Divisions threaten future of Egypt’s Wafd Party
CAIRO - Rifts are appearing inside the Wafd Party, threatening to derail one of the country’s most historic political movements and cement the view that party politics is dead in Egypt.
The fallout from internal party elections in November is threatening to tear Wafd apart. More than two dozen prominent Wafd members have filed a grievance contesting the election results of the Wafd Supreme Council.
Instead of addressing the problem, the party’s leadership sacked the dissenters, who are contesting the decision and fighting for the future of Egypt’s oldest party.
“The vote was rigged for the sake of a select group of candidates,” said Yasser Qoura, a spokesman for the removed party members. “This was why we had to resort to the judiciary.”
Wafd is the oldest liberal political party in Egypt. It enjoyed unprecedented popular support and political influence until it was increasingly sidelined during the 1980s when former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party rose to power.
Founded in 1918 by Egyptian lawyer Saad Zaghloul, the Wafd Party was at the centre of the 1919 revolution and the struggle against the British occupation of Egypt.
It formed a government in 1924 and remained one of the most influential political parties until the 1952 revolution. Political parties were banned immediately after the revolution but Wafd returned in 1978 under a new name — the New Wafd. It was banned once again but revived following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
The Wafd Party won 45 seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections, the largest number of seats in the legislature after the Free Egyptians Party and Nation’s Future Party. There were signs that Wafd was resurging.
About three years later, however, that resurgence had failed to materialise amid the apparent demise of partisan politics in Egypt, particularly after similar internal divisions hit other political parties, including the Free Egyptians Party and the Constitution Party (al-Dostour).
Wafd’s problems can be traced to a series of crises over the past year.
In April, opposition to the results of internal elections for secretary-general threatened to widen divisions inside the party. Three months earlier, cracks appeared when some leading party members, including then-chief Sayyid al-Badawi, proposed to field a candidate in last March’s presidential election.
Those who opposed that plan saw it as an attempt by Badawi and other party leaders to flatter President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, particularly given that Egypt’s electoral authorities had banned several heavyweight candidates from standing. Some political parties and figures urged a boycott of the elections but Wafd was not among them. Sisi considered the lack of opponents an embarrassment for the Egyptian policy system.
Badawi was replaced as party leader by Bahaa Abo Shoqa in March and has been under investigation by Abo Shoqa for alleged financial violations and stoking internal divisions.
Lawsuits filed by Qoura and his colleagues seek to nullify the party’s November 9 elections and reverse the leadership’s action that removed them.
“We will not stand idly by and allow those who do not deserve to be in decision-making positions inside one of our country’s most important political parties,” Qoura said.
Party spokesman Yasser al-Hodeibi said party members who have been sacked are wasting their time.
“There was nothing wrong with the results of the elections,” Hodeibi said. “Those filing the lawsuits will get nothing at the end and Wafd will keep going.”
Rifts in the Wafd Party reflect deteriorating conditions of Egyptian politics. There are more than 100 registered political parties in the country but few have any popular support.
Egyptian law reserves 120 seats in the 596-seat legislature for political parties, which must put forward lists of candidates that include stringent quotas for young people, women, Christians, farmers and people with disabilities and Egyptians residing abroad.
An additional 448 MPs are elected through an individual candidacy system and the president directly selects 28 lawmakers. Those elected as part of the “individual-seat” system must be independents even if they are from Egypt’s political party system. Once in parliament, those members cannot declare a party affiliation or change their status.
Even political parties that have a presence in parliament are for the most part supportive of the government’s policies. Abo Shoqa has continued to align Wafd with government policies, with many saying he is even more supportive of Sisi than Badawi.
There are fears that the existence of the party could be at risk, particularly with Qoura and his colleagues seeking to get endorsements from 500 party members to have a general assembly meeting to possibly withdraw confidence from Abo Shoqa. They reportedly have signatures from 150 members.
These developments, political observers warned, could lead to the suspension of the party. Egypt’s courts can suspend the party until it resolves its leadership issues.
“This [the suspension of the party] will be a huge loss for Egypt’s political life as a whole,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of local Strategic Studies Centre think-tank. “For many of the political parties on the political stage, Wafd is a role model and this is the problem.”
However, there is denial in the Wafd Party’s headquarters that this could happen, with more focus on preparations for the party’s 100th anniversary. The party’s leadership hopes the anniversary will trump talk about problems inside the party.