Sisi proceeds without a party

Friday 16/10/2015
Staying above party politics? Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the closing session of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in March 2015.

Washington - The government of Egyp­tian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi comes out of a familiar tradition: Every Egyptian president since Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1952, with the exception of Muhammad Morsi in 2012, has emerged from the military. But Sisi is different in that he has not cre­ated or inherited a political party to help him rule.

What this means for Egypt’s po­litical future is uncertain but it is likely to make the upcoming par­liament a chaotic body despite the fact that several coalitions are run­ning on a pro-Sisi platform.

Shortly after taking power, Nasser and his fellow Free Officers abolished political parties in Egypt. In 1954, they created the first in a series of ruling parties called the Liberation Rally. This party became the National Democratic Party (NDP) under presidents Anwar Sa­dat and Hosni Mubarak.

Everyone in Egypt understood what these parties represented. In fact, the NDP was commonly re­ferred to in Arabic as Hizb al-Wata­ni, meaning, roughly, “the National Party”, but which carried the con­notation of being simply the regime party.

Although the government par­ties initially had an ideological mission and tried to mobilise the masses, they essentially were used to control parliament and pass government-directed legislation. Under Anwar Sadat and later Hosni Mubarak, some opposition parties and independents were allowed to compete for seats in parliament but the government made sure the NDP was assured of a substantial major­ity.

With the NDP abolished in the wake of the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s governing class has no single po­litical entity to rely on. In some respects this situation reflects the personality of Sisi, who has repeat­edly said he was not interested in forming his own party and wanted instead to be president of the Egyp­tian people. Mubarak, by contrast, was not only president of the coun­try but also the leader of the NDP.

Under laws decreed by Sisi, the parliament to be elected in late October and early November will be heavily represented by inde­pendents, who will hold 80% of the seats, with the remaining 20% reserved for those representing political parties. This ratio was probably made to ensure that op­position parties do not emerge as a significant bloc to challenge the government.

However, government concerns about a powerful opposition are overblown, as Egypt’s parties are weak.

Now that the Muslim Brother­hood’s political party has been banned, most parties are little more than debating societies of urban intellectuals. Some have an­nounced they are boycotting the elections because they see the vote as skewed in favour of the regime. Other parties are beset with inter­nal divisions. Even the venerable Wafd Party, which formed in the wake of the 1919 revolution oppos­ing British rule, is split between two factions.

Instead, a number of establish­ment figures have formed political coalitions, often with the support of businessmen. For example, the Egyptian Front coalition includes the Egyptian National Movement founded by Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, and Egypt My Homeland, founded by a for­mer provincial governor, Qadri Abu Hussein.

Another coalition, For the Love of Egypt, is led by former intelli­gence officer Sameh Seif el-Yazal. He told the media that his coalition aims to “act as a back-up force for Sisi in the coming parliament”. Yet another coalition is the Independ­ent National Re-awakening Bloc, which includes religious figures from al-Azhar University, the Cop­tic Church and prominent people from Upper Egypt.

A few non-establishment groups, such as the Salafist al-Nour party and the youth-oriented Call of Egypt coalition, will compete in some districts.

What about the old NDP? Ac­cording to Egyptian sources, there are about 1,000 former members of the party running among 6,000 candidates nationwide. Most of them are from prominent families, particularly in rural areas, who are not interested in reviving the old party but simply want to maintain their standing by showing they can deliver services to their districts.

What all this means for the future Egyptian parliament is that most independents and coalition mem­bers who get elected will likely de­clare support for Sisi but this does not mean that the government can always rely on their support. The new parliament will be made up of competing elites who are likely to have different ideas about particu­lar policies.

Fearing this potential for gridlock and chaos, some establishment fig­ures such as Yazal have suggested that the new constitution should be amended because it gives “too much power” to parliament, in­cluding the power to name the prime minister.

If parliament becomes too un­wieldy, Sisi may step into the fray and designate one of these coali­tions as his party but for the time being he is likely to hold off and re­main above politics.