• Reports
  • April 8, 2006
  • 5 minutes read

Egypt: What Future for Liberals?

The 2005 elections realigned the Egyptian political landscape into a virtual two-party system: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and an emergent Muslim Brotherhood. Although they have little hope of scuttling bills, Muslim Brothers in the People’s Assembly (88 out of 454 seats) are making good use of their parliamentary presence to publicize ideas, embarrass ministers, and generally score points among their constituents and the public. Leftists and liberals were left stranded by their abysmal electoral showing (16 seats total). While civil society groups remain active, liberal political parties are in deep crisis.

Kifaya continues to be a protest movement rather than a party, and lives on largely in the form of issue-based splinter movements (Students for Change, Professors for Change, etc.). But it has yet to establish a clear strategic vision and has few experienced politicians, drawing most of its activists from leftist and civil society groups. Its ongoing weekly protests, while sustaining the movement’s base, have become old hat now that the novelty of directly criticizing President Mubarak has worn off.

Elsewhere in civil society, professional associations are carrying the banner of reform. The influential Judges Club continues to push for greater judicial independence. When in February the public prosecutor began an investigation into four leading dissident judges, the Judges Club was able to create a public uproar that caused the prosecutor to back off, at least temporarily, and refer the case to the Ministry of Justice. The Journalists Syndicate also is pressing Mubarak to honor a two-year-old promise to end prison terms in libel cases. But civil society groups have a limited impact as long as there are no like-minded parties substantially represented in national politics.

Al Ghad is a party in dire straits, having virtually disappeared from political life after its leader Ayman Nour was sentenced to five years in prison in December 2005. The party has split in two, with a rebel wing abandoning Nour and toning down its anti-regime rhetoric. Although a campaign to free Nour is underway in Egypt and Western capitals, it is unlikely that the young politician’s fate will be better than that of democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, whose legal ordeal took three years and left him in poor health. In the meantime, should Nour resurface he will have lost valuable time for party and constituency building.

Constituency building is the key issue for liberal parties, which remain elitist and unable to mobilize loyal followers as the Brotherhood has. Most parties have not even broached the issue because they are beset by leadership crises, due partly to their catastrophic electoral performance and partly to the overall generational change taking place in Egyptian politics. The leftist Nasserist and Tagammu parties are locked in succession struggles and have seen their natural constituencies pulled away by Kifaya and its offshoots. Al Wafd, Egypt’s historic liberal party, has undergone a struggle to remove autocratic president Nomaan Gomaa. The backlash against Gomaa was long in coming and is significant not only because of Al Wafd’s historic importance (it dominated parliamentary life before the 1952 Free Officers’ coup), but also because it will be the first time that any party leader is removed because of poor performance. The 2005 elections also claimed as casualties three of the most active, respected and outspoken legal opposition MPs: Al Ghad’s Nour, Al Wafd’s Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (both in Cairo districts) and Al Tagammu’s Al Badri Farghali (Port Said). Indeed, there are few charismatic politicians left in the People’s Assembly who do not represent either the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Liberal parties face a further difficulty in building public support: they are vying for the liberal-reformist title against the ruling party itself. Since 2000 the NDP has undergone an internal reform process at the hands of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son. The younger Mubarak and his supporters have gradually gained the upper hand inside the party, sacking long-standing apparatchiks, as well as in the cabinet where technocrat ministers have been brought in from the private sector. While many elite Egyptians feel Gamal Mubarak and his associates have yet to prove their political reformist credentials, they do find their business-friendly approaches a welcome change and see no viable alternative.

There is evidence that support for liberalism exists in Egypt. Liberally minded television talk shows and newspapers, for example, have flourished in recent years. But while a liberal elite is increasingly engaged in political debate, voter turnout among urban, educated Egyptians is extremely low. It remains unclear whether liberal parties could, if they had the necessary skills and resources, mobilize some of the 80 percent of eligible Egyptians who did not vote in 2005; mobilizing even a fraction could make a significant electoral difference. But as long as the political turf of liberalism remains hotly contested, the Brotherhood will continue to represent the only clear alternative to the status quo.

Issandr El Amrani is a freelance journalist living in Cairo.