Egypt political parties coalesce in readiness for parliamentary elections
Samir al-Sayyed, Tuesday 13 Sep 2011
Egypt's new political alliances struggle to form coherent strategies and maintain internal unity as elections approach

Newly-formed political alliances seem to be too obsessed with the elections to have a longer-term impact. Two alliances, the Democratic Alliance for Egypt and the Egyptian Bloc, have been announced so far, while a third one, called the Third Way, is still taking shape.

Three main difficulties face the new alliances. One is the lack of ideological cohesion among the parties involved. This makes it difficult for the new alliances to formulate a unified political programme that is comprehensible to the public. Another is the rivalry over who’s to come on top of the lists. A third is logistical, having to do with coordinating the campaigns and financing the candidates.

The Democratic Alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's newly created Justice and Freedom Party, includes 33 parties in total. Among these are the Salafi-affiliated Al-Asala (Authenticity) Party, the Nasserist Party, Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, Al Wafd liberal party, and Al-Karamah (Dignity).

The Democratic Alliance seems to have some electoral appeal, but it is internally incoherent, said Amr Al-Shoubaki, member of the Consulting Committee of Al-Adl (Justice) Party.

"The Egyptian Bloc is more politically cohesive in terms of having common goals and vision, for it includes centrist parties which believe in the agenda of the civil state. The opposite is true for the Democratic Alliance, which includes irreconcilable political views," Al-Shoubaki said, adding that the Democratic Alliance may not survive the elections.

As if to confirm Al-Shoubaki's verdict, the Salafi-affiliated Al-Nur (Light) Party withdrew from the alliance a few days ago.

There is also a current inside the Wafd Party which opposes the alliance with the MB and views it as a betrayal of the principles of the 1919 revolution, which catapulted the Wafd into a leading role in Egypt's political scene on an agenda of sectarian tolerance.

Several Wafd leaders, including Alaa Abdel Monem, Mostafa al-Guindi, and Mona Makram Obeid, have joined the Egyptian Bloc. The Bloc is an alliance between 14 political groups, including 9 parties. Among those are the leftwing Tagammu, the Democratic Front, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Free Egyptians, Egypt Freedom, the Popular Alliance, the Sufi-affiliated Al-Tahrir (Liberation), the Egyptian Socialist Party, Al-Wa'y (Awareness), the Egyptian Communist Party, the Peasants independent Syndicate, the National Association for Change, and the National Council.

Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, leader of the Democratic Front, questions the durability of the Democratic Alliance. "The Democratic Alliance, despite its strong electoral motives, is politically unsustainable, due among other things to the strong opposition posed by some Wafd members," Harb said. But he admitted that the Democratic Alliance my still make it through the elections.

Essam Al-Eryan, deputy leader of the MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, denies that the Democratic Alliance is division-prone.

"The members of the Democratic Alliance are harmonious and like-minded, and this goes for the Islamists in the Freedom and Justice Party and the liberals of the Wafd and Al-Ghad… The contradictions within our ranks ended with the breaking away of the Tagammu," Al-Eryan said.

Criticising rival alliances, Al-Eryan said, "There are other alliances that bring together extreme liberals and communists, which I find a bit odd."

Observers accuse both alliances of adding perplexity to the political scene by grouping parties with conflicting agendas.

Al-Eryan denies that. "The Democratic Alliance is not born today. It started early in the Mubarak era, when the MB went into alliance with the Wafd in 1984, and then when it became part of a wider Islamic alliance in 1987. And don't forget the Committee for Coordination among the National Forces, which evolved into the National Association for Change."

Al-Eryan said that the main goal of the Democratic Alliance is to achieve democratic transition on the political, social, economic, and foreign levels and obtain a harmonious and balanced parliamentary majority.

For his part, Harb said that the formation of the Democratic Alliance was the main motivation for the emergence of a counter-balancing civil alliance. Harb accused the Wafd of letting down the supporters of a civil state.

Observers have challenged Harb's arguments, saying that the political base on which the Egyptian Bloc is based, which is presumably to protect the civil state from the spectre of a religious state, is weak and encourages a pointless confrontation. Both the Democratic Alliance and the Egyptian Bloc agree to the status of Islamic Sharia, as expressed in Article 2 of the constitution. The two also believe in a democratic state based on citizenship.

According to the constitutive declaration of the Democratic Alliance, which was launched on 14 June, the Alliance aims at mobilising various political forces which agree on the principles of democracy and the civil state and get them to work together in the upcoming elections in order to ensure that the parliament would lead to a government of national unity, one that is committed to democratisation, economic revival, and comprehensive development.

The Constitutional Principles document issued by the Democratic Alliance states that the Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic state based on citizenship and the rule of the law, respects diversity, and guarantees freedom, justice, equality, and equal opportunity for all citizens without discrimination.

The document also notes that the Egyptian people are part of the Arab people, and that Arab unity is the ultimate goal. Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is its official language, and the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation, the document stated, adding that non-Muslim followers of Heavenly-revealed (Abrahamic) religions should consult their own tenets in matters of religion and personal status.

The declared positions of the Egyptian Bloc, which was formed on 15 August, do not differ much from those voiced by the Democratic Alliance, at least with respect to Sharia and the civil state.

The Free Egyptians, billed as the most liberal of the Egyptian Bloc members, declares in its constitutive assembly its support for Article 2 of the constitution, and the right of people of other religions to refer to their own tenets in personal matters. According to the Free Egyptians, the principles of Sharia protect justice, freedom, and equality of rights.

Abdel Halim Qandil, political writer and former coordinator of Kefaya, says that the two alliances lack political cohesion. Not only do they lack a clear political programme, but the electoral weight of their components is uneven. This would tempt the MB to snatch the top spots on the electoral lists, resulting possibly in the breakdown of the Alliance right before the elections, Qandil said.

The Egyptian Bloc is not as fragile, Qandil said. But he was dismissive of the Bloc’s collective weight, calling it as an "alliance of the weak."

Qandil denounced both alliances as capitalistic and rightwing. "There is no difference between them. Both support the political rightwing and the dominant economic powers in the country. The programme of both alliances is just a variation on Mubarak's socio-economic programme."

The programmes of both alliances neglect two important issues, Qandil said.

One is the issue of national independence from American and Israeli hegemony and the need to recalibrate Egyptian-American relations, which Qandil argues have turned into a political occupation of Egypt, with the USAID assuming the same role of the British mandate, Qandil stated. Egypt, he said, must "break the shackles" of the Camp David Accords.

The other issue that the two alliances have left out, according to Qandil, is the economic and social dimension. The programmes of the parties in both alliances have not adequately addressed progressive taxation, government investment in military industry, space technology, and nuclear power. They didn't say anything about a maximum wage, land ownership, agricultural rentals, and the eviction of peasants from their land, he pointed out.

According to Qandil, the rivalry between the two alliances is like "cocks fighting within an American-Israeli cage.” Their views are totally devoid of national, economic, social, and political meaning, he said.

Harb dismisses Qandil's criticism, denying that the Egyptian Bloc is rightwing. "The social component in the Block is quite clear, and it is mostly left of centre."

According to Harb, the Bloc is still working on its programme. "It is too early to speak of a programme. The programme is still on the drawing board," Harb said. He pointed out that the Alliance between the Wafd and the MB is mostly rightwing.

Al-Eryan admits that there are similarities between the programmes of the Egyptian Alliance and the National Bloc, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. "Ideological differenceshave narrowed down since the end of communism. Now the whole world is calling for social justice," he said.

The Third Way Alliance, launched by Al-Adl (Justice) Party on 23 August, tries to fill in the void left by the two other alliances. Al-Adl which is modelled on the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, is hoping to bridge the gap between liberals and Islamists. But this hasn’t been an easy job so far.

For one thing, most parties have already been booked by the first two alliances. The Third Way is trying to court Al-Wasat (Middle) Party and the Egyptian Current, as well as some public figures, but many have already joined the Democratic Alliance and the Egyptian Bloc. To make things worse, Al-Wasat is still in two minds.

Al-Wasat leader Abul Ela Abu Madi is keeping his options open for now. “The Third Wayis open for discussion and development and is still in an embryonic stage,” Abu Madi said.

The other difficulty facing the Third Way is that it needs to come up with new ideas on the divisive issues of Sharia and Egypt’s Arab and Islamic identity.

According to Al-Shoubaki, the Third Way believes in the civil state, the constitution and the law, but is culturally conservative. “It is for Article 2 of the constitution and has no intention to discard Sharia or take issue with the Arab and Islamic identity,” he said.

Al-Shoubaki, however, seems to be optimistic about the future of the Third Way. “The idea of a third way is inspiring for a party of young people contesting the elections for the first time. The idea is bigger than the elections and will take root in the post-elections era.”

As for the electoral chances of the new alliances, al-Shoubaki said that if the Democratic Alliance maintains its current formation, it would get one half of the parliament or more, with the rest going to independent currents, public figures, and other parties.

Abu Madi, for his part, expects the Muslim Brotherhood to get the lion’s share in the next elections, compared to the Egyptian Bloc, which doesn’t have much support among the public, as he put it.

Abdel Halim Qandil expects rightwing parties, including the Islamists, the liberals, and former NDP members, to get most of the votes, with the Muslim Brotherhood garnering up to 40% and the Salafists up to 10%,

Harb believes that the majority is likely to be independents, former NDP members, and major clans.

Al-Eryan hopes that the Democratic Alliance would get two-thirds of the vote, but admits the difficulty of making exact predictions.