In six weeks time Egyptian voters—there are some 54 million of them—should head to the polls to elect their first parliament after the overthrow of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime in July 2013, the second since the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. The first post-Arab Spring parliament was elected in January 2012 and had an Islamic majority, but was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court in June 2012 and was consequently dissolved.
The upcoming parliament will be the most recent in Egypt’s long parliamentary tradition that goes back to the 19th century, and its modern party and parliament system that started at the outset of the 20th century. Consecutive parliaments and various political parties saw Egypt through tumultuous conflicts with the British who occupied part of the country, the court, and the nationalist movements. July 1952 saw a revolution that turned Egypt from a monarchy to a republic in 1953. Under the pretext of political corruption, the revolutionary regime disbanded all political parties in favour of a one-party system that allowed no opposition. This system persisted till 1977 when President Anwar al-Sadat allowed a multiparty system even if under a restrictive political climate. President Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1981 for having made peace with Israel and his successor Hosni Mubarak retained the multiparty system, but overwhelming predominance was granted to the ruling party, the National Democratic Party. Attempts by political activists to gain more freedom and empowerment for political parties went nowhere; not much changed and the system remained basically the same till the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011.
So many parties
After the Arab Spring revolution of 25 January 2011, the rules for establishing political parties were significantly eased; anybody had the right to found a new party, and the government subsidy was lifted. In no time the number of parties skyrocketed to more than 90. Among them were the Free Egyptians Party founded by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, al-Mu’tamar (The Convention) Party founded by former Arab League chief and Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, and al-Dustour (The Constitution) Party founded by the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei.
Many revolutionary youth also founded movements which soon evolved into parties, but they never gained ground on the Egyptian street. Among them were Shabaab al-Thawra Party (Revolution Youth Party) and al-Waey (Awareness) Party.
The Islamist movements also had their share of political parties. Before the 25 January revolution, the founding of religious parties was banned; however, after the revolution several Islamist parties were established including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice the Salafis’ al-Nour Party, and the Gamaa al-Islamiya’s Building and Development Party.
Once former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, Egyptians decided to give the MB an opportunity to govern the country. The MB had been campaigning for decades for a chance to do so; they promised Egyptians a regime that would follow Islamic principles, securing thus prosperity on earth and Paradise in the after life. But the Islamists’ climb to power increasingly exposed their real aspirations and intentions, as did their method of achieving their goals. They strove to suppress the time-honoured Egyptian traits and loyalty to Egypt in favour of Islamist leanings and features, and miserably failed in governing the country or propping the economy. Severe public disillusionment set in.
Post-Arab Spring Islamist parliament
The popularity of the Islamists nosedived from 76 per cent which they won in a constitutional referendum in March 2011, to 67 per cent parliamentary majority in January 2012, to a bare 51 per cent by which their candidate Muhammad Mursi won the presidency in June 2012 in a vote that is still contested in court. Once the MB secured the presidency, the full scale of their strive for the Islamisation of Egypt and their disregard for the economic suffering of the people became all-too-obvious. When public opposition rose, Mr Mursi made a notorious grab for power and practically deactivated all democratic practice in November 2012. The people rebelled, and the Islamist parliament was pronounced non-constitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court. Mr Mursi defied the court decision and popular discontent rose until Egyptians—some 33 million of them—revolted on 30 June 2013, exactly one year on Mr Mursi in office. The military stepped in by giving the President a 48-hour ultimatum to resolve the crisis; the President belligerently rejected the ultimatum. On 3 July the army met with representatives of all the sectors of the Egyptian community and together drew a roadmap for democratic reform. On 4 July the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was sworn in as Interim President; in January 2014 Egyptians approved a new Constitution; and in June 2014 they elected the moderate Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as President. The only step remaining so far on the Roadmap is the election of a parliament, a step which now looks right round the corner.
Parties vs independents
The head of the Supreme Election Committee, Ayman Abbas, said the voting will take place in phases in the country’s 27 governorates and among Egyptians living abroad. The first phase of balloting will be held in 14 governorates over three days, starting 21 March for Egyptians from those regions who now reside abroad, and taking place on 22 and 23 March for voters in Egypt. Reruns are due 10 days later.
Voting in the remaining 13 governorates should begin on 25 April for Egyptians abroad will be on 26 and 27 April at home, with reruns 10 days later. The whole process ends on May 7.
The House of Representatives Law stipulates a 567-seat parliament; 420 of them will be reserved for independent candidates, and 120 for party candidates who will be drawn from absolute closed lists. The remaining 27 seats go to presidential appointees.
The law has come under fire from the political parties, on grounds that it weakens the position of the parties in favour of the “independents” who use local patronage networks and money to get into parliament. Many Mubarak-era figures and Islamists are expected to run as independents, a move rejected by many Arab Spring revolutionists but countered by the argument that the people will not vote for them if they don’t want them.
Egypt’s last [Islamist majority] parliament had been voted in on the basis of two-thirds seats to party candidates and one-third to individuals. This parliament was dissolved by a court ruling that claimed the law curtailed the right of individuals to run and favoured the parties.
Now the new law has reversed the situation, granting the independents the majority of the seats. The parties claim the law, together with the law according to which the electoral constituencies were drawn and which has come under fire from the parties for what they claim has been an unfair distribution of seats, curtails their chances in parliament in favour of the independents. The laws stand, notwithstanding.
Predictably, the only chance for the parties to avoid being sidelined or coming out of the elections empty-handed is to form coalitions through which to contend the elections. There have indeed been several attempts at merging into coalitions, but these coalitions have been rife with internal conflict through which each party tries to gain the best advantage. The result is that several attempted coalitions have collapsed. According to the Egyptian veteran diplomat, the former chief of the Arab League who expertly headed the Committee of the Fifty which wrote Egypt’s new Constitution Amr Moussa: “Personal conflict and fragmented loyalties stand behind the failure or collapse of coalitions.” Mr Moussa had tried to use his masterful expertly-honed skills at diplomacy to form a coalition but failed.
Now the Egyptian political scene is home to five blocs, four secular and one Islamic.
The Egyptian Wafd coalition was spearheaded by the Wafd party whose history goes back to the nationalist movement of 1919 and involves incidents of alliances with political bodies as far apart as different Egyptian governments and political movements such as the MB. Yet the Wafd still retains a venerable name and a reputation for political expertise. The Wafd has formed a coalition that includes 17 parties, among them a number that had withdrawn from other coalitions. Al-Sayed al-Badawi, a business tycoon who heads the Wafd Party also heads the Wafd coalition.
The Wafd had been among the coalition attempted by Mr Moussa but left when other parties which the Wafd did not desire to ally itself with joined.
Kamal al-Ganzouri was twice Egypt’s Prime Minister: once during the period from 1996 to 1999 under President Mubarak, and again from November 2011 to August 2012. In both cases he proved himself a man of integrity and competence. Dr Ganzouri exerted huge, visible efforts to form a list of parties and independents who would contend the elections as one bloc and, despite conflicts, finally succeeded. His list now includes more than 40 parties and political movements, some of which had been publicly reluctant to join any coalition. Among these are the Free Egyptians Party and the Egyptian Front coalition headed by the Nationalist Movement Party that was established by Ahmed Shafiq who had run against Muhammad Mursi in the 2012 presidential elections and lost by a very narrow margin. Mr Shafiq announced his party would contend the parliamentary elections, but he is branded as a Mubarak man since he was the last Prime Minister under the former president. He is embroiled in a number of legal cases and is under a travel ban. The Ganzouri List also includes professional syndicates as well as a large number of public figures who enjoy wide respect.
Sahwat Misr, literally Egypt’s Renaissance, is the third secular coalition. It was established by the politician Abdel-Galeel Mustafa, member of the National Society for Change, and includes a number of mostly leftist parties, movements, and independents. Sahwat Misr raises the demands of the Arab Spring and a spokesman has said that some 1000 candidates have applied to run the election on its list, but that the coalition needed only 120.
The Islamists too
The most recent list was launched last week under the name Fi Hubb MIsr (For the Love of Egypt). It was formed by a number of politicians, revolutionists, liberals and leftists, but has categorically excluded the Islamists. The spokesman, security expert Sameh Seif al-Yasal, said the founding members of the list decided to rally behind the concept of serving the country not behind any specific personality, that it included various political parties and individuals who wished to run as independents under the banner of the list. Seventy per cent of the list, he said, was already in place; the remaining 30 per cent was open to candidates who wished to join.
The only Islamist party contending the parliamentary elections is the Salafi al-Nour Party. Al-Nour appears to oscillate between its original Islamist Salafi leanings and the nationalist principles which led it to actively participate in the Roadmap. In order to run in the elections, the party lists need to include women and three Copts on each list, as stipulated by the Constitution. But the wide majority of Egyptians sees the Nour as an Islamist party and thus shuns it. The party faced great difficulty in its attempts to find Copts who would agree to run on its list, but finally recruited a Coptic woman, Suzanne Samir; and Nader al-Sirafi, coordinator of the Copts 38 movement which calls for lenient divorce for Copts.
With parties holding 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and independents 75 per cent, it is obvious the latter hold the majority. The independents, whether running alone or on coalition lists, are expected to include individuals with various political leanings; many fear that Islamists and Mubarak-era figures would sneak in as independents. But the answer is that, in the end, the voter has the final say.