Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: Political Parties to the Left, Political Parties to the Right, Egyptian's Stuck in the Middle Again

The political situation in Egypt is shaping up to be a "Night of a 1000 Parties". 

SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - Egypt) has made several announcements.  The first was the provisions for the creation of political parties.  The amendment to the laws is actually fairly liberal.  First, it takes away the provision that parties can only be formulated if their platforms differ from any existing party.  This one rule alone was used by the Political Activities Committee to disqualify numerous parties from coming to exist.  Other rules are being discussed.  Such as the PAC will now be an independent body made up largely of the judiciary, with three judges at the head as opposed to the previous committee that was completely made up of Mubarek appointees that included the Interior Minister and various others.

There is concerns that the rule requiring 5,000 signatures/members across ten of the twenty nine Egyptian governorates.  Several groups are concerned that this is an impossible burden to meet.  Even the MB has issued a statement suggesting that this is an unnecessary limitation.

There is an obvious calculation here that is not necessarily bad, even as some Egyptians see it as limiting their political activities.  For the MB, having a hundred parties vying for the 70% of the seats they won't control, would be a gift from heaven.  Particularly as any individuals or small parties will be insistent on maintaining their own identities and affiliations.

For SCAF, this may be about helping out the NDP by reducing the field they would have to compete with, but it is more likely a calculation to force the multiple competing parties to form two to four major parties.  Two to four major parties are easier to manage than twenty.  On the other hand, forcing the liberals, leftists, socialist workers and national socialists to form a few representative parties actually would help them campaign and obtain enough seats to create a real secular opposition block in parliament.

There are questions coming from several members about the rule requiring the party to publish "the founding members" names in "two widely circulated" papers.  One activists suggests that this requires all 5,000 member's names in two papers would cost over LE 2 million (appx $400k US).  This seems to need clarification as the intent of the law seems to have been to publish the "founders" or heads of the parties.

The new amendment prohibits the creation of "religious parties" and expressly forbids discrimination based on gender, origin (ie, European decent, etc), religion or creed.  This seems to be a direct blow to the Muslim Brotherhood who put in a petition to form the Freedom and Justice Party, stating that no member of the MB can form or join another party along with it's political platform that states it against women or Christian's for president of Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood continues to experience internal fractures.  A former member of the Guidance council has resigned and will form his own party, Nahdat Masr after rumors abounded that Abouel was planning to form a party from within the MB, insisting that the MB's rules that members could only join the MB's Freedom and Justice Party was incorrect.   Apparently, the current guidance council prevailed and Abouel Fotouh resigned in protest.

Among other issues facing the Brotherhood is the disenchantment of the MB Youth with the stagnant MB elderly leadership.  The younger members contend that the old rules should be re-evaluated including allowing women a more prominent role in leadership roles.  There is also considerable discussion about whether the MB should be forming a party at all since the organization has "loftier goals" of educating Muslims internationally on the right practice of Islam which would be compromised by the MB's participation in politics.

This seems to be a polite way of suggesting that the old guard is out of step with the new reality of the young, liberal Islamists who went on to suggest that the new guidance council for the MB should be divided up proportionately with a percentage for the "youth", for women and for those "over 65" since the youth and women make up the majority of the party.  This is also a rather polite suggestion that the old men are, frankly, too old to be leading, at least, alone, in the new reality of democracy.

To which the Muslim Brotherhood responded, "conference, what conference?"  The Muslim Brotherhood did not have a conference on Saturday, March 27.  A clear suggestion that these MB Youth were outside of the MB and had no significant role or impact on the organization.

In a cynical move meant to comply with the recent law against political parties, the leader of the MB "invites Copts to join" the Freedom and Justice Party.  The party's council is apparently still meeting to formulate the final platform, probably in an attempt to eradicate any parts of the platform that do not comply with the law.  Whether any Copts will actually feel welcome in the party is another question.

The Christian Copts had announced the formation of their own "secular" party in early March, Free National Coalition party.   The Coptic church says it will not recognize any religious party claiming to represent only Coptic Christians as this would promote sectarianism.  A spokesman for the FNCP pointed out that their party was open to anyone to join and that the head of their party was a Muslim legal expert.

Meanwhile, the "more Islamist than the Brotherhood" groups are beginning to appear.  One such group is the banned "Islamic-oriented Labor Party" whose leader Magdi Hussein is declaring himself a candidate for president because, in his words, no one else actually meets the criteria set by the new amendments (ie, Egyptian, born of two Egyptians, married to an Egyptian, etc, etc, etc).  The Salafis, Jamaa'a al Islamiya and al Jihad groups are discussing participating in politics, even as the leader of Jamaa'a al Islamiya has indicated he is stepping down.

Jamaa'a al Islamiya (white washed somewhat in this article), is the group that sponsored Sadat's assassination and is the ideological group that Ayman al Zawahiri joined after leaving the Muslim Brotherhood.  The group was smashed by Mubarek's regime, imprisoned and tortured, leading them to change their stance from violent jihad to political while al Jihad's transition has been more cosmetic.  They are still on the "list" as a terrorist sponsoring organizations in the US.

Else where, the Salafis are beginning to make their presence visible.  Salafi groups confronted members of the CYR (Coalition of Youth Revolutionaries) March 25 at a rally to commemorate the martyrs of the revolution in Alexandria.  Sunday, March 28, Salafi activists handed out anti-democracy fliers, urging people to "Be a Salifi" and reject a government of men and man's law over God's law.  On the internet, a young activist claimed via tweet that the Salafis had "taken over Alexandria". 

In response to these party formations, the NAC (National Association for Change) that is El Baradei's support organization, called for a "coalition against 'religionizing' politics".  They are asking all liberal groups to put aside any minor differences and form a larger liberal party.

The Liberal parties are beginning to see the light

In a press conference Tuesday evening, the Egyptian Democratic Party announced its merger with the Liberal Egyptian Party to form a new party called the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
Expressing the need for separate secular parties to unite, Amr Hamzawy, political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called on the country’s secular liberal groups to follow suit.

However, they are trying to reform their argument for a "secular state" as one that does not threaten Egypt's Islamic religious "order".

“The word secular needs to be properly defined and should represent what it really is. It [secularism] does not oppose religious views condoned by Egypt’s current political order.” “Instead of saying this party wants a secular state, it should be said that it has a desire for an Egypt that includes all Egyptians.”

Through out this process, the CYR (Coalition of Youth Revolutionaries) are actively discussing politics, but are resisting forming a party from within as the coalition is made up of youth from every different organization.  They maintain that their coalition has loftier goals and wishes to keep the attention on the aims of the Revolution such as the removal of all hold outs from the Mubarek regime, the creation of a new constitution and the assurance of political rights.

Al Wafd and Al Ghad, the two oldest liberal parties, have announced that they will become partners with the Democratic Front in order to win the most seats possible in the upcoming parliament elections, but then the partnership will be dissolved after the elections.  This is another example of the liberal parties trying to hold on to their own identities even in the face of a potentially solid block from the MB.

It is unclear if they understand exactly how parliament will work and the dangers of presenting multiple fronts that can be exploited by any larger block whether that is the remnants of the NDP, the MB or the socialist labor block.  It is also unclear how they expect to obtain voter loyalty when they have already announced that any cooperation will go out the window once the elections are over.  This may play well to their base, but it will thwart any wider attempts to obtain votes.

They may be counting on a change in the parliamentary election structure.  SCAF will be announcing the new constitutional process sometime today or Thursday.  According to some sources, the elections may change from voting for one candidate to represent one district to proportional seating of candidates.  Proportional seating means that each party will be allotted a number of seats to fill based on the percentage of over all votes it achieves in the elections.  The participating parties would provide a list of candidates, very likely to require distributional candidacies.  For instance, 25% must be women and they must be every fourth candidate on the list.  Candidates listed from one to a hundred would then be seated in the order they appear on the list.

This could be a boon for the liberal parties as most of their constituency resides in the larger urban areas such as Cairo, Alexandria and Egypt.  While the Brotherhood is more represented in the boroughs and conservative rural areas where the population is thinner  However, this would also be a major change to Egypt's current election system and one that, in the past, was rejected as not consistent with the existing constitution.  On the other hand, it is widely believed that SCAF will be making an announcement that basically discards the old 1971 constitution, per the demands of the revolution, and lays down interim laws and regulations for guiding government institutions and elections until the new parliament is seated and the constitution is written.

The left and labor movements are not to be left out.  While groups like Arpil 6 Youth Movement seem to sticking with el Baradei.  A group called the Popular Alliance has emerged from the merger of several leftist, socialist parties.  The aims of the group are to create a party that would be acceptable to both the workers' parties and the "intelligensia".

This may be the move that other labor parties have to make as the new law governing parties also prohibits discrimination based on "class".  One leader argued that this precluded labor parties from participating as all of the members would be "working class".  The issue is not what the make up turns out to be based on those who flock to it on its platform, but whether any party has by laws that prohibit anyone else from joining the party such as non-union members. 

In other news, Taggamu, the Democratic Peaple's Union Party, is seeing a number of defections, even as it seeks to consolidate it's position as the leader of a heavy union presence in Egypt.  Many have resigned from the party due to Refaat al Saeed's association with the old NDP.  Taggamu was widely seen as giving too many concessions to the Mubarek regime to end the last serious strikes.

The Communists has come out of the dark.  How big their party is, is questionable.  

Finally, as to be expected, there are numerous reports that former NDP are stepping forward claiming that they supported the aims of the Jan 25 Revolution.  These claims are being viewed with a jaundice eye as several of those stepping forward held rather high positions.  Ignoring the possibility that he will be indicted with the rest of his family or former presiding ministers of the regime, Gamaal Mubarek supporters come out of the wood work to announce their own party,"al-Sahwa al-Arabiya (The Arab Renaissance)".  The party is not only nationalist, but is unabashedly Pan Arabist, even in the face of Egypt's current desire to focus on its own problems.

Egypt's next election cycle is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and, possibly the most important, any country has seen in recent decades.  While Tunisia is going the slow route, writing it's constitution before going for elections, Egypt is rushing forward to pave the way. 

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