Egyptian Eelections Watch (Ahram Online and Jadaliyya) , Friday 18 Nov 2011

Supporting an Arab nationalist agenda, Al-Karama (“Dignity”)Party has been part of the Egyptian political landscape since 1997, when its founder, Hamdeen Sabahi, broke ranks with the Nasserist Party. Al-Karama believes that Egypt represents the fountainhead of Arab nationalism, and a true Arab renaissance can only be realized through social equality and scientific and cultural development. While the party was “founded” more than a decade before the January 25 Revolution, it only received legal status in August 2011.

Before the Revolution

Party founder Sabahi ran in the parliament’s lower house elections for the first time in 1995 as an independent candidate, even though he was a member of the Nasserist Party at the time. He ran again as an independent in the 2000 and 2005 elections because Al-Karama Party never managed to obtain a formal party license under the Mubarak regime.

Sabahi was the first Member of Parliament to publicly raise the issue of Egyptian gas exports to Israel. In line with his party, Sabahi maintained a firm stance against the construction of a separation barrier along Egypt’s border with the besieged Gaza Strip.

In 1997, Sabahi was arrested and charged with inciting agricultural workers to stage an open-ended sit-in on their land in protest against a new law regulating the relationship between landowners and tenant farmers. The new law effectively reversed land reforms implemented in the immediate wake of the 1952 Revolution. The raft of new reforms allowed landowners to impose enormous rent increases and evict tenant farmers.

Al-Karama’s activists were among the founders and leaders of the Kefaya movement.  Kefaya emerged in 2004 as the first protest movement demanding that Hosni Mubarak resign as president and refrain from passing the presidency on to his politically influential son, Gamal. The party was also active in the National Association for Change. This coalition of opposition figures and groups formed in 2010 to demand democratic reforms and free and fair presidential elections in which independent candidates that were not handpicked by the Mubarak regime could run.

Party Structure

A Supreme Authority is tasked with running the party, executing the General Assembly’s decisions, appointing heads of the party’s media organizations and its unelected board members, and forming shadow governments. The General Assembly, which is responsible for formulating the party’s platform and its policies, elects members to the Supreme Authority and the party’s leader. Local party units, prevalent throughout Egypt in local districts, villages, and cities are tasked with electing members of the General Assembly. The party has an Executive Bureau comprised of high-ranking leaders. Al-Karama also has a Political Bureau that includes the party’s leader, along with co-founders Amin Iskandar, Kamal Abu Eita, and Abdel Rahman Al-Gohary.

Parliamentary Elections

Al-Karama Party will field sixteen candidates in the upcoming parliamentary polls. Ten of these candidates will run on the electoral lists of the Muslim Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance for the 508-member parliamentary lower house and three will run for the 270-member upper house. The remaining three will contest single-winner seats. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Freedom and Justice, is currently dominating the Democratic Alliance’s candidate rosters. The legal framework governing the elections gives SCAF the right to appoint ten of the 508 members of the lower house, and ninety of the 270 members of the upper house.

Click here to learn more about the election rules and dates.

Al-Karama contemplated leaving the Democratic Alliance because of a conflict with the Freedom and Justice Party over the relative positions of its candidates on the electoral lists. However, Al-Karama ultimately decided to contest elections through the Democratic Alliance.

Party leader Amin Iskandar justified the decision to join the Islamist-led alliance by saying that the Al-Karama Party opposed electoral divisions between liberal and Islamist forces. He stressed, however, that his party’s program was independent and distinct from other parties on the list.

Another party leader, Saad Aboud, who is also contesting parliamentary polls, said that Al-Karama’s place on the Democratic Alliance’s list could allow the party to capture as many as eleven seats in parliament.

Sabahi is preparing to make a bid for the presidency and will not run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He had pledged that he would not contest the presidency as Al-Karama’s nominee, but rather as an independent candidate. After Al-Karama was licensed in August 2011, Mohamed Sami became the party’s official leader.

Relationship with Other Parties

Although Al-Karama has considered abandoning the Democratic Alliance, it ultimately decided to stay on and field its candidates through the coalition’s electoral lists. Al-Wasat Party leader Abul Ela Madi claims that Al-Karama, as well as other parties, turned down his proposal to form a “third-way” electoral coalition separate from the political forces that are divided across Islamist-secular lines.

Al-Karama’s presence in the Democratic Alliance is significant, nonetheless, as it is one of the few remaining parties in the coalition with a noteworthy political history. This helps temper a common perception that the Alliance is but a “one-man-show” run by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), although it remains highly dominated by it. Some believe that the MB is keen on keeping smaller, non-Islamist parties in a coalition alongside its own party, Freedom and Justice, in order to present its potential electoral gains as the product of a broad national consensus that extends beyond pro-Islamist political communities. The Democratic Alliance, which once comprised of over forty parties, now consists of eleven. Many parties left the Democratic Alliance in the lead-up to elections, alleging that the Freedom and Justice Party was dominating the alliance’s decisions and its electoral lists, a suspicion that was later confirmed when the alliance submitted its final lists.

As a Nasserist political party with political and ideological differences with the MB, Al-Karama’s continued partnership with the MB is perplexing to some observers. Some claim that Al-Karama’s activists have played a role in stifling the Muslim Brotherhood’s entry into the Kefaya movement between 2005 and 2006. In May 2010, Amin Iskandar expressed reservations concerning Mohamed ElBaradei’s comment that the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to govern Egypt. Iskander stated that the Islamist group has yet to offer clear positions on critical issues, such as citizenship and women’s rights.

Although Al-Karama Party was a member of the National Association for Change, it has a tense relationship with the Association’s founder and presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, presumably because Al-Karama’s founder Sabahi himself has been entertaining a presidential bid. In April 2010, Sabahi said that even though he supports ElBaradei’s demands for reform, he does not endorse his bid for presidency, adding that he is determined to contest the same office that ElBaradei is seeking. A month earlier, Al-Karama’s Amin Iskandar said that ElBaradei alone would not be enough to advance the change that Egyptians want and that the opposition needs to gather support for “other presidential candidates” as well, in what seemed to be an implicit reference to Al-Karama’s Hamdeen Sabahi. Iskandar has described ElBaradei as lacking a clear political vision.

Stances on Salient Issues

Form of Government

The party favors a system of government that limits presidential authority and grants the prime minister complete power as a representative of the executive authority. The party also supports a system of government that allows parliament to draft and approve laws and monitor government performance.

Social Justice

The party seeks a profound, albeit equitable, redistribution of wealth and resources in Egyptian society, along with poverty alleviation measures through state planning and social welfare programs.

Economic Policy

According to Al-Karama official Saad Aboud, the party seeks to establish a social democratic system and reclaim the government’s central role in state planning.

Religion and State

The party believes that religion represents an essential cultural component of Egyptian society but does not support a theocratic system of governance. The party does, however, take a firm stance against secularism. Al-Karama’s program states that secularists “want to separate nationalists from their past and present and insert them into a contemporary western scene totally alien to them.”

Military Trials

Al-Karama’s Youth Secretary Hossam Moanis Saad told Jadaliyya/Ahram Online that the party opposes the practice of referring civilians to military courts. Party officials have repeatedly called for restricting the use of such trials to military personnel who are charged with crimes that were committed during the Mubarak era.

Strike Law and Labor Movements

The party rejects laws banning labor strikes. Al-Karama stresses the importance of respecting workers’ constitutional right to strike, which the party holds should not be revoked or criminalized.

Foreign Relations

The party opposes normalization of relations with Israel and says that it wishes to see the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel annulled. When Jadaliyya/Ahram Online asked about the possibility of unilateral action in this regard, Al-Karama’s Youth Secretary Moanis said that such a decision would be left up to the Egyptian people, who should be given a chance to vote on the issue in a national referendum.

Media Image and Controversies

In 2006, Al-Karama Party was under severe attack from many political activists after its official newspaper ran a front-page feature on the achievements of the then-Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi under the title “Thirty-Seven Years of Achievement.” This led some activists to accuse Al-Karama of receiving financial support from the former Libyan regime, while others questioned Al-Karama’s democratic commitments. Some critics of the party have questioned how a group could demand an end to Mubarak’s twenty-five years of rule, while simultaneously singing the praises of Ghaddafi, who ruled Libya with an iron fist for thirty-seven years. Shortly after the outbreak of rebellion against Ghadaffi, which ultimately led to his demise, Al-Karama leader Sabahi said that he “supports the Libyan people against the tyrant Ghadaffi.”

The ambiguity surrounding Al-Karama’s position on the 19 March constitutional referendum was also perplexing. Before they were approved by seventy-seven percent of Egyptian voters, the SCAF proposed constitutional amendments unleashed heated, often hostile, debates throughout the country. Liberal and leftist activists opposed these amendments on the grounds that they failed to overhaul the “authoritarian constitution” inherited from the Mubarak era, whereas Islamist groups claimed that approving these amendments was the best way to ensure a swift end to military rule. While most parties took clear positions on these amendments, Al-Karama remained silent for much of the lead-up to the vote. Party leader Hamdeen Sabahi avoided taking clear positions until media outlets began reporting that Al-Karama supported the amendments, forcing Sabahi to side unequivocally with the “No camp” that opposed them.

Key Figures

Hamdeen Sabahi

A graduate of Cairo University’s mass communications faculty, Sabahi founded Al-Karama Party in 1996 after defecting from the Nasserist Party due to disagreements with its leader, Diaeddin Daoud.Sabahi repeatedly tried to obtain official party status for Al-Karama by applying to the state-controlled Political Parties Committee and filing cases with the Political Parties Court. His efforts in this regard were to no avail.

Sabahi was elected to the lower house of parliament in 2005 and initially expressed interest in running in the 2005 presidential election, but later called upon citizens and opposition groups to boycott the poll. He is a founding member of the National Association for Change reform movement, formed in early 2010.

Sabahi initially ran in the 2010 parliamentary elections, but withdrew his candidacy after he allegedly witnessed vote rigging by Mubarak’s ruling party.

Sabahi participated in the January 25 Revolution from the outset, and was slightly injured while protesting in Kafr Al-Sheikh in the Nile Delta. Following the revolution, he announced plans to make a bid for the presidency. His supporters have reportedly gathered over 10,000 signatures of endorsement.

Amin Iskandar

Veteran political activist Amin Iskandar is a founding member of Al-Karama Party and a longstanding advocate of Nasserist pan-Arabism.

Iskandar participated in the 1977 bread riots in Cairo. Beginning in 1978, he was arrested several times for his political activism.

In the 1980s, he helped organize the campaign to defend Suleiman Khater, an Egyptian soldier who was accused of opening fire against Israeli tourists in Sinai. Iskandar also served as the coordinator of a popular campaign against normalization with Israel. Additionally, Iskandar was a founding member of the Kefaya protest movement.

Prior to Al-Karama Party’s launch, Iskandar’s political activities included establishing the Socialist Forum with Kamal Al-Din Refaat, the Socialist Party with Farid Abdel- Karim, the Alliance Party with Kamal Ahmed, and the Nasserist Party with Diaeddin Daoud.

Kamal Abu Eita

Kamal Abu Eita is a founding member of Al-Karama Party. A student of philosophy, psychology, and law, Abu Eita’s prominence grew when he succeeded in founding an independent union for Real Estate Tax Collectors in 2009. As Egypt’s first independent workers’ syndicate established during the Mubarak era, the union started a trend that has gathered more force since the January 25 Revolution.

Abu Eita is the general manager of the Real Estate Tax Collecting Directorate in Giza, secretary-general of the Committee to Defend Political Prisoners, and founder of the National Committee to Defend the Rights of Workers and Agricultural Workers.

After the revolution, Abu Eita reportedly turned down then-Deputy Prime Minister Yehia Al-Gamal’s offer to serve as Egypt’s Minister of Manpower and Emigration.

Abu Eita submitted an application to run in the upcoming parliamentary polls with Al-Karama Party on the Democratic Alliance’s list. However, his application was refused by the state-run Elections Commission on the grounds that the committee does not recognize the Egyptian Federation of Independent Labor Unions, of which Abu Eita is president. According to Abu Eita, the committee’s decision directly contradicts the post-revolution Constitutional Declaration, which guarantees workers the right to establish independent unions. A court ruling later reversed the Elections Commission’s decision on 16 November.

Fact Box

Founding: 1997 (obtained legal status in August 2011)

Members: The party has close to 7,000 members, according to party officials

Political Orientation: The party upholds the pan-Arab philosophy of late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser

Alliances: The Democratic Alliance for Egypt

Short link: