Egypt's Constitution Party: New hope for liberals?

Zeinab El Gundy , Wednesday 29 Aug 2012

After officially submitting papers, Constitution Party founded by Mohamed ElBaradei starts work in earnest, hoping to provide viable counterweight to Egypt's powerful Islamist forces

Mohamed ElBaradei
Constitution Party founder Mohamed ElBaradei (File Photo, Reuters)

"We have great ambitions and will face huge challenges," Samir El-Sayed, journalist and one of the founding members of the new Constitution Party, told Ahram Online after the party submitted its registration papers Wednesday.

Some doubted that the Constitution Party would see the light after some founding members, including prominent writer Wael Kandil and renowned author Alaa Al-Aswany resigned amid rumours of discord within the party, which was established in April.

Now that party members delivered notarised documents to the Political Party Affairs Committee as a final step to becoming official, sympathisers hope it will represent a new chance for liberal and moderate parties in Egypt to counter the domination of Islamist political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Verbal jousting

In the holiday following Ramadan, the Constitution Party found itself in the spotlight when FJP members mocked it for "mixing religion and politics" after an incident in Qena where party members gave out flyers during prayer time congratulating citizens on the Islamic holiday.

ElBaradei's distribution of flyers during the (Eid) prayers puts an official end to the statement that condemns mixing religion with politics,” Hassan El-Barnes, a leading FJP member, said on his Facebook page, adding that Constitution Party youth had organised Eid prayers in several governorates, including several areas in Cairo.

Esraa Abdel-Fatah, activist and co-founder of the party, fired back at the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Constitution Party did not use mosques to spread our political message,” adding that there was a difference between the use of religion in politics and civil community activities.

Nevertheless, the young activist is happy that leading Muslim Brotherhood members were attacking the new party. “Working among the people disturbed the Muslim Brotherhood, because they do not want anyone except them in the street. They know they have no power except by religion," Abdel-Fatah said in an op-ed in daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

"What happened in the Eid celebrations is one of the challenges the party faces," said El-Sayed, adding that party members were thrilled by the popular reaction to the founding of the party. "Many young people have joined the party and many more are willing to join. We must integrate this energy in a real plan on the ground," he added.

In the streets

According to El-Sayed, the number of people who have signed registration forms to join the party has exceeded 50,000, including students who are willing to play a role on campus once the school year begins.

Until now, according to its official Facebook page, the party has branches in 26 governorates. Most of the party's members are the youth of the ElBaradei Presidential Support Campaign and the Revolution Youth Coalition, which was disbanded this summer.

The party has already begun to work in the streets in civil community activities starting with last week’s rallies against sexual harassment and organising charitable markets for clothes in poor areas. Its members in several Upper Egyptian governorates paid visits to churches to congratulate worshipers on special occasions of the Christian calendar.

On Saturday, party members in Monoufiya, a stronghold of the now-defunct National Democratic Party, visited in hospital those affected by water pollution in Sansafat village.

Reaching out to people in the streets has been one of the main challenges facing liberal and non-Islamist parties in Egypt.

Under the Mubarak regime, street-based party organisation was almost impossible. Yet after the revolution, it seemed no different, with liberal parties still criticised for lacking the ability to connect with the common people.

"Some blame it on these parties' lack of financial resources compared to Islamist parties, while others blame it on the centralisation of the parties in Cairo, neglecting other governorates, unlike the Freedom and Justice Party and Salafist El-Nour Party, whose strength comes from the Nile Delta and Upper Egyptian governorates," said Abdel-Fatah.

"What we are trying to do now is use our resources to the most to fill in all these gaps. Members in the governorates use their own private offices as headquarters, and many of them spend their own money on current activities," he added.

Upcoming elections

The FJP and Nour Party together secured more than 70 per cent of the seats in the People's Assembly (the lower house of Egypt's parliament). The assembly, however, was dissolved in June by Egypt's then-ruling military council following a court ruling that found the law governing last winter's parliamentary polls to be unconstitutional.

Many observers do not expect Islamist parties to win as many seats in the upcoming elections, the exact date for which has yet to be announced. In the meantime, secularists are hoping that the new Constitution Party will pose a viable counterweight to Egypt's Islamist forces.

Even though founding members created a basic platform for the Constitution Party, with broad ideas about citizenship rights, social justice and decentralisation, Abdel-Fatah thinks the party’s programme will be broader still when it becomes official and its members begin to share ideas and develop the party's platform.

The Constitution Party has its eye mainly on upcoming elections, whether parliamentary or those for local councils, according to Abdel-Fatah.

"It is tough competition considering the Islamist parties' power in the street. Still, the Constitution Party believes it has an advantage over other parties. Not only does it include liberal Mohamed ElBaradei and Salafist Mohamed Yousry Salamah (former Nour Party spokesperson), it is also a party whose goals are the original goals of the revolution – namely, bread, freedom and social justice – in addition to preserving the civil [i.e., non-religious] state in Egypt," says Abdel-Fattah.

In July, ElBaradei spoke about upcoming elections, hinting that the Constitution Party would form an electoral coalition with other parties. Sources confirmed to Ahram Online that talks are currently ongoing on the formation of an electoral coalition that is expected to include major Egyptian liberal parties.

Setting the target of five million members, the newly founded party believes that decentralisation in the governorates will be the key to success.

"Our strength so far is in our youth in the governorates," Abdel-Fatah told Ahram Online, adding that young cadres were taking initiative on the ground. "Our party bases in the governorates are now making headlines even more than our party’s cadres in Cairo," he added.

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