Shortly after this year’s presidential elections during a meeting with political party representatives at the Fifth Youth Conference in Cairo on 16 May, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said there were too many political parties in Egypt and that they needed to merge into a smaller number.
Although Al-Sisi had called on the political parties to unite their ranks in the past, this time round his statement was followed by actions on the ground that suggested that this latest proposal was more than just a suggestion.
During his first term in power, Al-Sisi did not show an interest in recreating the experience of his predecessors by establishing a ruling party loyal to the regime and serving as a vehicle to mediate the regime’s relationship with the larger society.
Moreover, Al-Sisi openly expressed his lack of interest in politics, maintaining on various occasions that he was not by nature a politician and that he did not wish to be associated with any single political party.
This mistrust in politics and for political parties can be attributed to a number of causes. First and foremost, the country’s current leaders seem to share the view that the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), the single party of the former Mubarak regime, was part of Egypt’s problems and hence cannot be part of any future solution.
Through the vehicle of the NDP, businessmen were able to penetrate the state at the highest levels and attempted to advance the succession of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak to the presidency in order to consolidate their power vis-à-vis the military and state bureaucracy.
Moreover, there has been a widespread perception that the NDP, especially during its final years, was an unruly and corrupt entity colonised by competing interest groups with the aim of gaining concessions from the state through legitimate and illegitimate means.
Hence, upon assuming power in 2011 one of the first decisions taken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was to dissolve the NDP.
During the 2012 elections, candidates associated with the former ruling party performed poorly, further reinforcing the view that it had had no independent basis of power and had been a merely parasitical entity living off connections with the state.
In contrast, the Islamist candidates, who depended on the support of a social movement with its own mosques, schools, hospitals, businesses and NGOs, were able to gain a majority of seats in parliament in the 2012 elections.
After the ousting of the Brotherhood from power in the 30 June Revolution, a new constitution was adopted that stipulated that the president of the Republic could not assume the leadership of any political party and further reinforcing the view that the creation of a new ruling party was unlikely under President Al-Sisi.
In lieu of a ruling party, the ruling elite relied instead on a loose coalition of smaller parties and independents loyal to the regime. These banded together after the 2015 elections to form the coalition of support for Egypt.
However, though this coalition enjoyed a majority of seats in parliament, it too was unruly and conflict-ridden. An early example of this was seen in the vote against a new civil service law by a majority of the members of the coalition, even though it had publicly declared its support for the law.
Similarly, the initial reluctance of many MPs from the coalition to vote for the new border treaty with Saudi Arabia proved problematic.
The unruly and unreliable nature of the coalition, especially during the recent presidential elections, seems to have driven Al-Sisi to the realisation that a new ruling party could be necessary after all.
This is especially important in the light of the regime’s intentions to convene municipal elections before the end of this year and also in its seeming intention to introduce a number of important amendments to the 2014 constitution.
Events following the statements made by Al-Sisi on 16 May indicate that there is indeed an intention to transform the political party scene in Egypt in the coming weeks.
Three main initiatives have taken shape since 16 May to merge and consolidate party politics in response to Al-Sisi’s call. It is not yet clear which (if any) of these will succeed.
The first initiative was announced by the coalition. Initially, it announced that it intended to transform itself into a single political party. However, this initiative was thwarted by various obstacles.
The first were legal, since both the law and the constitution clearly stipulate that an MP cannot change the affiliation upon which he was elected to parliament, and hence it will be difficult for members of the coalition to change en masse their existing affiliations and join a new political party.
The second and more important obstacle is political in nature. The Future of the Nation Party, the largest party in the coalition and the second-largest in parliament as a whole with 45 MPs, has announced that it does not endorse the move to transform the coalition into a single party.
It has taken steps to become a majority party by recruiting new members from the Free Egypt Party (the largest party in parliament) and other parties.
Over the past two weeks, approximately 50 MPs from the Free Egypt Party have resigned and joined the Future of the Nation Party. Alaa Abed, former leader of the Free Egyptians bloc in parliament, resigned to become the secretary-general of the Future of the Nation Party.
Though the law prevents MPs from changing party affiliations, Abed has maintained that an MP can only be expelled from parliament if a two-thirds majority of MPs votes to expel him.
Since this is not likely to happen, MPs can go ahead and change their affiliations until the law and the constitution are amended to allow MPs to lawfully change their affiliations.
The third initiative was taken by the Wafd Party. This had caused an upset during the run-up to the presidential elections when its higher committee voted against fielding a candidate against Al-Sisi, forcing the regime to rely on a lesser-known candidate instead.
Shortly after the elections, a new individual known for his loyalty to the regime was elected president of the party. Recently, former spokesman for the army Ahmed Samir joined the Wafd Party as its vice-president for youth affairs.
Moreover, in recent weeks the Wafd Party has launched an initiative to create a committee to coordinate between the political parties on the one hand and political parties and the government on the other, and it has proposed the adoption of a national charter to regulate the conduct of the country’s political parties.
For now, it seems that the Wafd Party is trying to position itself not as a new ruling party, but rather as the loyal opposition to the ruling party in order to fulfil the political vision desired by Al-Sisi, which consists of a unified and reliable ruling party and an equally unified and reliable opposition.
It is still unclear whether these attempts to form a new ruling party and a loyal opposition party will succeed and yield the results desired by Al-Sisi, especially given the internal squabbling between the existing parties and the competition between various state agencies to exercise control over any emerging ruling party.
However, there does seem to be sufficient political will to achieve this objective in order to ensure that the desired constitutional amendments are adopted and to guarantee that establishment loyalists dominate the forthcoming municipal elections later this year.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: A new ruling party in Egypt?