Political parties around the world typically vie for public support based on their ideas and platforms, pitting left against right, conservatives against liberals, and partisans of globalisation against skeptics.
In Egypt, however, the real challenge for parties is not winning support versus competitors, but restoring credibility and standing to party politics itself.
In the wake of the 2011 January revolution, a flurry of new parties were born, but their role gradually declined until they came to have no real impact.
Today, no one but members and a few specialists follows their news or the statements they issue. Indeed, for much of the public, party politics are synonymous with a quest for the limelight and professionalizsed opposition and protest.
This is unfortunate. Parties have an important role to play in representing competing social interests, legally organising political participation, monitoring state performance, protecting the constitution and the law, and providing a space for legitimate competition for power.
Without parties, society loses its capacity for renewal and correction and its ability to take advantage of its diversity. Instead of being channeled into parties, the youth energy is directed to despair, a search for an alternative homeland, or involvement in underground organisations.
So why have party politics deteriorated in Egypt?
The easy answer is to blame a climate which suppresses freedoms, including the independent media, civil society, and political activity in general. This has undoubtedly contributed to the decline of party politics in Egypt.
But this explanation isn’t sufficient or honest. Parties should not wait for a favorable climate, but have to grapple with existing conditions in order to change them and create their own space even if denied by the authorities.
It may also be argued that the multiplicity of parties and the failure of similarly aligned organisations to consolidate in one large party is the cause for such decline.
But this gets things backwards: the fragmentation is a result, not the cause, of weak parties, a small member base, and public indifference. If parties were strong, effective, and attractive to the public, they would naturally merge, join forces, or at least cooperate, under pressure from their supporters.
We need to cast a critical eye at our experience with party politics in recent years and be ready to admit mistakes so we can learn from them. The first admission should be that party politics did not speak to people’s feelings, fears, and ambitions. Our real failure in recent years was not been the loss of parliamentary seats or the closure of party headquarters; it was the inability to persuade the public of the importance of parties and the worth of partisan politics.
I think this resulted from a lack of interest and appreciation in local political leaders, as well as an overriding interest in hot political issues at the expense of socioeconomic issues, and an unwillingness to gradually build the party as an institution. I do not say as a neutral observer, but as someone who participated in party politics until very recently and saw its rise and then retreat as parties proved unable to connect and give voice to the public.
But this isn’t the end of the road. Maybe the current retreat can mark a new beginning for another generation to try again, unencumbered by past failed experiments and old resentments that caused parties to lose their compass and, with it, people’s trust in party politics.
Egypt needs an active party life. It needs a ruling party to put forth and defend its policies and programmes and assume responsibility for them, and it needs opposition parties to offer alternatives, help find solutions, and defend civil rights, the rule of law, and the constitution.
To achieve this though, we need to reconsider past experiences and work to restore the public’s trust in party work, instead of each party competing for an ever-shrinking part of the pie.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
A version of this article was published in Arabic in Al-Shorouq newspaper on Monday 31 July.