In Egypt, preferring Islamists to liberals

The Islamists have done it again. First it was Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood surprised everyone – including the group’s own leaders – by winning 20 percent of seats in the People’s Assembly and trouncing all legal opposition parties. Now Hamas has scored a shocking victory over Fatah in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, leaving Washington to muse about the unintended consequences of its campaign to promote democracy in the Arab world.

But while many Palestinians supported Hamas for ideological reasons or voted out of disgust for the corruption and ineffective rule of the Palestinian Authority, in Egypt the apparent popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood was an accurate reflection of a dysfunctional party system, not the true will of the country’s people. In fact, a primary factor contributing to the Brotherhood’s success at the polls was the relative freedom the group enjoys precisely because it is not a political party.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) maintains a longstanding policy of controlling political life to guarantee the regime’s survival, and has stunted the growth of secular opposition parties that could threaten its power. As a result, the low percentage of eligible voters (approximately 26 percent) who participated in the parliamentary elections was essentially left to choose between the NDP and the Brotherhood, which is exactly the polarized political scene the regime sought to create. Though there are more than 15 legal opposition parties in Egypt, the regime has prevented any one of them from developing into a strong political force; together, these parties won a meager 10 seats in Parliament.

Opposition parties face several legal and structural constraints through which the NDP exercises control over the party system. It is the NDP-dominated Political Parties Committee that enjoys exclusive responsibility for licensing and regulating all political parties and holds the power to freeze their activities if deemed in the “national interest.” Also, the Political Parties Law stipulates that new parties can be formed only if they “add something new” to existing parties. These broad caveats allow the regime significant freedom to approve, reject or freeze political parties as suits its interests, and leaves opposition parties subjected to the whims of those who rule. Even if the Egyptian government approves the formation of one or two new opposition parties in the coming year, no party will be able to plant its seeds and grow in the barren soil of the current system.

The regime has succeeded in limiting the size and scope of Al-Wafd and Al-Ghad, Egypt’s two most prominent liberal opposition parties. Both have limited access to the broadcast media, and have been subjected to attempts by the regime to divide them. The Christmas Eve sentencing of Al-Ghad’s leader Ayman Nour to five years of hard labor on charges of forging the signatures needed to gain legal recognition for his party was just another example of the regime’s tactic of suppressing opposition voices. For the NDP, it is liberal parties, not the Muslim Brotherhood, that pose a real threat to the regime’s stability and interests.

Even last year’s constitutional reform – touted by the NDP as a major step on the path of democratization – ensures that it will be difficult for members of the opposition to challenge the NDP for the presidency. All recognized political parties had the right to nominate a presidential candidate in 2005. However, the amendment to Article 76 of the Egyptian Constitution (approved in May 2005) sets firm restrictions on who can run in subsequent presidential elections, starting in 2011. Recognized political parties must have been established for at least five years and hold 5 percent of seats in both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council in order to field a candidate under the party’s name. Currently, no opposition party meets these criteria. For independent candidates aspiring to the presidential seat, the constraints are even tighter; they must receive endorsements from at least 250 members of Egypt’s elected representative bodies to qualify to run. 

To be sure, Egypt has embarked on a process of political reform, and it would be difficult for the regime, due to both domestic and international pressure, to turn back now. Yet, there is a real risk that in a Parliament in which the ruling party holds more than a two-thirds majority, incentives for NDP-initiated reform will stagnate.

In 2005 the ruling party revealed its strategy for responding to domestic and international calls for reform: take steps that will be viewed as progress, but that will not pose any real risk to the NDP’s authority. In 2006, the United States must look beyond the superficial and encourage the Egyptian regime to open up the political party system, both in law and in practice. Turning away from Egypt now is a guarantee that the next elections will be a repeat of 2005, with the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood as the only two political forces on the Nile. This is not the democratic future Egyptians deserve.

Julie Sawyer is a visiting researcher at Democracy Review, published by the Al-Ahram Foundation in Cairo. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.