On eve of elections, Egypt’s opposition sceptical of government reform intent

Most parties involved in the dialogue with Nation’s Future Party say the party will function as a channel of communication between them and the authorities.
Sunday 15/12/2019
People walk in front of Egyptian riot police on Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Reuters)
A climate of fear. People walk in front of Egyptian riot police on Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Some Egyptian political parties have made their participation in the parliamentary and municipal elections early next year conditional on the initiation of political reforms.

The reforms, they said, must include the release of political detainees, lifting the emergency law, at least during the elections, and giving political parties more freedom.

“The fulfilment of these demands has to precede the elections so we can decide whether to participate or not,” said Farid Zahran, chairman of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

Zahran and other party leaders recently voiced the same demands in talks with the pro-government Nation’s Future Party, which began talks with other parties, apparently on behalf of the government, to discuss the parliamentary elections, laws that should regulate the elections and division of constituencies.

It invited six parties to the dialogue and others are to be invited in the coming days.

“The dialogue aims to formulate a common vision for the work of the political parties in the coming period,” said Nation’s Future Party Chairman Ashraf Rashad. “The parties need to sit together to discuss their country’s political future.”

The elections will be the first in Egypt since a vote amending the constitution last April.

Amendments introduced to the constitution reinstitute a second chamber of the Egyptian parliament, guarantee political representation by women, young people and persons with disabilities and allow Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to seek re-election beyond his current second presidential term, which would have been his last under previous constitution limits.

Egypt’s Islamist parties, including the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, are in tatters. Salafist parties, which curry favour with Sisi’s regime for fear of meeting the same fate as the Muslim Brotherhood, have been discredited either by pro-Sisi media or their actions, including antagonism to women’s rights and the rights of non-Muslims.

This time, however, the political parties seem to be tired of what they describe as authorities’ intolerance of freedoms in general, including the freedom of the political parties to operate.

There are more than 100 political parties in Egypt, most of which emerged after the 2011 revolution against long-time President Hosni Mubarak. However, the parties are weak, their programmes nearly identical and have not been able to reach people on the streets. Only a handful of parties won parliamentary seats in the 2015 elections.

The Nation’s Future Party ended up with 40% of the 596 seats in the Egyptian House of Representatives after that vote. The party, established in 2014, is believed to be Sisi’s attempt to get the country’s disenfranchised youth politically involved.

Most parties involved in the dialogue with Nation’s Future Party say the party will function as a channel of communication between them and the authorities. However, the lack of freedoms dominates discussions.

A political party leader told Nation’s Future Party officials there is no use discussing the next parliamentary elections when the prospect of imprisonment awaits those who speak critically of current political conditions. Another said his party would judge the seriousness of the dialogue in the light of its results.

Zahran cited previous dialogues with pro-government parties and other political forces, including on the latest constitutional amendments, which were opposed by his party.

“This was a bad experience,” he said. “None of our views on the amendments was listened to.”

Nation’s Future Party officials have tried to encourage political parties to take the dialogue seriously by stressing the importance of the next parliament for Egypt’s political future.

“The party with a parliamentary majority will be allowed to form the next government,” Rashad said.

Nation’s Future Party encouraged other parties to propose an election bill for approval by parliament before the end of its session in January.

Few of the parties were convinced, however, amid scepticism over the readiness of the authorities to initiate real reforms.

A boycott by the political parties of the elections would cast doubt on the political process in Egypt and be humiliating for authorities, analysts said.

“The lack of freedoms, restricting the work of the political parties, tightening the noose around them and the detention of opponents are problematic issues,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University. “A boycott by the political parties of the elections would give a very bad impression about political conditions in Egypt.”

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