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