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The awakening of the Wafd Party and partisan life in Egypt

Can the Wafd Party present a candidate in the next presidential elections?

Hassan Abou Taleb , Sunday 15 Apr 2018

Electing judge Bahaa Abu Shoka as the head of Egypt’s Wafd Party is a qualitative leap for the old party at this stage in its history, and could perhaps represent the beginning of reviving partisan life in the country.

Over the past eight years, the Wafd Party has witnessed a decline, divisions and prominent figures leaving the party due to the predominance of a view of a utilitarian nature in the party that is more suitable for business purposes than for such an old and historic party full of competent figures.

With the election of this new leadership with overwhelming consensus from within the party, a historic opportunity is presenting itself for Wafd to restructure itself as a strong, active party capable of benefitting itself, its members and Egypt as a whole.

We very much need for two, three or even four parties to represent the social masses; with a widespread reach all over the homeland and a vision and a programme as well as the ambition to compete for power at different levels.

The party should start with competing for the presidency, the municipalities and for seats in parliament. This could qualify it, according to prerequisites of the majority and minority, to head the government, and hence translate its political and economic vision into actual policies.

If Wafd succeeds in preparing a presidential candidate after four years, as has been stated by the elected party president, it will have done a great service, not only for itself, but for Egypt and the entire partisan scene.

Here, we remember President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s statement during his televised interview “A People and a President,” where he stated that he wished there had been more candidates competing over the presidency, but that this matter was out of his hands.

This statement highlighted the absence of viable political parties, as none of the country’s more than 100 parties could field a candidate that enjoys strong presence and stature with the public.

What is needed is an effective partisan presence that is capable of playing its role as designated in the constitution. Having ambitions of establishing a civil, democratic, modern state does not go hand in hand with weak parties of which no one takes notice.

The irony here lies in that a number of party leaders admit to their parties’ weakness, yet they do not acknowledge that they have a responsibility to redress this humiliating situation through one of two ways.

The first is through the merger of several parties, since their programmes are similar or even almost identical, in order to form one strong party that can have an impact on public life. The second is to officially vanish from the political scene.

I believe that there is no third option for these weak parties to remain in their current status and expect to contribute to building the democratic state.

This talk about a revived Wafd Party could be the start of talking about forming a real opposition party.

Although President El-Sisi’s popularity is not in question, as proven by the election results, there will still be a need for the public to have an alternative national vision for the future of the country.

There is also a dire need to look towards the next presidential elections, which are set to take place four years from now.

Perhaps Wafd will, through its new leadership, seek to have some small parties join it and add some new cadres and ideas. It also might seek to form a partisan coalition that is more robust and more efficient in comparison with already existing coalitions.

At the forefront is the Support Egypt coalition, which will find stronger reasons for interacting with this new situation more actively and more seriously. If we imagine that there are two coalitions, where each has its own special makeup and the likelihood of transforming itself into a big party, this will lead to the crystallisation of a two-party system.

This would be similar to the situation in long-established democratic countries, such as with the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain and the Republican and the Democratic parties in the USA.

Such a two-party configuration could spark a transformation from general popular backing to political backing within a party framework.

Thus, we would have a system made up of three strong and influential parties, each one of which has a special approach and vision that distinguishes it from the other two.

This will, in effect, enrich the democratic process and give the Egyptian people options. Despite these parties’ differences, all of them would serve the larger interests of the homeland, enhancing democracy and establishing pluralism.

However, some may argue that since the popular backing that has characterised the first presidential term of President El-Sisi has proven effective, there is no need to walk down the partisan path and face its unknown consequences.

The truth is that such an argument can be easily refuted. El-Sisi’s popular backing was the result of a situation that required containing and confronting monumental external and internal threats to Egypt and preventing a collapse of state institutions.

I believe that these grand objectives have for the most part been achieved, although there are some threats that still exist; especially the remnants of terrorist groups and some regional actors that are antagonistic towards Egypt. However, these threats can be dealt with and cannot be compared with the situation the country faced three or four years ago.

Moreover, facing the threat of terrorism through military force alone is no longer sufficient.

The comprehensive vision previously presented by President El-Sisi for confronting and vanquishing terrorism requires that society enjoys vitality, represented through strong institutions, media, civil society and religious institutions that are renewing religious discourse.

All this cannot be achieved amid an idle and dead partisan environment.

In my view, transforming the framework of popular backing to a partisan institution is a prerequisite for building an Egyptian state based on democracy, pluralism and popular participation.

It is true that the president’s popularity is far greater than that of all the existing parties, and it is the parties that need the president, not the other way around. It is also true that forming a party that backs the government might bring back painful memories of the regretful National Democratic Party.

The answer is simple: the awareness of the people is not the same as it was six years ago, and employing the president’s popularity to enhance partisan life should be geared towards the future and changing, and not maintaing the status quo of our partisan life.

The writer is a political commentator.

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