Egypt's Islamist parties eye potential alliances in run-up to parliament polls

Sherif Tarek , Wednesday 16 Jan 2013

Muslim Brotherhood's FJP and Salafist Nour Party brace for electoral rivalry while talks remain ongoing between all Egypt's Islamist parties over potential alliances

(Clockwise) Watan Party's Emad El-Din Abdel-Gafour, Tarek El-Zomor of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, FJP chairman Saad El-Katatni and Younes Makhioun, the newly-elected head of the Nour Party (Photo: Al-Ahram)

With talks among Islamist political forces over possible electoral alliances still underway ahead of Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party are poised to once again field rival electoral lists.

There has been no love lost since last winter's parliamentary polls, in which the FJP and Nour secured the two largest blocs of seats in the People's Assembly – the lower house of parliament that was dismantled in June following a court order that ruled the assembly "unconstitutional."

The FJP and the Nour Party, both launched shortly after Egypt's 2011 revolution, first sought an electoral alliance in advance of Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls just over one year ago.

The friendship, however, was nipped in the bud before the polls even began, with both parties eventually leading separate coalitions. The FJP ultimately amassed 47 per cent of the seats in the People's Assembly; Nour around 23 per cent.

This time around, a reformed Nour Party – the political arm of Egypt's Salafist Call – hopes to leapfrog over the FJP to win a majority in the House of Representatives (the lower, legislative house of Egypt's parliament, formerly known as the People's Assembly).

Nour Party spokesman Nadder Bakkar has recently revealed that, like the FJP, his party intends to contest 100 per cent of parliamentary seats in 2013 elections.

"We're not seeking to rule the country, but we want to manage it," Bakkar told Ahram Online. "I think the state lacks management in this critical phase, so we plan to contest all seats in the assembly."

The fact that several political parties intend to contest all the seats in upcoming parliamentary elections might leave the FJP no choice but to run on its own, according to Ahmed Okeil, a spokesman and leading member of the Brotherhood’s political wing.

"We are in negotiations with everyone over possible alliances and agreements," Okeil told Ahram Online, declining to name the parties that the FJP had spoken to. "But if they all insist on fielding full electoral lists in all the nation's constituencies, we'll do the same."

He elaborated: "We want an alliance that will endure beyond the elections; one based not only on an electoral programme, but on a legislative one as well. We have a vast legislative programme that we will seek to push forward after the polls."

Electoral rivalries aside, the FJP and Nour also have ideological differences.

In an interview with Al-Ahram's Arabic-language news website last week, newly-elected Nour Party head Younes Makhioun stated that his party's programmes and views regarding management of the state differed from those of the FJP and the Brotherhood, the group from which President Mohamed Morsi hails.

"It would be too difficult to share one [electoral] list. It is in both sides' best interest to contest parliamentary polls on their own," he said, admitting to the "tense" relationship between Nour and the Brotherhood first openly referred to by Bakkar while speaking to the Financial Times.

Bakkar told the FT earlier this month that the Brotherhood had a "big hand" in recent rifts within the Nour Party; an allegation that Makhioun said had no evidence to support, despite his acknowledgement of "fundamental differences" between Nour and the Brotherhood.

Nour split

Nour was dealt a blow in December by the resignation of 150 influential members, including former chairman Emad El-Din Abdel-Ghafour (Makhioun's predecessor), who later announced – along with the other defectors – the launch of a new Salafist party called the Watan ('Homeland') Party.

Media reports at the time suggested that a dispute between Abdel-Ghafour, considered the leader of the party's so-called 'reformist wing' in his last few months as chairman, and followers of cleric Yasser El-Borhami – a founder of the Salafist Call – had led to cracks within the party.

Although the Watan Party was established by a breakaway group from the Nour Party, it may still join Nour in an electoral alliance that would vie for seats against the Brotherhood.

"Some parties have been suggested for a possible electoral alliance, including [the ultra-conservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's] Building and Development Party, the Strong Egypt Party [founded by former Islamist presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh] and the Watan Party," Bakkar said.

For his part, Watan Party spokesman Yossry Hamad, one of the prominent defectors from Nour, echoed the friendly sentiments towards his former party while revealing that talks were underway with other Islamist forces.

"I have always said that the Nour Party is the closest to our hearts because it was us who founded it," Hamad told Ahram Online. "We left the Nour Party due to differences over policy and management, not to ideological differences."

"We have already met with representatives of the Wasat Party, the Building and Development Party and the [centrist] Hadara ['Civilization'] Party," he added.

Other Islamist contenders

The moderate-Islamist Wasat Party, for its part, met with a number of Islamist and liberal parties on Tuesday to discuss a possible centrist-Islamist alliance. Several Salafist parties took part in the meeting, including the Asala, Fadila, Sarh Al-Masry, Sahwa and Reform and Renaissance parties.

"We hope this alliance will be a political, electoral and cultural one able to restore national cohesion away from any polarisation," Mohamed Mahsoub, member of the Wasat Party's higher committee, said at a subsequent press conference.

Wasat was the Islamist trend's third biggest winner in last year's parliamentary polls behind the FJP and Nour, and fourth overall behind the third-placed liberal Wafd Party. It ran independently all along.

Conversely, the Building and Development Party forged two electoral alliances in last year's elections, and are now on the lookout for new allies. The FJP, however, is not on the party's list of potential coalition partners.

Ahead of the previous polls, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's political party had joined the FJP-led Democratic Alliance, before later withdrawing – along with the Salafist Asala and Nour parties – to join the coalition led by the latter under the name of the 'Islamic Bloc'.

This year, the Building and Development Party, according to ex-MP Adel Mohamed, is willing to work "only" with the Watan Party and/or the yet-to-be-launched party of ex-presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail. Some observers say Abu-Ismail's party could emerge as the contest's dark horse given the Salafist leader's vast popularity.

"But we don't have any intention of joining forces with the FJP," Mohamed told Ahram Online. "The Brotherhood would give its allies a negligible presence on its electoral lists in favour of its own candidates."

Only weeks before polling began last year, the Building and Development, Asala and Nour parties all opted to form their own coalition after protesting their paltry presence on the FJP-led alliance's electoral lists. Liberal forces too, including the Wafd Party, withdrew from the alliance for the same reason.

Upcoming elections for Egypt's House of Representatives (formerly the People's Assembly) should be conducted within three months of the approval of Egypt's new constitution. Egypt's new national charter was endorsed via popular referendum late last month.

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