Sisi proceeds without a party
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.