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memri
March 26, 2018 No.
1384

Elections In Egypt IV: Egyptian Press Criticizes Feebleness Of Egyptian Parties, Regime's Suppression Of Their Activity

By: C. Meital*

Introduction

The presidential elections in Egypt, slated for March 26-28, 2018, are expected to result in a second term for President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi.[1] His almost inevitable win is the result of the stagnation in Egypt's political system, which has failed to produce viable alternatives. Al-Sisi is running against only one candidate, after his regime effectively cleared the stage of all other contenders by arresting them or persecuting them into withdrawing from the race. Moreover, the president's  sole rival, Al-Ghad Party head Moussa Mustafa Moussa, is described by many as a "puppet," as he is a staunch supporter of Al-Sisi and joined the race on the last day of registration.[2]

Although Egypt has over 100 registered parties, their public impact is small and they have not managed to lead significant political changes or to seriously challenge the current regime. Aware of this situation, most of the parties refrained from nominating candidates for the election, inter alia in order to avoid serving as a fig leaf for Al-Sisi's victory. Some even called to boycott the election in protest of the arrest and hobbling of oppositionists, including potential presidential candidates.[3]

For over a year, articles in the Egyptian press have decried the stagnation in Egypt's political life and the absence of effective party pluralism. Analyzing the causes, they noted the absence of a democratic tradition, following decades of single-party rule that suppressed opposition and free speech; the preoccupation with security concerns at the expense of addressing domestic political issues; the prevalence of parties motivated by personal interests; and the disillusion of the young people with politics due to all these factors, and also in light of the failure of past revolutions and the oppressive policies of the regime.

Many of the articles indeed placed the blame for the situation primarily on the Al-Sisi regime, due to its persecution and arrest of dissents and critics. Some of them implied that the security apparatuses actively interfere in the political arena. For example, it was suggested that the security apparatuses were behind of the internal coup in the Free Egyptians Party, founded by Businessman Naguib Sawiris, with the aim of removing certain members opposed to the regime.

The authors of the articles, including senior columnists in Government newspapers, expressed concern that the political stagnation and the suppression of all opposition will cause extremist forces, first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood, to be seen as the only alternative to the existing regime. Accordingly, they called to revitalize the Egyptian parties, and to encourage young Egyptians to take part in politics instead of persecuting them.

President Al-Sisi himself addressed the issue of the political parties as well. He acknowledged the stagnation in the political system and called to end it, but ascribed it to Egypt's political history while rejecting the allegations of persecution and oppression of oppositionists by his regime.

The following are excerpts from Al-Sisi's statements on the subject, and from some of the articles criticizing the state of the Egyptian political system under his rule.    

Al-Sisi On The State Of Egyptian Parties: Building A True Party System In Egypt Will Take Time; There Is No Suppression Of Dissent

Amid this media discourse, Al-Sisi himself on a number of occasions addressed the state of Egyptian party politics. At the First National Youth conference he hosted  in October 2016 in Sharm Al-Sheikh, the president said that Egypt was undergoing a process of democratization, and presented as evidence the Presidential Leadership Program (PLP), aimed at cultivating a young leadership to inject new blood into the country's political system.[4] However, addressing the second group of PLP graduates several months later, he was less optimistic, saying that establishing a genuine party infrastructure in Egypt will take time, given that the country has not experienced real party dynamics for decades. He added that the difficult political, economic and social situation in Egypt in recent years is another factor that has hindered the development of the political and party system.[5]

Addressing the topic in an a May 2017 interview with Egyptian dailies, Al-Sisi said that he had called more than once for people to join parties, and that parties should be encouraged to be more active. He added that the various youth conferences that had taken place in the prior months under the aegis of the presidency were "an element of Egyptian strength."[6] In a meeting with journalists several months later, the president called for merging some parties with stronger ones in order to solve the problem of the proliferation of parties, which weakens their influence.[7]

In a conference held in January 2018, ahead of the elections, he noted that "for the last 50 years, Egypt has suffered from the absence of real parties, especially since the 1952 revolution." He denied that the current regime suppressed oppositionist opinions, saying that it aspires to strengthen the parties in Egypt."[8]


Logos of some Egyptian parties (image:elbadil.com)

Egyptian Writer: This Presidential Election Campaign Exposed The Depth Of The Party Crisis In Egypt

With the presidential election approaching, 'Abd Al-Nasser Salama, in his column in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, criticized the absence of active political and party life and the pointless proliferation of parties in the country. These parties, he said, are partly the result of the country's restrictions on political activists and of the absence of real freedom of the press. He wrote:

"The events of the current presidential election [campaign] exposed the depth of the party and political crisis in Egypt: It no longer has any party life, nor any political life in the usual sense. The country has begun unprecedented [efforts] to find candidates [to run against President Al-Sisi], on the local and even on the international level... Even the [policies] proposed by the party candidates, if there are any, are no longer convincing, and the public has begun to lose confidence in them. Thus, [we are] now hearing concepts and expressions [about the candidates, such as] 'movie extra,' pointless, opportunist, pressured [to run], and so on.[9] Reality shows that there are no longer real party positions –which clouds negatively impacts parliamentary function... 

"President Al-Sisi has asked these political parties, which now appear to number over 100, to merge to form about 15 parties... I think that the history of party life in Egypt, which is long in comparison to that of other countries in the region and in the world, makes us deserving of a better situation. [By rights,] we should head the list of democratic countries – countries where [the principle of] 'an opinion and an opposing opinion' [operates,] and where there is respectable competition for everything...

"This regression [in party activity] surely began in 1952, with the emergence of the so-called [Arab] Socialist Union [established by Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser] as the only party or only political force at that time. After that, [the parties] gradually began to act in public forums, and eventually became more active in one way or another. Although there were never more than three parties, they still impacted political life in the longer term, [and had] party newspapers that expressed [the positions of] the opposition, or the other position at that time. 

"The question is, what happened? And why have we regressed to this situation of so many parties, or so-called parties? Have they become an alternative to the public jobs taken over by pensioners...? Are they run by remote control? Are they [merely] a vehicle [for achieving] honor, personal interests, and profits?...

"Another question; the president's guidelines in all things concerning the merging [of parties] were issued in early November – that is, nearly three months ago – yet there is no sign on the horizon that they are being implemented...

"In general, all we need to revitalize party and political life is free will. First and foremost, we need to provide security for those engaging in politics – no hunting them down in the streets, no making [people] disappear, and no middle-of-the-night visits. We need real media – press, television, news websites – and real, professional media figures; we need national press and media councils to implement this; we need the security [apparatuses] to take their hands off the news websites that have been blocked; we need permission to hold political conferences in hotels, squares, libraries, and halls; we need a change in the media perception of those in charge of government media...

"It this desire does not exist, or does not exist to a sufficient degree, we must acknowledge this, with no evasion, live within the limitations of what is permitted, and recognize reality – because the contradiction between what is declared [to be permitted by the authorities] and what is actually permitted is very great..."[10]

Egyptian Writer: Egypt Has 106 Parties Whose Names No One Knows

In a February 1, 2018 article in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, 'Abbas Al-Tarabili criticized the  leaders of Egyptian parties who did not respond to President Al-Sisi's call to merge parties so as to stabilize the country's political system. He wrote:

"It is too bad that we have 106 parties, and – don't laugh – no one even knows their names, or the names of their leaders... I will give a huge cash prize to anyone who can tell me the names of 10 leaders of these parties. Surely this was behind President Al-Sisi's request, months ago, for mergers of parties with similar plans or goals...

"But even though the president's call to the parties came several months ago, no one has complied, and no one, not from the parties themselves nor from the government, has acted to promote this call for mergers...

"If only we were like the U.S., where the rule shifts between two parties only, and it is the biggest and strongest country in the world today. If only we were like Britain, the mother of Western democracy, which has three parties and no more..."[11]

Editor Of Egyptian Daily: Egyptian Parties Are Paper Parties That Brag Of Their Actions But Actually Do Nothing

Other Egyptian writers have also criticized the absence of party political activity in the country, attributing this, inter alia, to what they call Egypt's defective political history, and to the absence of democratic experience in Egypt. Dandrawi Al-Harawi, acting editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', which is close to Egyptian intelligence, argued in a March 1, 2017 article that Egyptian parties established after the January 2011 revolution have no influence whatsoever on the street, and are even worse than the parties that preceded them which boasted of defending democracy but actually focused on personal interests instead. He wrote:

"[The parties] shrill day and night, annoyingly and contemptibly, praising the civil state, the establishment of full party and political life, the defense of democracy, and the steadfast position against tyrannical regimes. They do this while reiterating emotional and exciting slogans. However, when some citizens express sympathy with these slogans and take part in party activity, they discover behavior that contradicts all the slogans repeated by party leaders, to an unimaginable degree...

"The Egyptian parties that existed before the [2011] revolution owned a 'two bedroom, one living room' headquarters in the heart of Cairo, and also a newspaper; their leaders were all related to each other; and the purpose of their founding was to profit by receiving annual support from the state and to transform the [party] newspaper into a goose that lays golden eggs. [They did this] by blackmailing businessmen to advertise [in their newspaper,] and by extorting the state  to invite them to conferences, activities, and celebrations that it holds on various occasions. Party officials of that era had no intention of transforming [their parties] into powerful institutions that conduct politics and maintain an active presence on the street...

"Observers and experts on political systems in Egypt called the parties of the time 'paper parties,' 'test tube parties,' and 'cardboard parties' to reflect their weakness, lethargy, and total absence from the street...

"After the revolution, with the general chaos, the extraordinary political instability, the elimination of the state security investigative [apparatus], and the dismantling of [Mubarak's] National [Democratic] Party and the torching of its headquarters, the street was left wide open to the parties... Their numbers increased... and dozens of parties emerged that were labelled revolutionary because they emerged from the womb of the revolution – such as the Justice Party, founded by activist Mustafa Al-Naggar,[12] the Al-Dustour [Party] founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Social Democratic [Party] founded by Dr. Muhammad Abu Al-Ghar,[13] the Free Egyptians [Party] founded by strategic expert 'Amr Hamzawy,[14] the Conference Party founded by 'Amr Moussa, and the Egyptian National Movement [Party] founded by Ahmed Shafiq...

"Many expressed optimism at the emergence of these revolutionary parties and [hoped] that they would drive politics and enrich partisan activity in Egypt, especially [because] their founders had substantial revolutionary and political status... But it turned out that the revolutionary parties were even worse than the old parties, and functioned more poorly than they had, and they all stagnated and failed, settling for merely publishing condemnations of everything. Thus, the activity of the parties was reduced from publishing a newspaper to issuing statements...

"The truth is that the parties in Egypt are paper [parties] that cannot influence even a single street or alleyway. They settle for posting statements online and emailing them to media outlets; they have no status and leave no mark on the street... and they hold the state responsible for their failures..."[15]

Egyptian Writers Accuse Security Elements Of Working To Thwart Opposition Activity

In the Egyptian media, some accused Egyptian security apparatuses of acting to thwart opposition activity in the country. One example of this were claims regarding Egyptian security apparatus involvement in a clash within the Free Egyptians Party, considered an liberal opposition party, and the removal of its founder, businessman Naguib Sawiris.[16]Following this, the party turned to supporting the candidacy of Al-Sisi, to the chagrin of its founders.

Against the backdrop of this dispute, several Egyptian writers hinted that the regime and its security apparatuses were behind the dispute, in an attempt to work from within against the party founded to advance a liberal opposition line. Salah Diab, owner of the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, who writes under the pen name Newton, wrote in this context:

"Whose interest is it to destroy a party, assassinate the multiparty system, and bury democracy like this? What happened in the Free Egyptians [Party] is strange in its timing, circumstances, and trends... This surprising coup [in the party against Sawiris] is not [just] a betrayal of Naguib Sawiris himself, as some believe or attempt to claim. Rather, it is a betrayal of the idea of opposition, a betrayal of the concept of democracy over which we mourn in our country, and which we jabber about from morning until night...

"Security circles are still trying their best to thwart the meagre partisan experience on the pretext of defending the regime... We mistakenly believe that the success of pluralism rests on the shoulders of the opposition, but this is not true – its success is on the shoulders of the decision-maker who holds the keys to the regime...

"The greatest damage is done to the state, its future, and its ability to implement balance and expand the margins of legitimate political activity. To whom are we leaving the arena? To the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist organizations. We are providing them with the arena of action without providing a single civil alternative! Even the state itself has no political backing, as was also the case during [Mubarak's] National [Democratic] Party era. You are setting the stage for extremism – no more and no less."[17]

Dr. Hala Mustafa, a columnist for the official daily Al-Ahram, also addressed the crisis in the Free Egyptians Party in a February 25, 2017 article, arguing that Egyptian security forces were behind it. She wrote: "Anyone following the details of the crisis afflicting the Free Egyptians Party senses that there is nothing new here. This is despite the fact that this party in particular – which was founded by the renowned businessman Naguib Sawiris following the January 25, 2011 revolution – made efforts to portray itself in a way that sets it apart from other parties: a weighty party from the moment of its birth, although new to politics; a party unique in its liberal orientation... However, ultimately matters developed contrary to all expectations... The most important thing to examine are [the reports] of the involvement of the state, or more accurately, of security forces, in fanning [the flames of] this conflict in order to destroy the party from within. This, in addition to [its] complete deviation from its liberal nature..."[18]

Egyptian Writer: The State Should Allow Young People To Enter Political Life And Stop Persecuting And Arresting Them

Farouk Guida, a columnist for the government Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, also addressed the issue of the political vacuum in Egypt in a January 6, 2017 article. Guida reviewed Egypt's political atmosphere from the 1952 Free Officers Movement revolution until today, which never fostered the existence of an opposition, analyzed the causes of the political vacuum in recent years, and called on the regime to initiate programs for encouraging young people in politics instead of persecuting them. He wrote:

"[Now,] years after the January [2011] revolution, the time has come to examine all the failed attempts to establish political parties in Egypt, since throughout all these years we have never managed to find a successful formula for true political parties. It recently became clear that they were mere facades that quickly collapsed, revealing their flaws and errors. Since the 1940s, since the July revolution [the 1952 Free Officers Movement revolution] and until today, there have been no true and successful partisan experiences. From the [period] after the July [1952] revolution and until now, the same picture of an autocracy that does not believe in pluralism has repeated itself, and therefore it is difficult to say that Egypt has experienced true democracy throughout these years…

"The removal of the previous [Mubarak] regime and the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt at ruling opened the door to the new phase that Egypt is in now – a phase that is devoid of [free domestic] politics because of security constraints and the need to restore stability and deal with crises that afflict Egypt in all domains. Let us review some of what has happened in Egypt in the years since the January revolution [and which  led to the current situation]: First, the political elite suffered a crushing defeat in its struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood after the January revolution and the removal of the previous regime... Second, the state and all its institutions, chiefly the military and police, conducted a ruthless campaign against terrorism in Sinai out of a desire to preserve the unity of the homeland, while also trying to salvage all it could of the state's economic, social, and cultural institutions... In this situation, the political dimension of the state's thinking was absent, due to more important needs and extremely harsh circumstances... Third, with the political vacuum on the Egyptian street, the wealthy attempted to fill this vacuum, and tycoons simultaneously established several parties devoid of ideology, methods and direction, which became personal parties employing the same methods used to establish the single [ruling] party...  And just as the ruling parties failed [before them], the tycoon parties failed as well...

"Fourth, we must acknowledge that the alienation created between the state and the youth following the January [2011] and June [2013] revolutions caused many youths to distance themselves from political activity out of a sense of frustration and bitterness, since they had managed to topple two regimes in two revolutions, but [nevertheless] did not realize a single one of their dreams to take part in shaping the future of this homeland. The January [revolution] rebels found themselves in prison or in court, where they were charged with treason and being mercenaries... This generation, which previously embodied hope and dreams, became persecuted or was castigated in public, and preferred to stay away, fearing charges, prison, or misunderstandings...

"The failure of our past experience of partisan life should not lead us to reject democracy or believe those who claim that it is not right for us, since we did have successful experiences regarding liberties decades ago. Those who believe that it is better to shut the window [of democracy] are wrong, because free youth can build nations better than youth in holding cells or prisons... The state must formulate a plan to motivate the youth to take part in political activity without persecution, boycott, or labels [of traitors], because the political vacuum on the Egyptian street is a true crisis..."[19]

Egyptian MP Tareq Al-Khouli likewise emphasized the importance of the young people, who make up almost a third of Egypt's population and were at the forefront of the recent Egyptian revolutions. He noted the unprecedented number of young people in the current parliament, while observing that they are weak, owing to the existence of some 100 Egyptian parties. He added: "The question remains how to reform the infrastructure of party [politics] in the country and who should be in charge of this – the parties themselves, the current political regime, or the young people? I think [such reform] requires a genuine desire to rebuild party life and an ongoing dialogue between all sectors of society… The outcome of the reform of the party system should be a maximum of three parties, based on ideas and ideology…"[20]

Egyptian Writer: Developing The Political System Is No Less Important Than Developing The Economy

On January 23, 2017, leading up to the sixth anniversary of the January 25 revolution, Al-Masri Al-Yawm columnist Ahmed Al-Sawi published an article titled "The Crime Mubarak Was Not Tried For," arguing that Mubarak's real crime was leaving Egypt with an undeveloped political system, and that establishing a political infrastructure in the country is no less important than building other infrastructures. He ended his article by stating: "If there is a lesson that everyone can learn from the January revolution, it is that political development is no less important than economic development, and that a regime that succeeds and helps establish a political infrastructure – [including] a respectable, workable constitution; alternatives and options in the form of worthy and responsible political parties; a vigorous and involved civil society; and a media that raises awareness of the value of managing disagreements for the benefit of the homeland – is a regime that will give its country a national program worth more than all buildings, roads, and bridges."[21]

Legal expert Ziad Baha Al-Din, who served as deputy prime minister and as minister for international cooperation, also addressed this topic. Attempting to explain why party activism in Egypt has waned, he said that the suppression of the media, of civil society and of politics is not the only reason. Another factor, he said, was the failure of the parties themselves to convince the public of their importance and impact. He added: "Egypt needs an active political arena. It needs a ruling party to promote its plans and policy, protect them and take responsibility for them. It also needs opposition parties to present alternatives, take part in finding solutions and defend the public's rights and the country's laws and constitution. But in order to achieve any of this, we must examine the past and act to regain the public's faith in the importance of parties and party activism, instead of each party vying for a piece of the political pie, which has grown so small that it has almost disappeared."[22]  

 

* C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1382, Presidential Elections In Egypt – Part III: Ahead Of The Elections, Al-Sisi Regime Seizes Control Of The Media, March 21, 2018; Presidential Elections In Egypt – Part III: Ahead Of The Elections, Al-Sisi Regime Seizes Control Of The Media MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1380, Presidential Elections In Egypt – Part I: The Al-Sisi Regime's Brutal Crackdown On Potential Presidential Candidates, March 19, 2018; Inquiry & Analysis No. 1381, Egypt's Presidential Elections Part II: Opposition Calls For Boycotting Elections, Criticizes Persecution Of Candidates, March 20, 2018.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 30, 2018; Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 4, 2018.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 29, 31, 2018.

[4] Al-Watan (Egypt), October 27, 2016. The program was launched by the Egyptian Presidency. For its vision and mission, see http://plp.eg/en/about-plp. In addition, as part of implementing the conference's conclusions – which emphasized the need to promote the participation of young people in municipal elections, form youth committees to advise and assist Egypt's ministers, and promote culture and education initiatives – the President's Office hosted young activists from 25 parties for discussions on political activity, volunteerism and civil society. Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 14, 2016; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 17, 2016.  

[5] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 27, 2017.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 18, 2017.

[7] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 9, 2017.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 20, 2018.

[9] A reference to the criticism aimed at Egyptian presidential candidate Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who registered to run on the day before the official closure of registration; it was claimed that he was pressured by the Egyptian regime to run so that the election campaign would appear properly democratic. See Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 29, 2018.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 5, 2018.

[11]  Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 1, 2018.

[12] Mustafa Al-Naggar is an Egyptian politician and writer for Egyptian dailies such as Al-Ahram, Al-Masri Al-Yawm, and Al-Shurouq.

[13] Dr. Muhammad Abu Al-Ghar, M.D. is an OB/GYN and a lecturer at Cairo University, as well as a columnist for the daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm.

[14] 'Amr Hamzawy is an Egyptian oppositionist and columnist for the Qatari-owned London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

[15] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 3, 2017.

[16] On December 31, 2016, the Free Egyptians Party held a general conference, at which it was decided to eliminate its Board of Trustees, of which Sawiris was a member, thus in effect removing him. Party spokesman Nasser Al-Kafas revealed that the reason for the dispute lay in the fact that Sawiris had begun to sense that the party had moved close to the regime, while he wanted it to continue as an opposition party. Al-Kafas noted that Sawiris had frozen party funding for over six months due to disagreements on this matter, and due to his dissatisfaction with the party's votes in parliament that contradicted its liberal nature. See Al-Shurouq, Egypt, January 7, 2017; Parlmany.com, February 21, 2017.

[17] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 31, 2016.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 25, 2017.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 6, 2017.

[20] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 2, 2017.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 23, 2017.

[22] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), July 31, 2017.