Egypt's liberals and social democrats urged to unite

Mohamed El Hebeishy, Sunday 15 May 2011

Four liberal political parties participated in what was intended to be the country’s first post revolution political debate, but finding much similarity amongst each other, the debate turned into a call for unity

Engineer Naguib Sawiris speaking to the press – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy
Engineer Naguib Sawiris speaking to the press – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy

Over 1,500 middle and upper middle-class Egyptians attended the political debate that took place on the 10th floor ballroom of Cairo's Shepherds Hotel. The event was organised by Tahrok Igaby (Positive Action), along with 1,000 Miles, Enlightened Egypt, Association of Egyptian Citizens and a number of other civil society organisations. It featured four liberal political parties, namely, Free Egyptians Party, Justice Party, Democratic Front Party and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

The fact that there were no parties with a religious background present is notable. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has set up a political party called Justice and Freedom was conspicuously absent from the debate. 

“We actually invited the Justice and Freedom Party more than one month ago. Unfortunately, they never responded,” said Mohamed Ghoneim the man behind Tahrok Igaby.

Each of the four participating parties was given a chance to introduce themselves to the audience and highlight their points of differentiation. Founding member of the Free Egyptians Party, Naguib Sawiris, an engineer by profession and one of the countries top businessmen, acknowledged that the differences are negligible and proceeded to highlight the prospect of a coalition. “In my own opinion, when the right time comes, we will certainly form coalitions,” he announced, which prompted the crowd to cheer.

Dr Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, a leading member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, extended the invitation to all political parties on the scene, but not those with a religious background. “We are open to coalition invitations from any civil political party, including leftist parties, but we will never get into a coalition with a party that bases itself on a religious frame of reference. This, however, doesn’t contradict with our acknowledgment that religion is a main component in Egyptian identity,” he added.

Forming a coalition is different than forming one big political party, a point highlighted by dentist, Mustafa El-Naggar, who is one of the recently announced Justice Party founding members. “There is a huge difference between forming a coalition and merging into a single party. Though we might agree on the objective of having a civil [secular] country, we disagree when it comes to the ‘how’ to achieve this objective,” he asserted. 

The four parties agreed that the upcomging parliamentary elections, schedulled for September, should be postponed. “It is in the best interest of Egypt’s political scene to delay the parliamentary elections. We must unite around this objective,” said Osama El-Ghazali Harb, leader of the Democratic Front Party. The other three parties welcomed Harb’s call, though they disagreed on the means to do so. While the Justice Party emphasised the importance of demonstration as a pressure tool, the Free Egyptians Party favoured negotiations with the country's ruling military council, stressing the strong relationship between the people and the military establishment.

Disagreements, even among the same party members, surfaced as the idea of former NDP members participating in the upcoming legislative elections was brought up.

While El Ghazali Harb was open to discuss former NDP members’ participation on a case-by-case basis, the party’s vice president Sekina Fouad was rigidly against it. “The political party that corrupted Egypt and its political scene must not be allowed to participate in the upcoming elections; they should be politically quarantined,” she insisted.           

The four-party political debate was hailed as successful by most of the audience. “Events like this one come at a time where political awareness needs to break the virtual barrier of Twitter and Facebook and get down to the street. I would like to see more of it,” commented Karim El-Shafei, one of the event’s attendees.

Tahrok Igaby won’t settle for a one-time political debate, but repeat the events. They have already scheduled three political debates to take place between June and July, none of which will take place in Cairo. “Egypt is not only Cairo, and next time you will see us will be in Upper Egypt and we won’t be in suits and ties,” added Mohamed Ghoneim.

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