Egypt: Why are political parties collapsing?

Abdallah El-Sennawi
Thursday 10 Sep 2015

The collapse of Egyptian political parties on the eve of parliamentary elections destroys any hope for democracy to win

When political parties are collapsing on the eve of parliamentary elections, this means we are in a crisis that is detrimental to the future of democracy in Egypt.

The constitution states that the regime is based on political pluralism and rotation of power, but such fractures directly lead to suspending the constitution with de facto reality.

There will not be rotation of power any time soon or serious monitoring of the executive branch by parliament.

Suspending the constitution means democracy is put on the back burner. The issue is greater than three simultaneous resignations by the heads of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, the Dostour (Constitution) Party and the National Movement Party. Nor is it only about raging quarrels inside the Wafd Party, or serious fractures in the ranks of other parties and lack of confidence in their future.

Every crisis has its own story, but collectively they seem to announce the bankruptcy of Egyptian partisan life.

The resignation of Mohamed Abul Ghar as chairman of the Socialist Democratic Party is no surprise in itself, because he said several times he will resign after parliamentary elections.

The surprise is the timing and reasons for the resignation. This world renowned physician and published artist who later became a professional politician, was fed up with “severe disputes and cronyism” and thus left the party he founded before elections took place.

It is a true loss for democracy that this party is fractured because of such disputes – after being the dark horse in the first parliamentary elections following the January revolution. They are a terrible inherited malaise in partisan life, and nothing new or extraordinary.

For similar reasons but in different circumstances, Hala Shukrallah resigned as head of the Dostur Party. Shukrallah also did not want to renew her presidency but serious internal quarrels within the party caused her to tender her resignation early, even before party elections were held to choose a new leader.

Frustration over the same issue casts a long shadow on the fate of the party founded by Mohamed Al-Baradei. Like any other party that is born in extraordinary circumstances, any sudden upheaval could tear it down.

Despite differences in outlook, the resignation of Yehia Qadri, first deputy of the National Movement Party which was founded by Ahmed Shafiq, puts the party in front of inevitable questions about its fate. Qadri is the de factor leader of the party since Shafiq is overseas, and thus his resignation means certain disruption for the party and possibly more splintering.

The three simultaneous resignations are an expression of a serious crisis in political life for left and right, the January revolutionaries and the Old Guard alike.

Why are political parties collapsing from within at this fast rate? There are three explanations.

First, party splintering caused by security infiltration which has been a feature of restrained political life in Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The National Democratic Party (NDP) was not a normal political party, but was born from the belly of the state and security agencies. Its rivals were not allowed to cross certain red lines that were created to prevent any attempt at rotation of power.

Often, security agencies undermined rising political parties from within by using loopholes to pounce on them. The deliberate stifling of political life before it could flourish and win the confidence of voters is a long and painful story.

Second, splintering as a necessary step to prepare the political field for a vibrant political scene. When there is no chance that voters will choose in free and honest elections, and no chance of any kind of rotation of power, parties are rendered useless and become an accessory to serve claims that democracy is alive – albeit in the absence of basic components of democracy.

Third, fractures caused by the absence of any respect for regulations and organisational action or platforms that inspire cohesion.

This is rooted in the nature of the birth of Egyptian political parties. In the neo-liberal era between the 1919 and 1952 revolutions, the power of the Wafd party lay in its leadership not its structure and its rhetoric rather than platform. Other parties did not have the same political presence; some were created under the cloak of the Palace while others expressed new global aspirations post-World War II. Palace political parties were very similar in the structure to the NDP, and were parties of interest groups.

The new parties of the 1940s were very similar to post-January revolution parties – a force of protest more than anything else, promising a new world without possessing the tools of change. However, the forces of the 1940s seemed more cohesive and solid, with clear ideologies and firm beliefs. What happened after January 2011 was more like fluid political blocs. It is noteworthy that Abul Ghar said he failed in his mission to establish an ideology for his party, because of latent ideologies within the party that erupted.

Meanwhile, parties that promote big ideas could not avoid eruptions from within either which marginalised their role and caused successive splits.

Today, the liberal Wafd, the oldest political party in Egypt, has lost its ideological or political cohesion which in the 1970s and 1980s gave it its lustre.

The Nasserist party has almost vanished from the political scene, although in its early years it was a promising candidate to dominate public life.
All these parties were born in restrained pluralism. They challenged restrictions and entered open battles with security, but defections undermined their power. After January, there were great hopes that plural political life would be revived after security agencies stop interfering in political life. The experiment did take its time and players did not wait for its natural evolution.

Those who rebelled against the tattered left-wing did not propose an inspiring alternative, nor did those who shed the decaying right wing succeed in building a respectable political force. The real dilemma is that Egypt tore down the old structure but did not build a new one.

In the systematic campaign against political parties there is a direct assault on democracy itself in an attempt to revive the past. There cannot be democracy without pluralism and there cannot be pluralism without political parties. The dilemma of political parties is too important to be left to political parties alone.

Each party expresses specific social biases and is an elected entity trying to win seats in parliament and form the cabinet based on a platform proposed to public opinion, in order to win votes of confidence in ballot boxes. When platforms are clear, political parties earn their political credentials.

The splinter of political parties on the eve of parliamentary elections destroys any chance for democracy to win. Some who praise the fractures of parties do not realise that a political vacuum may destroy everything in this country.


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