Egypt’s largest liberal party faces divisions
CAIRO - In central Cairo’s upmarket Dokki neighbourhood, a new political party has popped up but to passers-by the new entity was reason for confusion.
The new party is only metres from the premises of al-Wafd Party. Founded in 1918, al-Wafd is Egypt’s oldest and largest liberal political party. The other group is also called al-Wafd but with the adjective “New” added to its name.
The new entity is an offshoot of the old party, which held the majority for a long time before the army-led movement of 1952 ended the monarchy in Egypt.
Al-Wafd has been headed for breakup. The party took its first steps towards splitting up a few months ago when its chief, Al- Sayed al-Badawi, a business and media mogul-cum-politician, sacked seven of the 53 higher party body members.
The sacked members formed a self-styled reform group and started attracting followers and dissidents, founding the new political entity.
However, problems inside al- Wafd, according to sacked higher body member Abdel Aziz al-Nahas, started long before Badawi kicked him and the six other members out.
“The party chief committed serious violations in the course of the past few years, mistakes that gravely threatened the party’s future and precipitously reduced its popularity,” Nahas said.
Nahas and his comrades say the mistakes include Badawi’s support for ousted Islamist president Muhammad Morsi when he was in office and also a series of what they describe as “dictatorial decisions” taken by the party chief.
They say the decisions include the firing of 900 party general assembly members and the appointment of 1,200 others of Badawi’s choice in the assembly, which makes party core decisions.
Nevertheless, the potential disintegration of al-Wafd into smaller ineffective pieces is a reflection of Egypt’s political strife, according to some observers.
There are more than 100 political parties in Egypt but the vast majority are weak and do not have a meaningful following. Some political parties boast a membership of only the party chief and a handful of people, most of them either relatives of the party chief or friends.
This is the crux of Egypt’s political crisis: the country’s secular parties do not have any real presence on the ground, leaving the electorate with religious parties as the only options.
Al-Wafd is not the first political party to face partition. Before the 2011 revolution that ended the autocracy of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party split into two. Leadership conflicts also threatened other parties, including the Nasserite Party, the al-Ahrar Party and the Arab Socialist Party.
Nevertheless, al-Wafd was the hope of this country’s liberals, especially before Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which are expected mid-October. Together the Egyptian liberals’ hopes were pinned on al-Wafd to lead Egypt’s secular parties in the parliamentary battle against the Salafists.
“The weakening of al-Wafd will only serve its rivals and undermine the ability of Egypt’s secular parties before the elections,” political activist Hamdy el-Fakharany said. “This is very dangerous.”
Al-Wafd was among several parties trying to drum up a non-religious coalition against the Salafists. These parties have come short of creating the aspired coalition and the division of al-Wafd will likely deal a severe blow to these efforts, according to Fakharany.
The crisis inside al-Wafd gained the attention of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who met party rivals in mid-May.
Sisi, according to Nahas, suggested during the meeting that Badawi keep the party higher body intact for one year and then have elections. The higher body is the party section that has the final say in party policies.
“While al-Badawi pledged to do this, he did not honour this pledge after the meeting,” Nahas said.
Badawi, meanwhile, says he will reconsider the sacking of Nahas and his colleagues only when they apologise for mistakes they made. He added during a recent party meeting that he did not bear any personal grudge to the sacked members but that they had affronted al-Wafd as an institution by talking publicly about party problems.
The reformist group, however, says it will not apologise and that it only talked about the party chief’s failures.
Inside the group’s new headquarters, what looked like a beehive was in action. The group’s members were busy making phone calls to party members to lobby against Badawi. They say they will have public rallies to tell of violations by the party chief.
Mahmoud Ali, a member of the group, says along with the rallies, he and his colleagues will publish a book containing the violations of Badawi in a bid to rally support against him.
“Al-Badawi has turned this party into a body that little represents its members,” Ali said. “He committed serious violations and these violations must be made clear to everybody.”