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

Al-Wasat Party
A man wearing a vest with Arabic writing the reads, "the Center Party" hands out fliers to men on the first day of parliamentary elections (Photo: AP)

Al-Wasat Party was “formed” in 1996 well before Egypt’s January 25 Revolution. It was denied license four times until it was formally recognized as a legal political party by court order a week after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. The Al-Wasat Party has often been portrayed to be a moderate Islamist alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before the Revolution

Al-Wasat’s founders include several Muslim Brotherhood defectors, most notably Abul Ela Madi who currently heads the party. Al-Wasat has consistently denied allegations that it was formed as a result of directives from the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau. Other prominent individuals who have been tied to Al-Wasat over the years include the late Abd Al-Wahab Al-Mesiri who was once the coordinator of the Kefaya movement, presidential hopeful Mohamed Selim Al-Awa, and former prominent Muslim Brotherhood member Essam Sultan.

The party has had a long history of opposing the former regime, particularly its “presidential inheritance” plan to directly pass on the presidency from Mubarak to his son, Gamal. Al-Wasat’s leaders played a leading role in forming the Kefaya movement and were active members in it. Founded in 2004, Kefaya was the first opposition movement to demand that Mubarak step down as Egypt’s president. Al-Wasat’s leaders were also active in the National Association for Change reform movement, which was formed in 2010 and called for democratic reforms such as free and fair presidential elections allowing independent candidates to run without being handpicked by the Mubarak regime.

Party Structure

A Chair and a thirty-member Supreme Council are responsible for running the party, both elected by a General Assembly. The Political Bureau is responsible for overseeing the implementation of council decisions and may pass decisions if the Supreme Council is unable to convene.

Parliamentary Elections

Al-Wasat Party will participate in upcoming parliamentary elections without being part of any formal electoral coalition. Through forty-six lists, the party will contest all 332 party list seats available in the 508-member lower house of parliament. Additionally, Al-Wasat will field seventy (out of a possible 166) candidates for single-winner seats in the same chamber. For the 270-member upper house, the party will contest twenty-four (out of a possible thirty) party-list races through ninety-six (out of a possible 120) candidates, and will run in twenty (out of a possible sixty) single-winner seat races. 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 elections rules and dates

Al-Wasat Party leader Abul Ela Madi announced that the party’s candidate roster includes sixty-nine women and two Copts. The party’s electoral lists also include five candidates from Al-Nahda Party and eight from Al-Riyada Party, both of which were founded by former members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Prominent figures among Al-Wasat’s candidates include party cofounder Essam Sultan who is heading the party’s list in his hometown of Damietta.

Al-Wasat’s list in Miniya, headed by party leader Madi, is scheduled to enter what promises to be an extremely competitive race against the Freedom and Justice list headed by Saad Al-Katatny. Al-Katatny is the Secretary General of the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, the same group from which Madi defected in the 1990s.

Madi has said Al-Wasat’s electoral platform focuses on the underlying political situation and the most pressing economic challenges, particularly unemployment. If elected, the party would immediately work on securing a swift transfer of power from the ruling military council to a civilian leadership, convening presidential elections by April 2012 and forming a balanced assembly to write the country’s next constitution.

Relationship with Other Political Parties

Al-Wasat Party was once a participant in the Democratic Alliance for Egypt but withdrew due to what party leaders described as the Muslim Brotherhood’s domineering role in the Alliance. Abul Ela Madi claims that the Socialist Popular Alliance, Al-Adl, and Al-Karama Parties turned down Al-Wasat’s proposal to form a “third-way” electoral coalition.

Being a splinter group of former Muslim Brotherhood members, Al-Wasat Party has had a tense relationship with the Brotherhood since its creation. Al-Wasat has always presented its long plight to form Al-Wasat Party as a struggle against both Mubarak’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Party leader Madi has been an outspoken critic of the Brotherhood’s centralized decision-making style and iron-clad discipline. In a 2000 Ahram Weekly interview, Madi further criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for escalating tensions between Islamists and the state by being too confrontational and insisting on contesting elections. In the same interview, Madi stated that he would support “competent candidates,” including some fielded by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.

Over the years, leaders from Al-Wasat and the Muslim Brotherhood have exchanged attacks through media outlets. Last year, party leader Essam Sultan accused the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to control the National Association for Change and use the organization to promote its own candidates before the 2010 legislative elections. More recently, Madi accused the Brotherhood of “swallowing up the Democratic Alliance for Egypt”, referring to what he views as the group’s dominance over the coalition’s electoral lists. He also asserted that the Freedom and Justice Party is fully subservient to the Brotherhood, despite the party’s attempts to appear independent.

Al-Wasat’s leaders have historically had good relations with non-Islamist opposition figures, as evidenced by their prominent role in Kefaya and the National Association for Change, which were once celebrated as rare examples of cooperation between Islamist and secular-leaning activists in Egypt.

Stances on Salient Issues

Social Justice

Al-Wasat’s platform states that the absence of social justice in Egypt is not due to a poor distribution of existing wealth but rather a lack of socioeconomic development in impoverished communities. Accordingly, the state should not combat poverty through wealth redistribution but instead through subsidized public services and local development programs aimed at raising the incomes of underprivileged households. The party advocates for setting a minimum wage that is linked to inflation and enforceable in both public and private sectors.

Economic Policy

The party believes free markets are integral to Egypt’s economic well-being, though it supports state intervention in maintaining public infrastructure, promoting social justice, protecting the environment, and protecting against monopolistic practices.

Religion and State

Al-Wasat describes itself as a ‘civil’ party with an “Islamic frame of reference” that nevertheless opposes theocratic rule. The platform describes Islam not only as a religion but also as a civilization and culture. This view is considered to be consistent with a civil democratic state. The party further opposes discrimination based on religion and professes to support religious freedom.

In 2000, party leader Madi founded a nonprofit organization, the Egyptian Association for Dialogue and Culture, aimed at fostering Muslim-Christian dialogue. Madi claims that Al-Wasat has many Coptic members.

Military Trials

Al-Wasat opposes the practice of trying civilian suspects in military courts and party members themselves were victims of military trials in the mid-1990s. The party was an official participant in the 30 September Tahrir Square demonstration dubbed the “Friday of Reclaiming the Revolution”, which included a demand to cease all military trials of civilians. Al-Wasat signed a statement with seventeen other parties and three presidential candidates to oppose the persistence of both military trials and emergency law.

Strike Law and Labor Movements

Al-Wasat professes support for workers’ right to strike but does not support “non-peaceful” labor action that result in hindering economic production and business operations. Party leader Madi told Akhbar Al-Youm: “There are two types of sit-ins. One is peaceful like the ones that happen on Fridays and thus do not hinder work or hurt production. And these present a healthy phenomenon. As for sit-ins that result in blocking streets and obstructing production, these are harmful and result in negative effects on the economy.”

Foreign Relations

The party supports the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, as well as their right of return. It recognizes the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation by any means necessary, including force of arms.Al-Wasat calls for greater parity in Egypt’s relations with the United States, arguing that this is the key to a stronger US-Egyptian relationship.

Media Image and Controversies

Despite a long history of cooperation with non-Islamist groups, the Al-Wasat Party faced-off with many such groups after Mubarak’s ouster due to disagreements over SCAF-proposed constitutional amendments, which seventy-seven percent of Egyptian voters approved on 19 March 2011. Liberal and leftist activists opposed these amendments on the grounds that they failed to overhaul the “authoritarian constitution” inherited from the Mubarak era, whereas Al-Wasat’s leaders, along with other Islamist groups, claimed that approving these amendments was the best way to ensure a swift end to military rule. All post-constitutional documents that have since followed the 19 March referendum have failed to provide an exact date for when Egypt’s military council would formally hand over power to a civilian government.

Al-Wasat has also been at odds with secular movements on the question of supra-constitutional principles. Heated debates continue as to whether or not there is a need to spell out provisions to which constitution writers would need to adhere. Egypt’s next elected parliament will be tasked with selecting an assembly responsible for writing a new constitution. Like many Islamist parties, Al-Wasat has consistently rejected any attempts to impose binding principles on constitution writers, asserting that such a move would be undemocratic. Fearing Islamist dominance in parliamentary elections, many secular figures and activists counter that establishing supra-constitutional principles would protect individual and minority rights, as well as the non-religious character of the Egyptian state.

Last summer, internal differences inside Al-Wasat went public when party activists criticized their leaders’ endorsement of Mohamed Selim Al-Awa’s bid for the presidency. Dissenting members claim that this decision was made without any deliberation. Alternatively, many party members support the presidential candidacy of rival Abdel Moneim Abul Futtoh. Al-Wasat later announced that it would try to convince Al-Awa and Abul Futtoh to agree on withdrawing one of their candidacies in order to offer voters a single voice for “moderate Islamism”.

Late last year, Al-Awa was accused of inciting hatred against Egypt’s Coptic community, following televised comments in which he suggested that Coptic Churches were stockpiling weapons. Al-Awa denies he ever made such a statement and claims his comments were taken out of context.

Key Figures

Abul Ela Madi

Born in 1958, Abul Ela Madi is Al-Wasat Party’s leader and one of its most prominent cofounders. In the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections, Madiplans to run for a lower house seat in his hometown of Minya, where his list will face off against that of prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader Saad Al-Katatni. Before forming Al-Wasat, he was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood but left the group due to disagreements over forming a political party. Madi was hauled before a military tribunal alongside other party founders for allegedly trying to form a political party as a front for an “illegal organization”, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. He was later acquitted.

Earlier in 1979, while in prison for his political activism at Minya University, Madi joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Beforehand, he was a member of the Islamic Group (Al-Jama‘a Al-Ismaliyya). Madi won consecutive student union elections at Minya University from 1977 to 1979. From 1987 to 1995, Madi was Deputy Secretary General of the Engineers’ Syndicate. He ran for a parliamentary seat in Helwan in 1995 and obtained a law degree in 2008. Madi is author of a number of works on Islamic thought.

Mohamed Selim Al-Awa

Born in 1944, Mohamed Selim Al-Awa is an Islamic intellectual and judicial expert. He graduated from the faculty of law at Alexandria University and obtained a PhD in comparative law from London University. His published works include titles such as Political Systems in Islam and Egypt’s Political and Constitutional Crisis. Al-Awa was Al-Wasat’s legal representative in its long battle for an official party license. He is reportedly mulling over a presidential bid.

Essam Sultan

Essam Sultan is a prominent lawyer and Al-Wasat’s deputy leader. Along with Abul Ela Madi,Sultan abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood to establish Al-Wasat. He is also a member of the Kefaya movement. Sultan plans to run in upcoming parliamentary elections in his hometown of Damietta. Born in 1964, Sultan graduated from Cairo University’s faculty of law in 1986.

Fact Box

Founding: 1996 (legalized in February 2011)

Membership: 20,000

Political Orientation: Islamist

Alliances: Joined and subsequently left the Democratic Alliance for Egypt

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