Hala Shukrallah is the most sought-after politician by the Egyptian media. On Friday 21 February, her political party, the Constitution, held its general assembly and elected her as president. In that moment, she became the first woman to be elected president of a political party in Egypt and also the first Coptic Christian. She’s also the successor of Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who launched the liberal Constitution Party in April 2012.
At 59, Shukrallah, a leftist sociologist, political activist and mother who runs a development consultancy and is largely unknown to the media, is the latest star to rise in Egyptian politics.
“I have a huge headache which overwhelms me,” she said on Sunday evening to describe the frenzy that began after her election and hasn’t stopped since.
“I haven’t had time to think about it or absorb what happened or make my tea with milk,” a tired-looking but exhilarated Shukrallah told Ahram Online in her Mohandiseen living room. Her mobile constantly flashes new numbers she doesn’t recognize, she can’t keep up with the avalanche of text messages and her home is swarming with members of her party and media representatives.
In the relative stalemate of Egypt's political scene -- focused entirely on the expected candidacy (and victory) of defense minister Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in upcoming presidential elections and also the crackdown on both supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi and facets of dissent -- the results of the Constitution Party’s internal elections were an unexpected yet pleasant surprise for many.
“It was thrilling,” says Shukrallah. “The moment it happened, I felt very happy because it reflected the hopes of so many young people in the party who wanted this so badly. It was a moment when you feel something has changed, that there is an element of possibility.”
The Constitution Party was launched on 28 April 2012 by ElBaradei as an “Egyptian and inclusive” political force attracting youth from diverse ideological backgrounds, including Salafists with a message intent on surpassing the Islamist-secularist divide. But like the vast majority of Egypt’s post-revolution political parties, the Constitution has struggled with the harsh realities and complexities of the new fluid political order.
In response to Morsi’s authoritarian constitutional declaration in November 2012, the Constitution Party joined the National Salvation Front (NSF), an alliance of secular, liberal and left-wing political parties that aimed to defeat him. When the military removed Morsi on 3 July 2013, ElBaradei resigned from his post in the party to become acting vice president. But less than two months later, he resigned for good in protest against a bloody police clampdown and dispersal of a massive encampment of Morsi supporters in east Cairo that left hundreds dead. A few days later, he left the country.
Since the Constitution Party's launch, ElBaradei has continued to cast a long shadow over it, even after his departure. When ElBaradei was the most important figure in the NSF and later became acting vice president, the Constitution Party was viewed favorably by many who sought a political career and possibly a place in the new political order. His resignation hit the party hard, prompting many to jump ship.
But the party had been suffering from resignations and divisions long before this episode. Its premise as a non-ideological party for all Egyptians might have been appealing for many at first but this proved unrealistic -- its diverse membership wanted different things and rarely agreed on anything.
Even the political celebrities that joined or co-founded the Constitution Party either unofficially froze their memberships (like former Kefaya leader George Ishak) or left the it (like former culture minister Emad Abou-Ghazi who moved to the Egyptian Social Democratic party).
And not too long ago, Shukrallah herself had become indifferent to the party and was contemplating unofficially freezing her membership as well. But it didn’t happen -- the party had finally started working towards holding its first conference to elect its leadership. The process provided a sense of meaning to many who felt alienated by the party’s existential problems but still wanted it to work.
Originally Shukrallah had no interest in the post because she didn’t like the limelight. But she came under immense pressure from the party’s youth and finally agreed to run in the internal elections. Her election campaign’s motto was: an idea to unite us.
“All throughout the campaign, the issue of my being a woman or a Copt was never brought up inside the party,” she says. “The only time that it was mentioned was by the media.”
Having co-founded the Egyptians Against Discrimination movement in 2006, Shukrallah understandably has mixed feelings about this issue.
“It does reach me that this is significant and reflects a breakthrough in the way people look and think of things. Having come that far, these things no longer matter.”
But on the other hand, she adds, the issue is being “forced” in a way.
“You’re making a statement by just being there. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re a Copt, a Muslim, a woman or a man, as long as you believe in people’s rights and actually have a vision for the whole of society.”
So even though the “first woman and Copt” phrase is "a positive thing", she’d like it to stop. “I think it sometimes blinds people to dealing with the content of what you’re saying. They’re looking outwards and blinded by that statement over and over again.”
And although she dislikes labels on principle, when pressed Shukrallah identifies herself as a leftist. Some of her ex-comrades remain perplexed as to why she chose to join the Constitution Party, considered a social democratic party, rather than a radical socialist party instead. She says she’s “evolved” throughout the past 20 years of activism. The Egyptian left has become, perhaps, too dogmatic for her.
So how does Shukrallah propose to restore a party which, in her own words, has experienced several crises that have left it in a state of semi-paralysis?
“I’m not doing it alone,” she says. “This is a party that’s going to be based on a lot of participation, built on a base-consensus. And we're going to bring in the different governorates. It's not going to be Cairo-based.”
In fact, the plan is to restructure the party, including its platform and vision, but not the basic pretexts of social justice, freedom and human dignity.
"How do you get there and what do you need to do?" she asks. "How do you take political positions? How do you get your point across?”
One of the issues the party will have to address under Shukrallah’s leadership is the possible merger with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. But for that to happen, she says, it must be debated “from below, from the party base.” And that’s not for the purpose of consolidating their position in the next parliamentary elections, Shukrallah explains, “but to unite and strengthen the democratic forces which are currently being sidelined” in favor of the Brotherhood/ancien-régime binary.
The party has yet to officially declare who it will support in the upcoming presidential elections, but Shukrallah says it's going to back the candidate who clearly presents a democratic vision and agenda.
"By default, putting the military in the political scene affects the mechanisms of democracy entirely,” she says. Shukralla