- April 14, 2006
Opposition Parties Tripped Up
With a recent gunfight at an opposition party headquarters and a series of arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, the state of the Egyptian opposition has seldom been more uncertain.
“We’re seeing the systematic erosion of most of the opposition parties,” Mohammed Sayyed Said, deputy director of the state-run Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “But this is only a reflection of larger problems to do with the entire system of government.”
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam al-Erian told IPS the crises plaguing opposition parties across the political spectrum have one thing in common. “They can all be traced to efforts by the ruling regime to prevent the emergence of a viable alternative.”
Since hard-fought parliamentary elections last year, political opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) headed by President Hosni Mubarak has suffered a series of setbacks. The most recent — and most spectacular — of these was a shootout at the headquarters of the Wafd Party, the country’s oldest secular opposition force, on April 1.
The clash, which left dozens injured and the party headquarters in a shambles, was instigated by former party chief Nomaan Gomaa, recently ousted by reformers within the party. According to media reports, some 60 armed men headed by Gomaa forced their way into the party office in Cairo. They attacked personnel and destroyed property before they were stopped by party members and police.
Press Syndicate chairman Galal Aref, speaking on Arabic-language news channel al-Jazeera shortly after the incident, called the affair “a catastrophe…for politics and party life.”
The Wafd Party, originally founded in 1919 on a liberal, anti-colonialist platform, is no stranger to crises. In January reform-minded members rebelled against Gomaa and his loyalist old guard, who they criticised for autocratic management of party affairs. Gomaa was also widely blamed for the Wafd’s dismal showing in recent elections: in September’s presidential race Gomaa came in a distant third. In parliamentary elections the party won only six seats out of 444.
“What happened at the party headquarters was the result of longstanding internal problems within the Wafd,” Magdy Samaan, a journalist with the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm told IPS. “Gomaa was considered a dictator within the party.”
But voicing a popular belief, al-Erian suggested that the Wafd’s apparent self-destruction was provoked by the ruling party. “It was a dirty game,” al-Erian said. “Both sides in the dispute were encouraged by the NDP.”
Gomaa, along with several supporters, is in 45-day detention pending an official investigation into charges of intimidation, instigation of riot and the use of unlicenced weapons. On April 3, the political parties committee recognised Gomaa’s chief rival Mustafa el-Tawil as Wafd chairman, according to the state press.
“The old guard is finished, the correctionists have prevailed,” Said remarked. “Whether or not they can revive the party, though, is another matter.”
Gomaa is not the only former presidential contender in jail. Ayman Nour, leader of the nascent al-Ghad party and runner-up in last year’s presidential election, is now serving a five-year prison sentence for forgery – on a charge his supporters say is politically motivated. In the absence of its charismatic leader, the party has been riven by internal disagreements and leadership disputes. “With Ayman Nour in jail, the party’s in jail,” said Cairo-based political analyst Josh Stacher.
According to Samaan, Nour had to be removed from the political arena because he posed a potential challenge to Gamal Mubarak, son of the President and — some say — a future presidential candidate. “Nour could eventually come to represent a challenge to Gamal because there isn’t much difference between their programmes,” Samaan told IPS. “A liberal moderate, like Gamal, Ayman Nour would have been acceptable to a large segment of society.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, while averting such leadership struggles, is facing its own set of problems with the authorities. Officially banned as a party since the 1970s, the group has recently been subject to a campaign of arrests and intimidation by state security.
The Brotherhood participated in parliamentary elections despite its unofficial status by fielding candidates as nominal independents. The group managed to win 88 seats in the People’s Assembly. This was despite its allegations of vote-rigging by agents of the ruling NDP.
But the Brotherhood’s public mandate has not been enough to stave off sporadic crackdowns. In recent weeks dozens of the group’s members have been arrested. About 45 party members remain in detention after recent arrests in Alexandria and the southern city Assiut.
State security shut down the Muslim Brotherhood’s Alexandria office March 6, the group says on its website. The Afaq al-Arabi weekly run by the Brotherhood was briefly banned after the paper reportedly ran a story critical of Gamal Mubarak.
“In spite of the new Brotherhood presence in parliament, the state is maintaining status quo by periodically jailing members of the group,” Said told IPS. “The aim is very clear: to constantly disrupt the party’s activities and keep it on the defensive. This is especially the case since the parliamentary elections..”
Said added, however, that periodic crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood are a time-worn tactic for blunting the power of what many consider Egypt’s most powerful opposition force. “There have traditionally been several different sets of arrests every year.. This happens on an almost quarterly basis. The policy hasn’t changed.”
Al-Erian says the fresh wave of arrests is only a heavy-handed reaction to the Islamist group’s newfound parliamentary leverage. “It’s an attempt to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from reaping the fruits of its electoral victories.”
As the traditional opposition struggles amid dissention and persecution, few new parties can be expected to appear in the mid-term future.
Early this month, the Political Parties Court, an affiliate of the State Council, turned down the licence applications of both the Islamist-leaning al-Wasat Party formed in the 1990s by a breakaway group of Muslim Brotherhood members, and of the pan-Arab Karama Party.