus rival candidate Hamdeen Sabahy. The party did not take a final stance, leaving the choice to its members.

The FEP suffered some internal conflicts such as the formation of the “Salvation Front for FEP”, which announced in a public conference in February 2015 that it was going to run independently in the parliamentary elections, on the grounds that the FEP was dealing with former members of the NDP.

According to Raouf, that incident, and even the resignations from 2011, hardly affected the party’s stability. “We are aware we have been accused of taking members of the former ruling National Democratic Party,” said Raouf.

Essam Shihah member of Al-Wafd' Reform Front who was suspended for conflicts with party president El-Sayed El-Badawi (Photo Public domain)
Essam Shihah member of Al-Wafd’ Reform Front who was suspended for conflicts with party president El-Sayed El-Badawi
(Photo Public domain)

Internal structural development

Due to its lack of financial resources, the ESDP could seem like it is shrinking in terms of numbers of headquarters, partly due to the fact that people are more eager to pay for activities on the ground instead of expenses regarding the administrative body.

On the other hand, the party undertakes several measures to develop itself, by aiming to develop the skills of its members. “The initial model of social democracy comes from Sweden, but we have also seen the same models applied differently in Malaysia and Brazil, and we want to apply it to Egypt,” Kamel said.

In order to do that, Kamel stated the party needed organisational structure and clear job descriptions. He supported and worked on a project of “professional cadres” by training a few members to train other members on political and communication skills.

“Starting from the elections after the next ones, nobody will be allowed to run for a position without taking the appropriate courses needed for it,” Kamel said. Regarding internal elections, the party realised that the delay has caused people to feel “illegitimate” in their position and will therefore carry on with the elections next August.

Meanwhile, Raouf said: “In 2012, we realised we hadn’t reached our peak in terms of structure as we lacked experience.”

“We started building our structure and institutionalisation with the help of a foreign company. At the same time, we studied different foreign party models from all continents of the world, and closely examined political parties in South Africa, Morocco and Turkey,” he added.

Like the ESDP, the FEP believes in its strong chances of winning parliamentary seats, although it knows it needs to work more on women and youth representatives. Moreover, Raouf said the FEP is also thinking about local municipalities, which are to come after parliamentary elections.

Unlike Al-Wafd, new political parties did not establish themselves as the “umbrella” of all forces, but rather enjoyed friendly relations, or naturally competitive associations.

Before parliamentary elections were cancelled, political parties formed various electoral alliances, sometimes transcending ideologies: Al-Tagammu Party, supposedly a leftist party, was in the same electoral alliance as the National Movement Party, under former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

In comparison, Al-Wafd was unofficially named by Al-Sisi to unite political parties under one electoral coalition that would then enjoy state support, but El-Badawi’s negotiations resulted in more disparities.

The ESDP has close ties to parties under the Democratic Current, such as Al-Dostour, the Popular Current and the Al-Karamah parties. “They all have respectable figures whom we support and agree to a large extent with,” said Kamel.

The ESDP is also friendly with leftist parties, but has major differences in terms of organisation with them, besides believing it has more established candidates and chances of winning parliamentary seats, as such refusing to join calls for electoral boycott.

Nonetheless, just as elections brought parties together, the question of boycotting elections also caused some differences. According to Kamel, the political powers that called for boycott did not have strong chances in the first place.

“Unlike the ESDP, which has strong candidates and a good chance in the parliament, we had important things at stake in comparison, so we did not want to boycott,” Kamel said.

As for the FEP, it remained outside electoral alliances, with the exception of joining one electoral system. According to Raouf, everybody is a competitor in elections, and only the best wins, and the people will decide.

It is possible that internal political matters reflected on their performance during the parliamentary elections that were supposed to be held in May. For instance, Shiha believes El-Badawi’s failed policies led to the squandering of several electoral opportunities, putting the party in third place in terms of numbers of parliamentary candidates.

The FEP announced at least 230 candidates to run in parliamentary elections, while the ESDP had a limited number. Al-Dostour Party remained indecisive regarding its participation for a relatively long period.

On another note, the Salafist Al-Nour Party seems more organised, more active on the streets, and was able to provide candidates all over the governorate. Those advantages were grasped by Al-Wafd, the FEP and ESDP, who have major ideological difference with Al-Nour.

The question nonetheless remains on whether political parties will be able to overcome personal discrepabcues, come out of their passive approaches towards state policies, and build popular bases or present political visions for their voters.

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