Egypt’s short, 53-year parliamentary life has been marked by an enduring ruling party apparatus led by just three successive presidents and an absence of any majority turnover.
Though the People’s Assembly has technically existed since 1957, five years after the 1952 army-led revolution overthrew Egypt’s British-backed monarchy, the first truly multi-party elections only came in 1979, after president Anwar Sadat broke up his ruling party, the Arab Socialist Union, and called for a general election after he won approval for his unprecedented peace treaty with Israel.
Since 1979, the National Democratic Party (NDP) – a descendent of the Arab Socialist Union – has won every election, but public unhappiness with government corruption scandals and oppression combined with the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood and international pressure for fair elections led to the NDP’s lowest-ever majority in 2005.
|National Democratic Party|
After making the three wings of the split-up Arab Socialist Union into official political parties in 1977, Sadat announced the formation of his own, the National Democratic Party. Operating under socialist post-revolution ideals, Egypt’s leaders had until this point avoided the invocation of “parties,” instead referring to their political groups as “rallies” or “unions”.
Sadat’s NDP won the 1979 election, capturing 347 of 402 seats, and it has hasn’t relinquished the majority in any subsequent vote. The NDP currently claims to have around 1.9 million members and garners its support from business elites, public sector workers and some rural Egyptians. It is “entrenched in state institutions and is deeply invested in preserving the political status quo,” according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hosni Mubarak, the president, has served as chairman of the NDP since he took office after Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Mubarak’s son, 47-year-old Gamal, has become very involved in the NDP since officially joining the party in 2000. Though Gamal, a banker by trade, is not a member of parliament, he chairs the influential policies committee and is widely believed to be his father’s chosen successor.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a licensed political party in Egypt; in fact, it has been banned since 1954, and amendments to the country’s constitution passed in 2007 make illegal any “political activity within a religious frame of reference,” terms even more stringent than previous legislation that prohibited the formation of religious political parties. Nevertheless, 88 Muslim Brothers won seats to the People’s Assembly after running as independents in the landmark 2005 election, and with one-fifth of parliament, they comprise the largest opposition bloc.
The Brotherhood got its start 1928 in the form of nighttime Islamic education classes led by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. It has since spread throughout the Arab world and evolved into a full-spectrum social and political movement. It is especially popular in Egypt for its social work: providing cheap medical clinics, schools (albeit with Islamic curricula), and disaster relief. The leader of the largest legal minority party – the New Wafd – has publicly said that he wants to imitate the Brotherhood’s social work.
The Brotherhood is estimated to have around 300,000 dedicated members throughout Egypt, though its electoral reach is wider. High-ranking member Essam al-Arian, the group’s unofficial spokesman, says that around 2 million people cast votes for Brotherhood candidates in the 2005 election and that the Brotherhood has the support of around a third of the voting population.
The New Wafd Party traces its origins back to Egypt’s pre-revolution political environment, when the original Wafd Party was founded to oppose the British protectorate and its succession of monarchical figureheads. The Wafd, or “delegation,” was led by famous Egyptian political figure Saad Zaghloul, who traveled the to the post-World War I peace conference in Paris in 1919 to demand Egypt’s independence.
The Wafd was banned after the 1952 revolution but reappeared on the scene in 1978, when Sadat allowed the creation of a multi-party political system. The “New Wafd” has promoted a liberal, secular political platform that supports free-market principles, limits on executive power, and educational reform.
Marred by party infighting, the New Wafd has not won more than seven seats in parliament since 1995 and has developed a reputation for being overly friendly to Mubarak’s regime. New leader Sayyid al-Badawi, elected in May, has promised to restore the Wafd’s former glory, and some experts predict that this year’s election will see the Wafd eclipse the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, though whether that occurs without electoral fraud remains to be seen.
The Ghad Party is synonymous with its charistmatic leader, Ayman Nour, a former New Wafd politician who was dismissed from the party after Noman Gomaa took over from longtime leader Siraj al-Din. Nour proceeded to found the Ghad, or “tomorrow,” party in 2004. The next year, Nour was jailed for allegedly forging thousands of membership forms in the Ghad’s party licensing process.
Amid strong public calls by the Bush administration for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, he was released in time to run for president in September 2005 and came in second to Mubarak, according to government figures, winning slightly more than 7 per cent of the vote. Nour was promptly returned to prison and given a five-year sentence; erstwhile allies in the Ghad Party removed him from the organisation’s leadership.
Nour, a diabetic, was released on health grounds in January 2009, and in August, he was once again made the Ghad’s chairman. The Ghad Party has declared it will boycott this year’s election and has allied with a number of opposition groups under the banner of the National Association for Change, led by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei. Ghad, which appeals strongly to young liberals and is not perceived as being close to the Mubarak administration, strongly opposes the “emergency” national security laws that have been in place in Egypt since Sadat’s assassination and has given particular attention to solving Egypt’s water scarcity crisis.
Tagammu, or “rally,” is shorthand for the National Progressive Unionist Party, which was one of the three political wings formed by Sadat’s 1976 disassembling of the original Arab Socialist Union. Tagammu, which holds two seats in the current parliament, has not won more than six since 1990 and is not considered a major player in the 21st century Egyptian political scene.
Though Tagammu once counted on the working class and professional unions for strong support, its appeal has been on the decline, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Like other opposition parties, it advocates the withdrawal of Egypt’s “emergency” laws, but Tagammu differs from Ghad and the New Wafd in its more socialist economic policies, such as expanding the country’s already massive public sector, ensuring government-provided social services, and guaranteeing low prices for basic commodities, presumably through subsidies.
Tagammu, led by 78-year-old party chairman Rifaat al-Saeed, will buck the opposition’s call for a boycott this year and participate in the election. Saeed was harshly criticised after Tagammu’s poor showing in 2005.