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Hamdeen Sabbahi and the problem of the Popular Current

Egypt is in need of strong political parties, not informal political currents weak in structure and crippled in form

Samer Soliman , Wednesday 3 Oct 2012
Hamdeen Sabahi
Former Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (Photo: Reuters)
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To be honest, I’m not convinced with the Popular Current that was launched last week. It is nothing personal about its founder, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. I am an admirer of his and his accomplishments in closely connecting with the people during his presidential campaign.

I am also impressed by the incredible effort he made to step away from the traditional rhetoric of Nasserism and present an attractive populist platform based on social justice and simple Egyptian religiosity.

However, I am still waiting for Sabbahi to undertake serious self-criticism and revision of his previous positions on some tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein in front of whom he stood up and delivered an ode praising him. This would require a clear admission by Sabbahi of being wrong, without equivocation or pretense that he was not defending Saddam but opposing the US. True opposition to the US is not done by supporting criminals who foolishly drag their countries into escapades and end up with foreign occupation.

Despite my reservations about Sabbahi’s previous positions, I appreciate his accomplishment during his presidential campaign and role in spotlighting the truth about millions of Egyptian yearning for a political platform that is not based on hatred but instead on compassion, solidarity and social justice.

Why do I have reservations about the Popular Current? Because Egypt does not need more political institutions and organisations that are in actuality parties. Despite the plethora of existing political parties today, not a single one is as strong as the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is nothing more than a political front of a religious group called the Muslim Brotherhood. It is similar to the Salafist El-Nour Party, which is the front for religious groups and networks.

Today, after the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime that prevented the formation of real parties, the country needs its politicians to form new strong parties or help existing ones to grow and mature. Under Mubarak, we were politically active through unofficial and weakly structured movements, currents and groups (for example, Kefaya and the National Association for Change) because the regime had to license any new party.

Today, there are no obstacles to launching political parties with a large margin of free mobility, so why are we regressing and operating in the informal political sector? If you can easily obtain a commercial license with an address and registration, why would you insist on being a street vendor? Why remain a street vendor when you can be a regulated seller? Sabbahi responds to this by saying that political parties have limited maneuverability and only discuss general politics, when reality requires a current with a variety social, cultural and services activities.

An easy response to his argument is that there is nothing stopping parties from sponsoring cultural and services activities, and there is nothing stopping us from launching a party based on a new operating philosophy and activities.

It is no coincidence that mature democracy is based on political parties with institutional sustainability and structure. A political party has a clear configuration with membership lists and cards, and thus can hold internal elections, which are the backbone of democracy in any political entity. How would a nascent "popular current" hold internal elections? And how would its members be able to oversee its leaders?

A party has financial records of donations that are monitored by its members and the state. How would a popular current receive donations with guarantees of transparency and integrity when spending the money if it does not have a legal format?

In all honesty, I don’t believe that creating informal currents in place of parties will benefit Egypt’s reality. Yes, I know it is difficult to construct a party, but it is worth as many attempts as needed rather than regressing backwards and calling for exercising politics through entities that are institutionally and structurally weak.

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