Former secretary general of the Arab League and ex-presidential candidate Amr Moussa recently acquired new titles. He is now leader of the Coalition of the Egyptian Nation, the Egyptian Conference Party as well as honorary president of the liberal Wafd party.
Welcome to the shifting sands of Egyptian politics, 20 months after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and post-three elections, two of them – to the upper and lower houses of parliament – likely to be repeated following judicial rulings that the regulations under which they were conducted were unconstitutional.
One consequence of interrupting parliament’s five-year term less than six months after the People’s Assembly was elected is the deluge of political alliances, coalitions and initiatives, the whole panoply of party machinations the goal of which is to secure more seats in the next parliament. Then there are the ex-presidential candidates who are hoping to entrench their power bases among supporters. Yet rather than reshaping the post-revolution political map this vast array of activity appears to be exacerbating existing fault-lines, most notably the Islamist-secular divide.
Take the case of Amr Moussa.
Within two weeks he has come to preside over two new groupings – the Coalition of the Egyptian Nation and the Congress of the Egyptian Conference Party – both comprising a range of political parties, many of them unknown quantities, that say they have chosen to unite because they share vaguely articulated nationalist or patriotic principles but which stress only the “civil” nature of their bloc-building, civil being a euphemism for secular.
The Egyptian Conference Party is an attempt to merge over 20 existing parties. It is an ambitious project that will require the constituent parties to disband. If it goes ahead, many party leaders will find themselves suddenly demoted to rank and file members of the Conference Party under Moussa’s leadership.
The Coalition of the Egyptian Nation, on the other hand, is just that, a coalition, though it remains unclear whether it’s a political or electoral alliance. Along with initiatives like former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi’s Popular Current and the Social Justice coalition of left-wing and liberal parties, it is part of a growing trend to forge political alliances in the hope of challenging the dominance of the Islamist parties which won 71 per cent of seats in the now dissolved People’s Assembly, 85 per in the existing Shura Council and, courtesy of Mohamed Mursi’s election victory, control the presidency.
With six political alliances and coalitions involving tens of political parties from left, right and centre emerging to date, it is no surprise that many commentators see this bloc building momentum as a qualitative shift in the political map.
“Congratulations Egypt,” tweeted Gamal Eid, an outspoken left-leaning rights activist, referring to the new alliances and the formation of Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei’s liberal Dostour Party.
But are congratulations really in order?
Few Egypt watchers are taking the current jockeying for position seriously. Many are skeptical about the impact of the alliances given their absence of a grass roots presence.
Ashraf El-Sherif, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, sees the sudden proliferation of coalitions as symptomatic of the way politics continues to be conducted “from above.”
“It’s not how you build a political party. You can’t hold a press conference to announce a political entity and then go the street and create it,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
El-Sherif sees the emergence of new groupings as a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Not that there is anything novel about the trajectory they then follow. They are moving, he says, in the same old political orbit, protesting the Islamists’ ascendency without offering a clear alternative.
“Demonising the Islamists isn’t enough to stake out your own political ground.” Nor, he adds, is the personal charisma of an ex-presidential candidate enough to compete in the next parliamentary elections “which will require money, rank and file and close [social] networking”.
“Electing MPs is about voting for people you know. It’s about presence and the fact is it’s the Islamists who are present.”
Predicting the outcome of elections is always an approximate science. Predicting the outcome of Egypt’s next parliamentary poll is not even that since the results hinge on two yet to be determined factors – the final shape of the constitution currently being drafted and the parliamentary election law.
The constitution has been the focus of bitter political battles since March 2011. Once finalised it will remain a subject of contention, and the emerging coalitions are likely to shift shape again as their constituent parties begin to define themselves in terms of their differences with other parties and not just their position vis-a-vis the Islamists.
The parliamentary election law remains up in the air. Will it be based on party lists, individual candidacy or a mixture of the two? In the 2011 parliamentary elections it was a mixture, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Parties faring slightly better as individuals and less as party candidates. Leaks from the Constituent Assembly suggesting that a majority favours party-based proportional representation has led to optimism among secularists that they may do better this time around.
Pre-election manoeuvering cannot help but resonate within the government (not overtly FJP but widely viewed as such) and condition its performance in the coming months. Austerity measures, such as cutting subsidies on energy and the way strikes demanding, among other things, better wages, are handled, will have immediate consequences for the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity, a fact that goes a long way to explaining the contradictory official statements on cutting subsidies issued before and after the 22 September administrative court ruling upholding the dissolution of parliament.
Such confusion could serve opposition forces but it will take a more logical map of alliances to capitalise on government disarray.
“How,” asks independent Nasserist and rights activist Mahmoud Qandil, “can liberals and Nasserists unite against the Islamists when they disagree about everything else?”
Another question poses itself: given that Sabbahi’s Popular Current comprises a central committee whose members represent liberal, socialist and Nasserist parties that are at odds over everything from social justice and the private sector to relations with the US and Israel, who do you speak to when approaching the cocktail?
“Who do we negotiate with over there? Sabbahi? A Karama Party representative of the Popular Current?” asks Mohamed Othman, a founding member of the Strong Egypt Party, the would-be party of ex-presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.
Othman is taking the plethora of new coalitions with a grain of salt. “All of this will change,” he says. “The real alliances will emerge in the last hours of the elections and not before.”
Whether Amr Moussa’s coalition of twenty-something mini parties will be among them remains to be seen.
This article was published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 September