As Egypt enters election season, calls grow for political parties to unite

December 03, 2017
Surprise comeback. A file picture shows former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq attending a news conference in Cairo. (AFP)

Cairo- With Egypt set for presidential elec­tions next year, mu­nicipal polls likely the year after and a parliamentary vote by 2020, there have been calls for the country’s political parties to unite to avoid a chaotic election scene and the re­turn of political Islam.
“There is an urgent need for the political parties to get stronger to be able to have a real presence on the streets,” said MP Salah Hasaballah, head of the liberal Freedom Party. “There are so many parties on the political stage but few of them are influential.”
The calls came as Egypt’s presi­dential election heated up. For­mer Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, founder of the Egyptian Patriotic Party, announced his intention to run. Human rights lawyer Khalid Ali has also announced he will seek the presidency but incumbent Pres­ident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not confirmed he will try for a second term in office, although most ob­servers say he will.
Egypt’s post-revolutionary politi­cal scene has been ruled by dozens of small, newly established parties, such as the Freedom Party, compet­ing for relevance, ultimately frag­menting the Egyptian vote. Prior to the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of longstanding President Hos­ni Mubarak, there were 15 politi­cal parties in Egypt, including the ruling National Democratic Party, which was subsequently dissolved.
Although there are more than 100 parties in Egypt today, only 19 are represented in parliament. The remaining parties have little pres­ence on the Egyptian street and lit­tle prospect of winning many votes in elections.
Despite this, small parties are securing enough combined votes to swing an election. It is this frag­mented politics that increased fears that Islamist parties could exploit the lack of cohesion. A number of officials, including Sisi have called for Egypt’s political parties to unite.
“This is why I call on parties [sharing the same programmes and platforms] to merge with each oth­er,” Sisi said on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum in in Novem­ber. “This will make them more powerful.”
Egyptian MP Ahmed Refaat had proposed a draft law eliminating all political parties that were not rep­resented in the parliament.
“The 104 political parties in Egypt is considered high. It weighs down the political sphere in Egypt, so I have prepared articles for the sug­gested draft law,” he told Egypt’s Al Nahar TV.
“Political parties that do not have any representatives inside the parliament and are still receiving funding from foreign countries are working to incite the public opinion against the govern­ment. The draft law would restrict the presence of such parties.”
Despite outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, a number of Islamist parties, includ­ing the Salafist Al-Nour party, oper­ate in Egypt.
“This fear [of political Islam] is particularly credible given the fact that there are Islamist sleeper cells everywhere and new generations of Islamists who are ready to return to the political stage,” said Saad al- Zunt, the head of Cairo think-tank Centre for Political Studies. “True, there is a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated ter­rorist organisations but we must know that this crackdown has only scorched the snake, not killed it.”
Cairo has clamped down on poli­tics in unregulated space, including proposing a youth institutions law that would ban members of public youth clubs and centres from en­gaging in political activity. There has been fear that Egypt’s youth clubs were breeding grounds for Is­lamist ideology.
Among the parties that were formed after the 2011 uprising were a dozen Islamist, Salafist and semi- Islamist ones. Violence orchestrat­ed and perpetrated by the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and al­lied parties following Muhammad Morsi’s 2013 ouster prompted a clampdown that landed most top Islamist leaders in jail or in exile.
In late 2014, Egypt disbanded the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and dissolved Muslim Broth­erhood charities — an important campaigning tool for the Islamist movement. Other Muslim Brother­hood-allied parties suspended their activities.
The ultra-orthodox Salafists es­caped that fate by backing Morsi’s ouster and campaigning for Sisi ahead of the 2014 presidential elec­tions in Alexandria, their Medi­terranean stronghold in northern Egypt.
Al-Nour, the largest of Egypt’s Salafist parties, holds 12 of the 596 seats in parliament.
Political veterans said Sisi’s in­vitation for the parties to unite or merge was logical. The absence of strong political parties that can field qualified candidates in par­liamentary, presidential and mu­nicipal elections gives the public no alternatives to Islamists, who used the political vacuum present after the revolution to control the political stage, they added. The revolution allowed for the rise of the Islamist parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, after decades of suppression and political mar­ginalisation.
Nonetheless, there are challenges to civilian political parties uniting or merging, the political veterans said.
“The political parties are too diverse for their individual differ­ences to be blurred to allow them to merge easily,” said Hussein Abdel Razek, a left-wing politician. “Some leaders of political parties consider the formation of their parties to be their greatest achievement in life, so it will be difficult to convince them to merge with other political entities.”