Explainer: Egypt’s crowded political arena

At least 40 parties and 6,000 candidates have registered to run, but will they deliver change or more of the same?

undefined The electoral field that has emerged from Tahrir Square includes hardline Islamists and free-market liberals [Reuters]

Political activity in Egypt under the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak was very simple. A rotating cast of toothless opposition groups occasionally managed to win a handful of seats, but parliament was always controlled by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which never failed to win at least a two-thirds majority.

The uprising that overthrew Mubarak opened the floodgates to political participation. Since he stepped down in February, more than 40 parties and 6,000 candidates have reportedly registered to participate in what could be the first free and fair elections since a 30-year interlude of post-independence democracy ended with Gamel Abdel Nasser’s military coup in 1952.

Egypt’s new parties span the political spectrum from neo-liberals pushing for free trade and women’s rights to hardline Islamists who want to cut off the hands of thieves. There are moderate Muslims who insist Egypt should be a civil state, mystical Sufis who fear the rise of fundamentalist Salafis, and old-school socialists who want to nationalise industry and expand the already huge public sector.

But it is also possible that the election could deliver an updated version of the same arrangement that existed under the regime: powerful businessmen and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005, when Mubarak allowed a brief run at free elections, Brotherhood candidates managed to take 20 per cent of parliament before a crackdown ended the experiment. Now, they are poised to win even more.

Read on for a description of Egypt’s main political alliances and parties. Click on the party headings for more details.

Democratic Alliance

The Democratic Alliance was intended to be Egypt’s pre-eminent post-revolution political force, a broad coalition of Islamist and secular parties who could dominate across the country. But as with other alliances, it has disintigrated since being formed in June, losing 23 of its 34 founding members and leaving the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party as dominant force, making up for 70 percent of the alliance’s candidates in list districts and 90 percent in individual districts.

The alliance was abandoned by strict Islamists on one side — the Nour, Building and Development and Authenticity parties — and liberals and leftists on the other — the Wafd, Tagammu and Egypt Freedom parties.

Aside from wrangling over how many candidates each party would be allowed to run, the primary dispute driving the alliance’s members apart concerned disagreements over fundamental constitutional principles. Islamists have strongly opposed a “supraconstitutional” document, supported by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which would guide the drafting of the new constitution and, they fear, force it in too secular a direction.

Freedom and Justice – May 2011

The Freedom and Justice Party is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and charitable organisation that was founded in 1928, banned in 1954, and over decades of proselytizing and social work became the most influential pillar of Egyptian society outside of the NDP and the military, boasting hundreds of thousands of committed adherents and millions more sympathisers.

Long repressed, jailed and abused by the security forces, the Brotherhood in the wake of the revolution now has its best opportunity to flex its political muscles. High-ranking members initially pledged not to run for more than one third of parliament, a bid to assuage secularist and Western fears of a takeover, but Freedom and Justice recently announced that its candidates will run for more than half of the People’s Assembly (according to the party’s Facebook page, it is running lists in at least 22 of 27 governorates, not counting the candidates it is fielding for individual seats in Egypt’s convoluted electoral system.)

Freedom and Justice has tried to position itself in the Egyptian mainstream, supporting Islamic law as the source of all legislation but declaring that the country should be a “civil state”. The party says it supports freedom of belief for non-Muslims, but it wants to grant the Supreme Constitutional Court the ability to vet legislation for its compatibility with Islamic principles. Its view of government — a limited executive answerable to an independent judiciary, with a symbolic role for the president — reflects decades spent under the thumb of autocracy.

Freedom and Justice supports a market economy, but its history of providing free social services means it probably sees a continued role for subsidies and state control in certain industries. Looking abroad, the party can be described as hostile to Israel and supportive of a Palestinian state and the right of refugees to return, yet unlikely to radically change the status quo — its platform makes no references to “Israel” and just two to “Zionism,” in the context of a foreign force that has enabled corruption and injustice in Egypt.

Ghad or Tomorrow – 2004

The Ghad Party is intimately tied to Ayman Nour, its founder and one of Egypt’s most prominent opposition figures. Nour belonged to the Wafd Party until resigning in 2001 after a dispute with its new leader, Noman Gomaa. He founded Ghad in 2004 and ran for president against Mubarak the following year, though he was jailed both before and after the vote for allegedly forging the powers of attorney document he used to found Ghad.

Nour was released in 2009, but Ghad split while he was in jail, and Nour’s faction of the party is now technically known as “New Ghad”. Nour himself will be unable to run for election, at least for now, after a court ruled in October that his forgery conviction was valid. It remains unclear in which districts the Democratic Alliance will run Ghad’s candidates, and the party has not attracted much national attention.

Ghad’s platform is secular and progressive. It calls for giving Egyptians equal rights regardless of their religion, making legal reforms that will give women and men equal status, and granting citizenship rights to foreign husbands married to Egyptian women. Like many liberal parties, Ghad supports a market economy with an emphasis on social justice. Nour has said he would like to amend the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and place more troops in the Sinai, and he also reportedly voiced support for the use of the despised emergency law during the transition process.

Egyptian Bloc

The Egyptian Bloc was formed in August as a vehicle for liberal and leftist parties to band together in the face of their main rival, the powerful Islamist-dominated Democratic Alliance. The bloc’s main members are the Free Egyptians, founded by telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris, and the Social Democrats, a similar party featuring practiced opposition activists and liberal politicians, some with associations to the old regime.

Like other coalitions, the Egyptian Bloc started large and gradually lost members as lesser parties felt marginalised and lone candidates were either picked off by rival parties or decided to run as independents. The Egypt Freedom Party, Democratic Front, and the Sufi Egyptian Liberation Party all left along the way, with some politicians expressing concern that the bloc was including “felool,” or remnants of the Mubarak regime.

Though there have been crossovers between the bloc and the Democratic Alliance, and parties on both sides claim to support the idea of a “civil state,” these opposing forces disagree on the role of religion should play, with the bloc envisioning Islam as a uniting spirit that guarantees rights for all Egyptians, rather than a comprehensive set of laws meant to be implemented. The bloc also holds more moderate views toward Israel and more liberal views of free markets.

Free Egyptians – April 2011

The Free Egyptians were founded soon after the revolution by billionaire Christian telecommunications tycoon Naguib Sawiris, the former chairman of Orascom Telecom Holding, which launched Egypt’s first mobile phone network, Mobinil, in 1998. Sawiris’s money and connections helped jump start the party, which has registered hundreds of thousands of supporters, leading many to believe it represents the best chance for a new generation of social justice-minded liberals to enter politics in Egypt.

Under a coalition called the Egyptian Bloc, the Free Egyptians have allied with the Social Democrats, the country’s other prominent new liberal group, in an attempt to maximize their political fortunes in what is perceived as an uphill battle against Islamists and ex-regime figures.

But doubts remain about the bloc’s chances. The Free Egyptians lack widespread name recognition and do not have a history of charitable work or political organising. Their negotiations with allies reportedly have been troubled: Only they, the Social Democrats and the feeble Tagammu Party remain in the bloc, and the Free Egyptians are fielding lists in just 26 of the country’s 46 districts (not counting the 83 districts reserved for individual candidates).

The Free Egyptians platform is unabashedly secular. While acknowledging Islam as the majority religion in Egypt, it states that Islam itself calls for no ruling religious authority — especially in a civil state — and notes that both Egyptian civilisation and Christianity predate the “Islamic conquest”. Unlike other parties, which point to the constitution’s second article enshrining Islamic law as the “principle source” of legislation, Free Egyptians say they will maintain the article with the addition of rights to minority religions and that Islamic law should guarantee “justice, freedom and equal rights” to every Egyptian.

The party strongly supports the concept of the free market as the primary engine for economic development and believes that the policies of the previous regime did not truly represent liberal economics. Nevertheless, the platform also calls for social welfare, government correctives and “national projects” to spur development. Its holds a moderate view of Israel, promising to respect the peace treaty between the two countries while finding a “fair settlement”that involves the halt of settlements, a sovereign Palestine and the return of Palestinian refugees.

Egyptian Social Democratic – March 2011

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which shares the Free Egyptians’ secular and liberal orientation, will run its list in around one-third of the districts being contested by the Egyptian Bloc, including parts of Cairo, the Delta and Upper Egypt. The party was founded by Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, a Cairo University professor of gynecology, Daoud Abdel Sayed, a filmmaker, and Amr Hamzawy, a prominent political analyst and commentator who has since left to form his own party.

Some of the Social Democrats’ key members are practiced opposition activists – Ghar helped launch the post-revolution March 9 movement of university professors, which calls for the right to elect deans and presidents – but others on its board of trustees either have attracted controversy or have ties to the old regime.

The Social Democrats’ public platform represents a boilerplate liberal position: It supports equal rights for citizens regardless of sex, race, or religion and calls for a market economy that encourages foreign investment but is committed to social justice. It diverges from the norm, however, in its absence of any reference to religion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tagammu or National Progressive Unionist – 1976

After the Wafd and, one could argue, the Muslim Brotherhood, Tagammu is the oldest political party running in the election. Tagammu – the name means “rally” – traces its origins to the presidency of Anwar Sadat, who broke up country’s lone political organisation, the Arab Socialist Union, into three platforms in 1976.

Khaled Moheiddin, one of the Free Officers who launched Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup, led the party in its early days, and Tagammu has – like the Wafd – always been perceived as willing to co-operate with the regime, though it has never won more than six seats in parliament.

The party’s platform has barely changed over 35 years and still calls for wealth redistribution and the nationalisation of major industries and resources. At the moment, Tagammu, led by septuagenarian Mohammed Rifaat al-Saeed, is nearly irrelevant in electoral politics, and though it is technically part of the Egyptian Bloc, public candidate lists released by the alliance thus far feature no Tagammu candidates.

Islamist Alliance

The Islamist Alliance was founded in September by the fundamentalist Salafi Nour Party, which withdraw from the Brotherhood’s Democratic Alliance and is likely the most popular of the hardline Salafi groups. The Salafi Authenticity Party and the Building and Development Party – the political wing of the once-militant abd banned Islamic Group – also joined the Islamist Alliance.

If the Democratic Alliance represents a broad swath of the religiously conservative but socially moderate Egyptian mainstream, then the Islamist Alliance generally represents those to the right. Though Nour and its allies profess a desire for equal rights and respect for minority religions, they want to see Islamic law implemented comprehensively in society, and their view of Israel is less friendly than the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

“We both have an Islamic frame of reference, yes, but we’re not similar in every aspect,” Nour spokesman Nader Bakr told the al-Ahram newspaper’s website in October. “It’s like two companies working in the same field, but which operate differently.”

The Islamist Alliance is well organised but has notably less political experience than its rivals, particularly the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and it remains unclear – despite a massive Islamist rally in Tahrir Square in July – how the Egyptian public will react to a fundamentalist platform that was never before part of the public debate.

Nour or Light – June 2011

The Nour Party was the first organisation of fundamentalist Salafi Muslims to receive official recognition after the revolution and is regarded in Egypt as the most likely of the strict Islamist groups to win a significant number of seats.

Ever-fearful of radical Islam after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s government strove to constrain Salafi communities and keep their voices out of public debate. When a bomb struck a church in Alexandria on December 31, killing 21 people, police targeted Salafis, leading to the death of at least one man in custody.

The regime’s pressure fed the impression that Salafis were tame, satisfied with their theology and family and professional lives and uninterested in politics. The revolution has put that stereotype to the test: Salafis have used the new atmosphere of protest to join other Islamists in demonstrations in Tahrir Square, including a march of several hundred in support of Osama bin Laden after he was killed.

But their political acumen remains unproven, and the Nour Party’s platform contains few policy prescriptions. Like virtually every other party, Nour wants an independent judiciary, separation of powers and increased transparency in government. It supports freedom of opinion, specifically the right for the press to report and the people to assemble, as well as freedom of worship for Coptic Christians, the country’s most notable religious minority. Nour’s platform calls for “full equality” between men and women but emphasises that the two have different roles in society and that households with exclusively female “breadwinners” tend to be poorer.

Understandably, much of Nour’s platform focuses on religion. It emphasises that Islamic law should be the “main source” of legislation, that the use of Islamic banking as well as traditional forms of Islamic taxes and charity should be expanded to stimulate the economy, and that Al-Azhar University — the seat of Sunni thought — should be restored to its former glory and kept independent of government.

Building and Development – June 2011

The Building and Development Party is a creature unique to Egypt’s post-revolution political opening. It is the political wing of the Islamic Group, a radical student-driven movement that aimed to replace Egypt’s government with an Islamic state and was dissolved in 1981, one month before gunmen from a separate group, Islamic Jihad, assassinated President Anwar Sadat.

One of the Islamic Group’s spiritual leaders has been Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” who is serving a life term in US prison for plotting terrorist attacks in America. The group also organised a campaign of violence against foreigners and the government throughout the 1990s, culminating in the “Luxor Massacre” at the Temple of Hatshepsut, which left 58 tourists and four Egyptians dead. In the 2000s, the Islamic Group renounced violence, and in March, prominent member Tareq al-Zumr – along with others – was released after serving 30 years in prison for helping plan the Sadat assassination.

Zumr helped found the Building and Development Party three months later. Because Egypt’s military rulers have kept in place a ban on religious slogans in elections, the party gave itself a generic name. It describes itself as a civil party with an Islamic reference, though it calls for codifying Islamic law in Egypt, including criminal punishments such as cutting off hands for theft and lashing those who drink alcohol. Like other Islamist parties, it emphasises strong judicial control over the national security apparatus.

The Islamist Alliance is running just 34 Building and Development candidates in the People’s Assembly elections, most of them in Upper Egypt and most notably the governorates of Minya, Sohaig and Asyut.

Authenticity – July 2011

The Authenticity Party was the second Salafi party to gain recognition after the revolution and has garnered support from a number of Salafi preachers. It was founded by Adel Abdel-Maqsoud Afifi after he left his role as president of the Virtue Party.

Authenticity lists its mission as the “application of Islamic law” and calls for changing Egypt’s secular system to an Islamic one, but the party notes on its Facebook page that the revolution was sparked by “a sense of collective injustice felt by all Egyptians of different faiths” and that sharia guarantees the rights of non-Muslims.

The primary goals of its platform are to restore Egypt to a leading role in the world, provide social justice to the people and raise the quality of health care and education. Authenticity also calls for an independent judiciary and the prosecution of former regime officials.

Though the party originally belonged to the Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance, it joined the Islamist Alliance in October. So far, the party has only publicly announced candidates in the far southern Aswan governorate, but there will likely be more. If its online popularity is any guide it will fare better than the Building and Development Party – it has roughly 8,200 Facebook “likes,” while its partner in the alliance has roughly 440 (Nour, meanwhile, has around 58,400).

Revolution Continues Alliance

The Revolution Continues Alliance essentially represents those parties that broke off from the liberal Egypt Bloc. It includes Amr Hamzawy’s Egypt Freedom Party, the Muslim Brotherhood youth Egyptian Current Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and an assortment of lesser groups. The alliance can be described as leftist, though it includes Islamists and economic liberals. The one constant among its most notable members is that they declined to compromise in order to remain in more-powerful groups – the Egypt Bloc and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Because the Revolution Continues Alliance is composed of splinter groups, it will lack the funding and organisation of the larger coalitions and faces an uphill battle for votes. It only announced its electoral platform one day before candidate registration closed in October, and some of its parties still have not posted their candidates, though the official lists have been released by the government. Still, the alliance was set to field 300 candidates in 33 electoral districts, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece.

Egypt Freedom Party – May 2011

The Egypt Freedom Party is inextricably linked to its political celebrity founder, Amr Hamzawy, a prominent writer and commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and a former research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During the revolution, Hamzawy joined the “Council of Wise Men,” a group of politicians and intellectuals meant to arbitrate between protesters and the Mubarak regime. Afterward, he was offered the chance to be minister of youth in the interim cabinet but turned it down.

During the political manoeuvering the followed the fall of Mubarak, Hamzawy changed hats several times, first saying he would joined the Free Egyptians, then pledging himself to the Social Democrats, then forming his own party within their Egyptian Bloc before finally moving it to the “Completing the Revolution” Alliance. For a brief period, he even seemed to gain the support of the Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance.

Hamzawy resigned from the Social Democrats after the party released a statement condemning the military for using violence against protesters; he was opposed to condemning the military as a whole. He then left the Egyptian Bloc altogether, claiming concerns over the presence of “felool,” or remnants of Mubarak’s regime, among its candidates. Ramy Yaacoub, a political strategist for the Free Egyptians, criticised Hamzawy’s flip-flopping on Twitter, saying Hamzawy had actually left because he wasn’t allowed to negotiate candidate lists with other members of the Bloc.

Egypt Freedom has not yet published a candidates list, so it remains unclear which districts the party will target. Hamzawy, however, is known to be running in Cairo’s well-to-do Heliopolis district. Like the Free Egyptians, the party believes equal rights for all citizens and free markets with a commitment to social justice. It condemns discrimination against Christians and women and makes little mention of Islam in its platform. The party also for the empowerment of local councils and the decentralization of budgetary control.

Egyptian Current Party – June 2011

The Egyptian Current Party was founded by young, less-conservative members of the Muslim Brotherhood who, unlike the organization’s older leadership, had been quick to embrace the January 25 protests that launched Egypt’s revolution.

Islam Lotfy and Mohammed Abbas, two of the Egyptian Current’s founding members, were with demonstrators in Tahrir Square from the beginning and also joined the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, a loose association of young people from the April 6 Movement, National Association for Change and other groups that attempted to speak for those who had first taken to the streets.

The party, which was also founded by Mohamed al-Kassas, the official head of the Brotherhood’s youth wing, advocates the separation of religion and the state and stresses that Egypt’s politics should resemble Turkey’s, where the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party has led government since 2002. Lotfy has described the Egyptian Current as “pragmatic and nonideological.”

The party’s membership, which numbered 150 when it split but may now reach as high as 5,000, also expressed dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood’s intolerance for dissent within its own ranks.Though the Brotherhood allows for election of its internal governing bodies, it brooks little argument once policies are adopted.

The party’s platform calls for a civil state with Islamic values, universal healthcare, and social justice and a fair distribution of wealth. Its candidates list is still unreleased.

Other parties

Outside of the four main coalitions, there are two primary political forces at work in Egypt’s election: the felool and the Wafd. The felool, or “remnants,” refers to a wide array of former regime officials and politicians who once ran for the NDP. There are more than 10 parties in the election reportedly fielding felool candidates and undoubtedly scores of other ex-NDP figures running independently. Though many Egyptians of various political and religious stripes despise the felool and want them banned from politics, a recent high court ruling has allowed them to participate in the election, and their history of charity, business ownership and job creation in their local districts will likely galvanize support.

The Wafd, Egypt’s oldest still-functioning political party, has long been tied to the NDP and has thus lost the lustre is once had. It is a secular conservative party and holds some of the the most liberal economic positions among any political group running this year. Over the course of months of negotiations with the coalitions, the Wafd lost some of its own candidates and finally could not agree on any alliance. It is running alone.

Outside the Wafd and felool are an assortment of parties that failed to carve out a space in the coalitions. They include the Justice Party, Democratic Front Party, Nasserist Party and Wasat or Center Party. The liberal Democratic Front Party was founded in 2007 by Osamal al-Ghazali Harb, a former member of the Shura Council and NDP. Wasat is a moderate Islamist party that split from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1996 but did not gain official recognition until after the revolution.

Wafd or Delegation – 1978

The Wafd Party, which takes its name from a delegation to the 1919 Paris peace conference led by famed politician Saad Zaghloul, has its roots in Egypt’s fight for independence from Britain, but that storied history has been sullied by decades of political lethargy and cooperation with the regime.

The Wafd was banned after the 1952 coup but allowed to reform in 1978. In 1984, it allied with the Brotherhood and won 50 seats, and three years later, Wafd alone won 35 seats, but since 1995 it has never won more than seven. The party stumbled in 2004 when prominent opposition figure Ayman Nour, who would later go to jail while attempting to challenge Mubarak in a presidential race, resigned from Wafd and took nearly a quarter of its members to his new Ghad or Tomorrow Party.

This year, the Wafd joined with the Brotherhood’s Democratic Alliance, lending its secular and neoliberal credentials to the Islamist coalition, but then pulled out and decided to run alone, losing some of its own candidates in the process. But the 92-year-old party maintains enviable name recognition throughout the country, and many of its remaining candidates are the type of wealthy community leaders who control patronage networks.

Like most parties, the Wafd wants to limit executive authority, but it stands almost alone in its hearty support for free trade and business, including deregulating banks and lifting the hand of government from the markets.

Felool or remnants of the regime

The role of the felool, an Arabic word for the remnants of a defeated army that Egyptians have used to disparage those who worked in Mubarak’s regime, is one of the most controversial aspects of the election. From university campuses to radio stations to professional unions, felool are some of the most unpopular people in the country, hated for often maintaing positions of power despite the blood shed during the revolution to uproot the former government.

Whether felool would be allowed to run for office was a contentious issue, but a ruling earlier this month from the Supreme Administrative Court has apparently put an unpopular end to the debate: The felool can stand for election. That means that hundreds of businessmen and local powerbrokers, many from old families with deep connections to the regime, will be able to call on established patronage networks to get out the vote.

Some new parties have had to face allegations that they are dealing with felool and recruiting them to run on their lists. The Free Egyptians recently denied that three former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) were running for them. But felool have nevertheless begun appearing in numerous parties, some of which have allegedly been established for the sole purpose of supporting ex-regime figures.

According to the website Emsek Felool – “To Catch a Remnant” – there are 16 parties with such candidates, including the Free Egyptians and the 92-year-old Wafd:

  • Egypt Renaissance Party
  • February 11 Party
  • Egyptian Citizen Party
  • Egypt National Party
  • Modern Egypt Party
  • Egypt Development Party
  • New Independents Party
  • Conservative Party
  • Right Party
  • Freedom Party
  • Beginning Party
  • Egyptian Arab Union Party
  • Union Party
  • Wafd Party
  • Free Egyptians Party
  • Arab Party for Justice and Equality

Two other parties which have allied with one another – Our Egypt and Reform and Development – are also reported to be using felool candidates. Talaat Sadat, a nephew of the assassinated president who briefly became president of and attempted to reform the NDP in the wake of the revolution, is the founder of Reform and Development.

Many of the most prominent new parties poised to win seats, such as Freedom and Justice, have scrupulously attempted to avoid any contact with felool, an encouraging sign for those Egyptians who want to purge the country of Mubarak’s influence. But politics in Egypt is often a familial and local affair, and if once-powerful politicians are allowed to run, chances are they be able to win some of their old seats.

Source: Al Jazeera