How to build the 'third current'

Samer Soliman , Thursday 5 Jul 2012

It is not enough to agree on principles. Those who seek a 'third current' in Egyptian politics have to innovate with new methods of management and organisation

Egypt is currently reeling from the outcome of the presidential race, exhausted, confused and with blurred vision. This is accompanied by deep frustration among half of the population who opted for Ahmed Shafiq, or reluctantly voted for Mohamed Morsi, or voided their ballot or boycotted the entire process altogether. It is a scene that forces the powers that lost the elections — or didn’t lose because they didn’t even run — to stop and think and review the situation to catch up on what they have missed and move forward.

Hence, it was unusual that at this particular moment in time hasty initiatives are being launched for a “third current” or “third alternative” or “third way” as an alternate to the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. An alternative that its founders have called a “civilian current” or “democratic” or “social democratic”, and in fact seems to reproduce the “Egypt bloc” coalition that had limited success during parliamentary elections and almost no success at all after that.

Egypt does indeed need to create political forces that expand the options of the people that were limited in the run-offs of the presidential race to choosing between a representative of the former regime or one from political Islam. Egypt’s nascent democracy certainly needs a balancing force to offset the hegemony of the Islamist current because democracy will not succeed unless there is a balance of power among a variety of powers.

Thus, I agree with those who launched the third current and I also agree that there is an emerging opportunity since political Islam is in a slump. Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the presidency, political Islam forces that won more than 17.5 million votes in parliamentary elections saw a sharp drop in ballots in the first round of the presidential race to less than 10 million votes. Basically, I agree with those who advocate for a “third current” that the country needs to break away from the duo of old regime or Muslim Brotherhood, but I have reservations about the way they are going about it.

I believe the first basic misconception of the third current initiative is believing that the only or fundamental problem with secular forces is that they are divided among many political parties and are incapable of uniting their ranks. In fact, party divisions are also present among Islamic currents that comprise of several parties, including the Freedom and Justice Party, El-Nour, Al-Assala and Construction and Development, but this did not block Islamic trends from a sweeping victory in parliament and winning the presidency.

The problem with civil forces, however, is not primarily rooted or fundamentally because of the large number of parties but because of their weakness. What is the point of uniting many parties if they are all fragile and frail? The main mission of civil forces is to build strong organisations rooted in social reality and linked to the interests of the people and that aim to serve them.

Some might respond that building strong organisations requires large numbers of people, groups and resources in one entity. This is a logical argument, but unity or alliance should be based on common political understanding and organisational coordination. But this, alas, has not occurred in the initiative of the “third current” that was promoted over the past few weeks. The announcement of the initiative was not preceded by any real action to compose a political platform for the alliance, or an organisational structure that brings together its members. Instead, it was confined to rhetoric and media statements, such as “We are confronting military and religious tyranny equally.”

It is strange that the concept on which this “third current” is based is unclear and not a point of convergence among its founders. For example, MP Hamdi Al-Fakharani and others assert that the new bloc is a middle ground entity between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, which implies that it includes people who are concerned about a clash between the military and Brotherhood, or one that seeks to referee between them. Meanwhile, film producer Mohamed El-Adl and others believe that “Egypt is at a crossroads and the labels of left, right and centre should be abandoned because what is more important is that our choices right now are religious and military tyranny or against it.” This means that the new bloc will confront both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, some like Amr Hamzawy claim that the bloc is not confrontational with the Islamist trend and that the civil/religious divide “is futile and will not benefit Egyptian political life”. This begs the question: what is the common ground between the Free Egyptians and the Egyptian Communist Party other than their conflict with the Islamist trend? But there is also Farid Zahran, who views it as a civic social alliance, although it includes Free Egyptians which one of its founders, Naguib Sawiris, describes as a capitalist party.

Even still, others state that the new alliance seeks the votes of the “couch” party, but the question here is how does one win the votes of those seeking stability and calm at any cost through creating a coalition that — at its inception — growls and vows confrontation, not calm, with the two major forces at play in Egypt, the military and Muslim Brotherhood.

Civic forces must face the fact that the bigger issue is building what does not exist, not gathering what already does. They must admit that despite their broad presence in society and omnipresence in the media, arts and culture, and despite their broad audience, they are politically/organisationally paralysed because until now they are incapable of organising into a democratic and effective structure that comprises of thousands of people.

This is where the Islamist trend has been successful. It does not have any genius political ideas — in fact, its most brilliant thinkers, such as Tarek Al-Bishri, were “imported” from other trends — and the innovative political thinkers who emerge from under its cloak usually distance themselves from it after a while. The power of the Islamist trend lies in its genius to organise, and that Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna established an extraordinary theory for organisation that was able to amass tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people in a united entity, based on a principal active cell of the “family” which includes several people. Some aspects of this genius organisation could benefit civic forces, although it cannot be entirely applied among them because the Brotherhood’s organisational philosophy is based on obedience, which cannot be applied to civil groups whose members are particularly single-minded.

The real dilemma facing civic forces is that their political and organisational structures are rigid hierarchies, which require a large strong base for stability. The Pyramid of Cheops touches the sky because its pointed peak is built on a wide strong base of rocks. Civil forces start off like pyramids with relatively broad bases (for example, the experiences of the Wafd and Tagammu parties in the 1970s), then soon the grassroots leave the party and the party structure changes from a pyramid to an obelisk whereby the number of leaders at the top are the same as the members at the base. Sometimes, the situation is so severe that that the pinnacle is larger than the size of the grassroots.

But why do so many abandon civic political parties? Because communication between the grassroots and the leaders function poorly or do not exist at all, and because there are groups or small cliques that control the organisation which makes other members feel marginalised and therefore they leave the party. Also, because, in general, Egypt suffers from a management crisis.

Innovative organisation is key if civic forces want to reserve a leadership role for themselves on the political scene. This creative organisation must begin by critiquing the various groups that exist in Egypt today; there are many political ideas and ideals but the organisation mechanism that can activate all this is damaged. Anyone who wants to establish a party, group or coalition must propose organisation ideas as well as political ones.

Intellectual and political agreement is not enough to produce strong organisations and alliances; the bigger issue today is how to create flexible and sturdy structures capable of accommodating the activities of tens of thousands of politicians. The incredible thing right now is that modern communication tools for the first time in history enable us to build organisations with a large degree of internal democracy.

More will come later about Egypt, organising and management.

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