Pre-revolution parties try to adjust to post-revolution realities

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 22 Feb 2011

Egypt's traditional opposition finds itself sinking in the sands of change as the regime crumbles and the younger generations find their voice

El-Sayed El-Badawi, Ashour, Refaat
El-Sayed El-Badawi, Ashour, Refaat

The resignation of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February after 30 years in power left Egypt's 33-year-old multi-party system in tatters. While Mubarak's 32-year-old ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) crumbled into chaos, old opposition parties – mainly the liberal Al-Wafd, the leftist Tagammu, and the Arab Nasserists – are struggling to survive the new political reality.

These three opposition parties fell under severe attacks from youth movements leading the January 25 revolution. They faced accusations of political corruption, concluding secret personal and business deals with Mubarak's regime and being manipulated by old guard politicians.

A short time before the collapse of Mubarak's regime, the parties suffered a big setback. Although tainted with massive rigging practices, the parliamentary elections – which were held last November and December – revealed the level of public disillusionment with the traditional opposition parties.

Ahead of the election, two of the Wafd's big businessmen – El-Sayed El-Badawi, the party's newly-elected chairman; and Reda Edward, a member of the party's higher council, swooped on the independent newspaper of Al-Dostour and dismissed its editor Ibrahim Eissa, thus helping Mubarak's regime be rid of its most vocal critic.

Instead of reaping the reward of seats in Parliament, the Wafd watched as Mubarak's NDP swept the polls. After winning just two seats in the first round, the party decided to withdraw from the race.

This was not enough, however, to shake the old mentality of the party's leaders. El-Badawi was keen to attend Mubarak's speech before the opening session of the new parliament. Even worse were El-Badawi’s comments that while the Wafd's leadership does not support the January 25 protests, it cannot prevent its members from joining it.

The party's leadership has since come immense criticism from within, facing attacks that it has completely failed to respond to the needs of the street and attract the younger generation to join its ranks. Many of the party's leaders also lament that a businessman should be on top of the party's leadership.

El-Badawi is a media mogul whose television channel – Al-Hayat – long flirted with Mubarak's regime and his son Gamal. When elected last May, El-Badawi vowed that he would change the Wafd's image in just nine months, raising its profile in political life and injecting new young blood into its ranks.

This now rings hollow with the Wafd's remaining popularity shattered by the parliamentary elections and the January 25 Revolution. Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, the Wafd's secretary-general and a businessman, has admitted that the role of the party's leaders in stifling the anti-Mubarak voice of Al-Dostour newspaper and the revolution have caused the party immense damage.

In a newspaper interview, Abdel-Nour warned that unless the Wafd adjusts to the new political realities by changing its blood and fostering contact with the street, it could slide into irrelevance. “The Wafd stands for political liberalism and this ideology is quite important to face the risk of turning the country into a religious state,” said Abdel-Nour, expressing hope that “the Wafd will be able in the next period to use its ideology of liberalism to attract all the political and intellectual elite keen to turn Egypt into a democratic civilian state.”

The leftist Tagammu party also suffered a big shock ahead of the revolution. The party has been in the grip of internal disputes, with many of its old members accusing Chairman Rifaat El-Said of sacrificing the party in favour of personal interests. El-Said was appointed to the Upper House by Mubarak in 1995.

Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, El-Tagammu's deputy chairman who resigned in protest at what he described as El-Said's hypocrisy and getting into bed with the NDP and Mubarak's regime, asked for a complete restructuring of the party. “The Tagammu,” argued Al-Hariri, “stands for social justice and now it should champion the way towards a democratic state defending the rights of public sector employees and poor peasants.”

El-Hariri has led several internal Tagammu campaigns, aiming to remove confidence in El-Said. They have since issued several statements demanding that El-Said “step down or be compelled to resign like Hosni Mubarak.”

Like the Tagammu, the Arab Nasserist party is enduring internal divisions. The party, which failed to win a single seat in parliamentary elections, has split into two factions: one led by Sameh Ashour, the party's deputy chairman and a former president of the lawyers' syndicate, and the other by Ahmed Hassan, the party's old-time secretary-general.

The conflict between the two factions became sharp after Hassan was appointed by Mubarak to the Upper House last June. This lead to accusations from Ashour's faction that he was exploiting the party for his own personal gain. Just a few days ahead of the revolution, Ashour led an emergency conference under the name of “the march of reform and change” that aimed to rid the Nasserist party of “all opportunist elements.”

Ashour believes that “the Nasserist ideology has not lost is ideology on the street but what went wrong was that the party's leaders lost contact with the street.” Ashour was happy that “while protesters were demonstrating in Tahrir Square for 18 days, many of the young faces were holding aloft pictures of “Gamal Abdel Nasser and raising Nasserist slogans about social equality and nationalist ideals.”

In Ashour's words “unless the Nasserist party stops its internal divisions and works hard to attract young people into its ranks, it will sure slide into irrelevance and oblivion.”

The Nasserist party's mouthpiece newspaper Al-Arabi played a big role in dismantling the inheritance scenario and was a sharp critic of Mubarak and his younger son Gamal. Al-Arabi's editor Abdallah Al-Sennawi believes that “Al-Arabi did an excellent job in bringing about the downfall of Mubarak's regime but this is not enough to keep the Nasserist party alive.

“The party – like other opposition parties – should be mobilised from now on to forge close contacts with the youth movements and other socially underprivileged groups to recover its popularity on the street,” said El-Sinnawi.

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