After the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, liberal and leftist activists were free for the first time in years to found new political parties.
Now, almost three years later and after much political tumult — including one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule when they led the opposition — internal divisions and organisational problems have taken a toll on nascent liberal and leftist parties, leading to the resignation of hundreds of their members.
Ahram Online spoke to senior members and former members of the two largest liberal and leftist parties emerging since the January 2011 revolution, who highlighted some of the main troubles currently afflicting the budding parties.
Logistics trump politics
One of the major problems facing Egypt’s largest new liberal party — the Constitution Party founded by prominent Egyptian politician Mohamed ElBaradei — lies in the party’s placing a priority on organisational issues rather than politics, according to individuals close to the party.
“It is normal for the steering committee, or the Higher Committee, of the party to get engaged on organisational and internal matters at the outset, but this lagged on to the point where it took precedence over every other significant issues,” founding member Hala Shukrallah told Ahram Online.
“The main effort of the party was spent in the internal structure — the internal workings and the internal conflicts that are related to the organisation of the party — so it lost sight with engaging and analysing reality as well as setting down a strategy and building the party’s project,” Shukrallah asserted.
The fact that the steering committee, which is in charge of drawing up the principles, bylaws and programme of the party, was overhauled three times, attests to this shortcoming.
As a result of deprioritising the party's larger project, the bylaws and programme were imposed from above, instead of discussions being held between the committee — which is comprised of party leaders — and party members to build the programme from below.
The result, according to Shukrallah, was that firstly, the programme didn’t have the support of many within the party; secondly, that it didn’t fulfill its role of reflecting the demands of the different sectors and movements in society who have long had been engaged in political activism, such as workers, lawyers, doctors and women, and which would have happened if there was enough time and energy spent on its formulation.
“This absence of political direction and consensus led to a party whose members would congregate around persons, rather than political ideas,” Shukrallah asserted.
“Little by little, members of the party realised they had lost touch with political life, and young members especially would get disappointed, feeling that the leadership was not sufficiently engaged with politics outside the party.”
Shukrallah added that this took place at the same time that the membership of the party, comprised mostly of its youth, was repeatedly having to confront serious political challenges and rapid changes in the political scene.
The poison of division
Deputy head of Egypt’s largest post-revolution leftist party, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP), Emad Attia believes one of the primary difficulties facing the party has been the existence of sharp disputes in political stances adopted by different factions within the party.
“There were many leftist currents within the party: social democrats, the 'change current' from the Mubarak-era leftist Tagammu Party, old school socialists, the Socialist Renewal Current springing from the Revolutionary Socialists movement, and others.”
Variance gave the party diversity and strengthened the party’s positions at first, as a result of the synthesis of the opinions of its members, in contrast to “cadre parties” that would have a fixed outlook, like for example the Muslim Brotherhood, who would recruit people who would adopt it, Attia explained.
“The SPAP posed itself as a popular, wide-based socialist party, which opens it up to variable outlooks. But eventually, to my dismay, this diversity caused division,” Attia stated,
Giving the example of the 2012 presidential elections to underline his point, Attia said that despite many in the party wanting to boycott the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections, there was a collective decision that the SPAP would contest them under the Revolution Continues alliance. This experience didn’t gain traction in the presidential elections.
While the party took a decision to nominate SPAP former MP Abul Ezz El-Hariri for the presidency, many members didn’t stick to the party choice and voted for other candidates — sometimes openly, Attia said.
“This time around, the decision and the contradictory actions of some members poisoned the internal atmosphere of the party.”
Believing that differences weakened the party, a bloc was formed of certain members with more organisational experience who started working against the party’s diversity.
Attia says this group attempted to prevent those it differed with from being elected to the party’s central committee in the founding conference, but failed.
However, the superior organisational skill of this group compared to others eventually enabled it to suppress other voices within the party and take political positions unfavourable to many others in SPAP — for example, aligning with the state following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
“While many were critical of the actions of the transitional authority, the party leadership expressed its full support for the state,” he said — a development that caused disillusionment for many members.
The leadership’s failure of instituting sound decision-making mechanisms had a catastrophic impact on the Constitution Party, Shukrallah told Ahram Online.
“While it is normal for decision making to be concentrated with the party’s president or within a tight group of the founding members at first, subsequently it is imperative that institutional mechanisms are set down that widen the circle of decision-making.”
Shukrallah says such a step was not carried out by the party’s leaders, leaving decisions to the temperament of influential figures within the party.
“There was no collective deliberation or an internal democratic mechanism dictating which decisions the party made; they were taken by a select few. The issue of instituting such measures was constantly marginalised,” she said.
In October, 11 prominent members of the party, including labour advocate Kamal Abbas and long-time activist George Ishaq, as well as current Minister of Social Affairs Ahmed El-Boraie and the party’s Economic Committee head Hany Sarei El-Din, resigned from the party and spelled out their misgivings in a statement.
“Without real and effective institutional organisation, and without building a viable organisational structure that puts emphasis on goals, principles and responsibilities, the party will become a body missing a backbone,” the statement read, echoing Shukrallah’s complaints.
“Regrettably, the former and current leaders of the party were not warned and submitted to louder voices,” it continued, saying that the youth of the party as well as members in provinces were marginalised as a result.
Hundreds had resigned by then, according to the statement, due to the multiple problems facing the party.
Similarly, over 300 members of SPAP resigned in November due to complaints outlined by Attia, who joined the mass resignations. Many of them are in the process of founding a new party — "Bread and Freedom.”
After the January 25 Revolution, the political arena became fluid, Attia said, as thousands of young people lacking experience threw themselves into politics.
“It will take time for strong political parties to form out of this fluidity,” he believes, explaining that historically, social movements formed political parties to fight for their demands, but that social movements in Egypt are still young and not yet developed to a point where they can do so easily.
“Evolution is the natural progress of things,” Shukrallah told Ahram Online. “Where did we go wrong with our political project; what are the valuable aspects that shouldn’t be ignored when establishing parties?” These questions, Shukrallah belives, are central to progress.
Currently, it’s normal that people are still engaged in trial and error based efforts, but it is essential that there is determination to learn, and to embark upon different experiences, she believes.
The problems seen during the past year or so have driven many among the Constitution Party’s youth to engage in extensive discussions which, Shukrallah believes, will develop their political outlook.
“The question isn’t whether parties are weak — they are. The question is whether an open and democratic atmosphere will be established to allow these parties to grow strong — to allow each party to find its place and be consolidated on the political map. This is our fight,” Attia said.
Agreeing with Attia, Shukrallah says that “if the political field is open, and if people struggle for it to stay open, we will hopefully witness the emergence of stronger democratic parties.”