Political Parties in Egypt

Egypt’s political parties did not evolve from within society, but rather as tools within the arena of political power, which is under the complete control of the individual ruler. The latter seek legitimizing his rule or to give it a democratic appearance as an attempt to acquire internal legitimacy from society, or external legitimacy from the international community he hopes to appease . . . Nasr Mohamed Arif writes

Political Parties in Egypt
The Problems of Existence, Legitimacy and Function

Nasr Mohamed Arif (Ph.D.)
Faculty of Economics and Political Science
Cairo University

The concept of the political party as a political organization seeking power through elections has not taken root in Egypt’s political culture. Political parties have failed to develop into effective and influential institutions operating within the political system. They witnessed various upward and downward developments, but the overall result of this process is deterioration – whether in relation to function, legitimacy or in relation to their position within the core politics. It could be said that the conditions of Egypt’s parties at the beginning of the twenty first century is the same as they were at the beginning of the twentieth century: it if they had merely turned round and round, completing a whole circle, and thus, returned to the starting point.

Multiple methodologies were required for the analysis of this phenomenon. This included a historical outlook to monitor the development of Egypt’s experience with political parties, as well as an application of the sociology of political parties, comprising an analysis of the environment in which these parties emerged and its impact on their development.

Anthological analysis was used to study the structure of political parties in Egypt through examining their existential components, including their organizational and ideological structures, their social basis and the forces that prompted their emergence.
This multi-facetted approach also includes an epistemological analysis aiming at determining whether Egypt’s political parties can be defined as such, according to the generally acknowledged meaning of the term and whether what is called a political party in the Egyptian political system really represents a party (according to the modern notion) or is it only an organization or a phenomenon that differs from the internationally acclaimed notion in this respect? Another question posed is: Will what we know about Egyptian parties enable us to deal with them as modern political parties or not? The real inherent problems of the Egyptian political parties, which renders them deformed or malfunctioning and which makes it difficult for the researcher to refer to them as modern political parties, will be studied.

Finally, all the findings of the study will be used to provide a future vision about Egypt’s parties in light of the present political reality and its future potential.

Before embarking on this study, the following introductory remarks are deemed to be necessary as basis for understanding and analysis:

1- Societies exposed to European modernization, or top-down modernization initiated by the elite copying Europe’s government institutions, witness a hidden, nevertheless, violent strife between two types of institutions; the natural inherited primordial ones, including tribe, family, sect, ideological school, vocation or union, against the modern institutions that include the parliament, political parties, interest groups, etc. Many societies in the so-called third world witnessed this type of strife in which one side sought strengthening its presence by obstructing the action of the other or by infiltrating it and emptying it from its meaning. African and Arab societies have suffered from this type of struggle. In Egypt, the natural institutions continue to be victorious over the modern implanted or artificially imposed ones.

2- Experience of the modern Egyptian state since Mohamed Ali Pasha (i. e. since 1805 till date) was based on the government’s attempt to reduce the power and capacity of society (or to contain it). The state sought to strengthen its existence at the expense of society by means of destroying the societal indigenous institutions and replacing them with modern ones. This was unfolded through a top-down process of change based on imposition rather than persuasion. This was based on the decisions of the ruling authority rather than the creation and development of an indigenous political culture. Therefore, it was a matter of inducing change from the top rather than allowing the developments to start from the bottom.
This situation created a sort of traditional and hidden resistance to the new institutions. Such resistance was characterized by applying the culture prevailing in Egypt’s countryside as peasants usually prefer hidden rejection rather than a declared opposition, or passive resistance instead of positive action. On top of that, Egyptian people in countryside areas tend to use the time factor to their own benefit, obstructing what they oppose by ignoring getting involved in any sort of interaction or making any real response.


Egypt’s experience with political parties is a century old and covers a full cycle of development. At the beginning of the twentieth century, political parties operated outside the framework of the political process as a whole. They emerged as national liberation movements, or as agents supporting the colonial power, rather than as parties in the sense attributed to in political theory. They were more of political organizations, yet, as the study will show, they were in fact anything but real genuine political parties.

These beginnings of political parties do not fundamentally differ from their position now in the early twenty-first century, as they still lack the capacity to compete for power. They do not even possess the means to monitor political processes or hold the government accountable for the existing problems. In the final analysis, they are nothing more than political groups that may exercise a certain amount of pressure. According to the standards laid down in internationally accepted definitions of political science, they would be considered as part of the civil society rather than being seen as part of the political system.

The First Stage: The Political Party as a National Liberation Movement (1907-1923)

Numerous theories exist for analyzing the beginnings of Egypt’s political parties, some of which attribute them to political associations operating secretly underground. During the last third of the nineteenth-century, a lot of underground associations emerged in Egypt, including the Masonic order, which was joined by some Islamic reform leaders, such as Gamal Eddin El-Afghany. They also include the Helwan Underground Association, established in April 1879, which counted major landowners among its members. Prior to that, Ali El-Rouby established an underground association of army officers in April 1879, which Ahmed Orabi joined. The establishment of the National Party was a result of communication between the latter two associations. It was also known as the Civil Party or the Fellahin Party, and it was affiliated with Orabi. The party’s first statement was issued on February 4, 1879. However, this early announcement of the party’s concept did not express a political awareness of the role and scope of a full-fledged political party. The Arab understanding of a party has been predominant at that time and outweighed the European concept. The word party in Arabic refers to any group of people, regardless of their political purpose. It even has negative connotations that will be addressed in detail at a later stage.

The replies Orabi gave during his trial, following the failure of the army movement he led in 1882, show that his concept of a party was shaped by the one prevailing in Egypt at the time. In fact, the Arabic language connotation does not match the same meaning the term has in English or in other European languages. When asked if he was the leader of the National Party, Orabi replied that Egypt was known to be inhabited by a number of nationalities, and that it was natural for each to be considered a party. He said that nationals represented an existing party known as the Fellahin (meaning the peasants) – a name that was bestowed on them in order to humiliate them. His statements reflect that he used the term according to the Arabic meaning of a party, which is also given to a tribe or any group of human beings who have inherited commonalities among them.

This analysis, therefore, supports the opinion arguing that the real beginning of political parties in Egypt dates back to 1907 when Moustafa Kamel established the National Party. During the period between 1907 and 1923, a number of political parties were founded, which were pre-occupied with the issue of national liberation. In spite of the fact that they were officially called parties, they were rather groups struggling for liberation from colonization. The forces that supported the establishment of these parties represented the entities struggling for the expulsion of the foreign colonizers from Egypt’s territories.
In fact, the Egyptian national movement had Ottoman tendencies as it aimed at liberating Egypt from the British while preserving the religious bond to the Ottoman Empire. Moustafa Kamel, and his successor Mohamed Farid, led this party, which continued to represent the nationalist tendency until the emergence of the Wafd Party.

Other parties also emerged, such as El-Ummah (The Nation) Party, which was supported by the British in 1907, enrolling major landowners, and aiming at confronting and weakening nationalism. El-Ummah – in turn – was nothing more than a newspaper called El-Garida (The Newspaper). It had no organizational existence or popular support. The party represented western liberal concepts, and its followers in Egypt were westernized, rich people who had secular tendencies and who opposed the Islamic tendencies in the Ottoman Empire. Lord Cromer (the British ruler of Egypt at that time) supported this party, which ceased to exist when El-Garida stopped to appear in 1915.
Also, other British supported parties emerged, such as the Free National Party and the Egyptian Party, as well as other parties established with the support of the Khedive, the most important of which was Al-Islah Ala Al-Mabadi Al-Dostoreyya Party (Reform According for Constitutional Principals Party). It was established by Sheikh Ali Youssef, owner of El-Mu’ayid (The Supporter) newspaper, and vanished with his death without having had any real presence or impact.

Among the parties emerging due to direct support from the Khedive were the Nobles Party and the Constitutional Party. By the end of World War II, all these parties disappeared, except for the parties that focused on the issue of independence, which became the nucleus for the Wafd Party (the one that negotiated British withdrawal in 1919). Egypt finally obtained formal independence in 1922. Then, the 1923 constitution marked a new phase in the development of political parties in Egypt, ending an era in which the word party meant nothing more than a title bestowed on liberation movements or on those who supported the colonial power.

The Second Stage: Unbalanced Party Pluralism (1923-1952)

This phase in the history of political parties in Egypt was shaped by the outcomes of the struggle of the Wafd Party. The Wafd’s position and role in the political process defined the features of this stage. In contrast to the previous era, the concept of national liberation significantly declined, particularly after Egypt obtained independence and a liberal constitution was issued a year later. Hence, the country witnessed a liberal phase based on competition among parties, as well as elections, circulation of power and government accountability guaranteed by an effective parliament. In spite of the fact that there were some shortcomings in these political practices, the rules and principals of the system itself were not violated or eliminated. This system was based on the concepts of separation of powers, constitutionalism, liberalism, pluralism and circulation of power.

However, the pluralism exercised in the political arena suffered from imbalances. On the one hand, there was the Wafd Party, which was a major party representing a broad public base. It gained more and more popularity since it was leading the liberation movement following World War II, uniting in it all political, religious and sectarian trends. On the other hand, there was a group of small, less important parties, some of which were factions that broke off the Wafd Party. These small parties were fully prepared to violate the constitution, rig elections or seek support from the palace and/or the British in order to assume power. Among the most significant of these parties were the Constitutional Liberals, the National Party, the Union Party, the People’s Party, the Wafd Block and the Saadis Party.

Due to their preoccupation with the anti-colonial struggle, all these parties – including the Wafd – lacked clear-cut political, economic and social programs. This state of affairs led to the emergence of political organizations or movements operating outside the officially recognized party system, such as Misr El-Fatah Movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the socialist movements. These non-party movements focused on social and economic issues, in addition to the aim of liberating the country from colonial rule.
Despite the shortcomings observed in this era, whether in relation to party structure, programs or practices, it was the only stage in contemporary Egyptian history that witnessed party pluralism in the liberal sense. Also, the concept of political parties was crystallized, in the sense that Western political science attributes to it. However, this stage should be viewed as an integral part of previous as well as subsequent stages in the process of development of Egypt’s party system.

The Third Stage: The Party as a State Apparatus (or the One-Party System Era) (1952 – 1975)

A superficial, simplistic view may lead us to conclude that the third stage was an exception in the development of Egypt’s party system, unrelated to the previous or later stages. However, a deeper investigation into the basis and principles governing Egypt’s party system since its inception, together with an epistemological understanding of the knowledge structures upon which it was based, as well as its axioms and aims, shows that the one-party era, (within which the ruling party became synonymous with the state), was the natural development of Egypt’s party system. This would have also been the case if the revolution of 23 July 1952 – with all the violent changes it brought to Egypt’s political, economic and social systems by replacing them with some entirely different ones – had not taken place.

The emergence of a political party in Egypt reflected the nation’s search for independence, and that party represented the nation and its leadership in the negotiations with the British to this end. When Egypt obtained its formal independence, the party system turned into one major party representing the entire nation. The existence of other small parties expressed only the isolated elites, who were linked by a complex network of interests with the British or the Palace Monarch, who was a puppet in the hands of the British. Thus, it was only natural for the one party, which had previously been associated with the nation’s aspirations and desires to turn into the state, after complete independence was obtained.
As political parties since their inception lacked political, economic and social programs and focused on the issue of independence as a public demand, it was natural for independence to mean the end of these parties, just as the seeking it had justified their existence.

The two previous stages of development of political parties were both characterized by the existence of one major party representing the national interests, together with a small group of parties linked with the aim to counter these very same national interests. The drive to eliminate these pro-British or pro-Palace interests and to establish the national interest as the only legitimate and dominant interest logically led to the disappearance of these smaller parties leaving the major party to stand for the nation and to express its interests.
Consequently, the National Party established in 1907, the Wafd Party established in 1918, the Liberation Committee established in 1953, the National Union established in 1956, and the Socialist Union established in 1962 were all one and the same party. They all carried the same genes of a specific concept of a political party that associates the nation with the party.

When the spirit of the nation materializes and shapes a state, the state becomes the party. It was logical for the leadership of the 1952 revolution to ask the political parties in an early stage to eliminate the corruption within their ranks (such corruption was taken as a justification for the revolution). Later, the leadership of the revolution promulgated the Political Party Dissolution Law on January 16, 1953 and simultaneously established the Liberation Authority as one party responsible for educating the people and preparing them for the new era. On January 16, 1956 an alternative party, carrying the same features and fulfilling the same functions, was established under the new name of National Union. In 1962 the Arab Socialist Union was established. Again, it was nothing more than a change of name for the same organization that was made up by the same people who had the same values, principles, objectives and functions of their forefathers. Whatever the names were, the party had adopted the concepts of the one-party system that prevailed in the Eastern Block and most Third World countries and was inspired by the socialist ideology and Soviet influence.

The Fourth Stage: False Pluralism (1975 – )

It became necessary for Egypt’s political system to perform cosmetic surgery following the death of the charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the political vacuum he left behind. A number of factors made such a revamp urgent, including the military defeat in 1967, the emergence of a political movement advocating freedoms. This came with the ascension of President Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat to power, who adopted policies contradictory to those of his predecessor on all fronts, foremost among which was the sudden change from a guided economy to the Open Door policy (Infitah), which reflected a new era of flirting with the US.

Hence, a new formula thus emerged, which comprised political and economical openness, as well as pluralism. It also meant that the one-party system that was so typical for the socialist era had to come to an end. However, the political transformation of the party system was neither genuine nor fundamental. Moreover, instead of aiming to achieve genuine political pluralism, the highest goal of the regime was to demonstrate a democratic appearance as well as advocate ultimately illusionary political plurality. The aim was always to embellish the system, which started to show symptoms of corruption, favoritism, plundering of public funds and illegally acquired wealth.

A look at Egypt’s experience with political parties since 1975 until today clearly shows – beyond any doubt – that the Arab Socialist Union remains the ruling party in Egypt (under various names). Other existing parties, which to date number 16, are decorative items, as they only play their part in a puppet show. In fact, objective researchers, regardless of their scientific flexibility, cannot consider these as political parties, although they label themselves as such. An analysis of this period will demonstrate the extent to which this change was formalistic in character rather than fundamental.

In August 1974, President Sadat issued a paper on the developing of the Socialist Union, in which he called for re-thinking its organization and objectives. In July 1975, the Third National Socialist Union Conference was held, during which the multi-party system was rejected. However, the Union delegates agreed to the presence of various trends of thought, still, within the one party – an idea that was later called the Manaber (pulpits). A dialogue started among representatives of these different trends and the discussions led to the announcement that instead of creating a multitude of different parties’ forty, different forums are to be established within the party.

In March 1976, President Sadat approved the establishment of only three main trends in the form of organizations representing the right wing (the Liberal Socialists Organization), the center (Egypt’s Arab Socialist Organization) and the left (The National Progressive Unified Tagammu Organization). During the parliament session on November 11, 1976, President Sadat announced that these three political organizations were to be transformed into political parties. Following this announcement, the Political Party Organization Law was promulgated in June 1977. With the introduction of this law, the party system was legally transformed from the one-party to a multi-party system. However, instead of abolishing the Socialist Union, article 7 of this law expanded its powers by allowing it to approve or reject the formation of other parties. Prior to its amendment in 1981, article 7 of the law stated that requests to form parties should be submitted to the secretary of the Socialist Union’s Central Committee.

In the summer of 1978, President Sadat announced the establishment of the National Democratic Party (NDP) appointing himself as the party’s chairman. He impelled the leaders of Egypt’s Arab Socialist Party to join the NDP. The NDP is the ruling party to date, and it is the sole heir to the Socialist Union and to Egypt’s Arab Socialist Party, which emerged out of the Socialist Union.

A glance at the locations of NDP offices in Egypt shows that previously they were all belonging to the Arab Socialist Union. Even the national and local NDP leaders were identical with the former leaders of the Socialist Union. For example, the biography of Kamal El-Shazly, NDP Secretary General for Organizational Affairs, who had a lot of influence in the process of defining the party’s structural policies, shows that he started his career with the same post on the regional level in the Liberation Authority in 1953. Shazly was there, whether they were called National Union, Arab Socialist Union, or National Democratic Party.

This party (NDP), which dominates Egypt’s political life, resembles the Russian Petrushka dolls, in which one doll is carrying a lot of other smaller ones inside her. In a similar fashion, the NDP holds within itself all the successive ruling parties since 1953. These parties completely dominated the legislative and executive institutions as well as all the regional and local administrative bodies all over the country. All these parties were established by the heads of state who either belonged to them or headed them. Thus, the researcher cannot possibly draw a line between the party and the state as the party is the state and the state is the party.

The state party or the party state needed a form of tamed opposition, and the president accordingly issued decrees to create this kind of opposition. President Sadat encouraged some members of parliament, who belonged to the NDP to join the Socialist Labor Party, whose establishment as an opposition party holding good relations to the ruling party and to the regime, he had personally overseen. On February 4, 1978, the Parties Committee was supported by the head of state in approving the re-establishment of the Wafd Party, the main party during the pre- 1952 revolution period.

In 1981, article 8 of the Political Parties Law was amended by Law no. 30 placing the Shura (Consultative) Council chairman at the head of the Political Party Affairs Committee. The committee included the ministers of justice, interior and people’s assembly affairs as well as the chairman of the Consultative Council (Shura Council), in addition to three judges. The committee represented a legal and organizational obstacle to the establishment of further political parties. The committee rejected all requests to form parties with the exception of two; the Ummah (Nation) Party in 1983, a party revolving around its founder and his family, and the National Reconciliation Party in 2000.

The following six parties were all established with the support of or by a direct decree from the head of state: The National Democratic Party, the Socialist Independent Party; the National Progressive Unionist Tagammu Party; the Socialist Labor Party; the New Wafd Party and the Ummah Party. Egypt’s party system remained in that state until 1990.
During the period between 1990 and 2002, 11 small parties were established with a membership that did not exceed 100 to 400 persons. An exception was the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, whose membership reaches about 40,000 in a country with a population of nearly 70 million. All these parties were established by Administrative Court rulings after their applications were rejected by the Parties Committee, except for the National Reconciliation Party, which was established in 2000. It may be useful to present a map of the 17 registered Egyptian parties licensed for political activity in Egypt until 2002.

National Democratic Party (NDP): Heir to the Arab Socialist Union to which both the government and parliament belonged. The NDP is headed by the president. It is the party of the state, or the state party.
Socialist Liberals Party: One of the pulpits of the Socialist Union established in 1976, it represents the center trend and has an estimated 5,000 members. It has a weak social presence and suffers from a number of internal conflicts. This party has only one representative in the current parliament.
National Progressive Unionist Tagammu Party: A pulpit of the Socialist Union established in 1976, it represents the Egyptian left wing coalition. Since its establishment, the party has been headed by Khaled Mohi Eddin, one of the officers of the 1952 revolution. The party has around 50,000 members with six representatives in parliament.
The New Wafd Party: A liberal party on both the political and economic levels. Established in 1978 and was headed since its inception by Fouad Serag Eddin (Egypt’s former Interior Minister in 1951) until his death in 2001. It is considered an extension of the Wafd Party, which was the largest party in Egypt during the period between 1919 and 1952. The party’s members number around two million, seven representatives serve in parliament.
Socialist Labor Party: This party represents the Islamic left and was established in 1978. Since its establishment, it has been headed by Ibrahim Shukry who was a member of parliament in 1951. Due to its alliance with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and its large number of followers, this party’s membership cannot be accurately estimated. The activities of the party were frozen since the year 2000 parliamentary elections.
The Ummah Party: The only party approved by the Party Committee in the 1980s. It follows as reformist trend. The party, its institutions and newspaper all revolve around the party chairman and his family. The party has no offices outside of Cairo and failed to nominate candidates to the parliamentary elections of 2000. It has an estimated membership of 300 people.
Egypt’s Green Party: Established in April 1990 in accordance with an Administrative Court ruling, the party’s program focuses on environmental issues and suffers from numerous internal rifts. It managed to nominate ten candidates for the parliamentary elections of 2000, none of them was elected. The size of its membership is unknown.
Unionist Democratic Party: Established in April 1990 in accordance with an Administrative Court ruling, the party’s program follows a liberal trend and calls for the unification of Egypt and the Sudan. It unsuccessfully nominated six candidates for the parliamentary elections of 2000.
New Misr El Fatah Party: Established on 23 April 1990 through an Administrative Court ruling. This party’s roots date back to the Misr El-Fatah Association established by Ahmed Hussein in 1933 who later transformed it into a political party in 1948. Its program is a mixture of socialist, nationalist and reformist elements. Similar to other Egyptian parties, it witnessed a power struggle. No candidates were nominated in the parliamentary elections of 2000.
Social Justice Party: Established by a judicial ruling in 1993. It calls for social justice as well as political and economic reform. Struggle over the leadership of this party led to the fact that its activities were laid on ice more than once. On May 25, 2003 the party founder and leader, Mohamed Abdel Aal, was sentenced to a ten year prison term on corruption charges. The party unsuccessfully nominated 12 candidates for the parliamentary elections of 2000.
Democratic People’s Party: Established on March 15, 1992 through an Administrative Court ruling, it adopts a group of heterogeneous partial issues. The party unsuccessfully nominated one candidate to the parliamentary elections of 2000.
Egypt’s Arab Socialist Party: It dates back to the Socialist Union pulpits. President Sadat decided to merge it with the National Party in 1978. The court annulled the merging decree and permitted the party to resume its activities in 1992. The party program is based on the concepts of democracy and pluralism. It did not nominate any candidates to the parliamentary elections of 2000 because its activities were frozen at the time.
The Arab Nasserist Democratic Party: Established in 1992 with a program that revolves around the ideology and policies of the 1952 revolution. Therefore it carries the name of the late President Nasser. It has around 40,000 members and had three parliamentary representatives elected in 2000, but they were quickly reduced to only one after the party suffered internal divisions.
Takafful Party: Established in 1995 through an Administrative Court ruling, its program is based on an Islamic reformist ideology. The party’s structures are dominated by the head of the party and his family. It unsuccessfully nominated 4 candidates during the 2000 parliamentary elections.
National Reconciliation Party: The first party to obtain approval from the Party Committee (in 2000) after over 17 years. Its program contains a mixture of nationalist and reformist ideologies. The party unsuccessfully nominated six candidates to the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Egypt 2000 Party: It was established on April 7, 2001 through an Administrative Court ruling. As the name suggests, the party’s program reflects the farce of Egypt’s political system. It revolves around the issues of globalization and water. It has no offices in the capital or any other Egyptian city and has not yet ventured into public elections.
New Generation Party: This party was established in 2002 through an Administrative Court ruling. Some 20% of its members were previously in the Socialist Labor Party. The party is still searching for headquarters in Cairo to start its political life (just like Egypt’s youth who are in constant search for a home to start a family).


Having drawn an external map of Egypt’s political parties from their first beginnings in the early twentieth century until the beginning of the twenty-first one, their internal formation will be analyzed as a next step. This mission will be fulfilled by exploring the anthology of these political parties and by deconstructing their political, organizational, and ideological structure. In other words, their existential or fundamental dimensions are investigated with the aim to demonstrate the actual reality of these parties rather than merely examining their external features, which may contradict the truth.

For a start, let us note that the Democratic Party may in reality represent everything anti-democratic, while a new party may actually be very old and might hold on to backward tendencies; similar to those who use the terms of justice or freedom, they may turn out to be equated with corruption and injustice. In fact, the chairman of NDP himself may be brought to justice as a convicted criminal for accepting bribes. Therefore, the internal analysis of these parties should include the following dimensions:

1- Political parties usually emerge by representing a particular public base that seeks offering a competitive alternative to others and to participate in governing society by reaching legitimate power through elections. However, Egypt’s political parties did not emerge in this traditional manner. The state established the major five parties through different means, usually through direct intervention of the head of state, in this case President Sadat. Ten other parties – all small and very weak – were established through Administrative Court rulings reversing decisions issued by the Parties Committee. This committee is controlled by the ruling party, as all its members belong to the NDP. The Parties Committee only approved two parties, one of which is a family party, while the other revolves around its founder. Thus, Egypt’s political parties did not evolve from within society, but rather as tools within the arena of political power, which is under the complete control of the individual ruler. The latter seek legitimizing his rule or to give it a democratic appearance as an attempt to acquire internal legitimacy from society, or external legitimacy from the international community he hopes to appease.

2- Researchers analyzing the programs, objectives and slogans of Egypt’s political parties may find it difficult to find differences between them. They all share a common agenda while their differences lie in particular details or secondary policies. This fact prevents the thorough researcher from reaffirming the talk about party pluralism. Apart from four parties with clear, albeit similar programs, the remaining 13 lack a clear understanding of what a party program means. They do not distinguish between programs and slogans or partial temporary policies. Some of them make it their program to persuade the government to raise the 50,000 LE normally allocated to parties. Others consider restricting car ownership per household to one car as the main goal on the way to foster family relations etc. For many of these parties, it is difficult to make out and define a clear-cut party program. This is the case even with the ruling party whose goals do not exceed the maintenance of power through strengthening the concept of stability, which led the country to the point of stagnation and the political death of both state and society.

Egypt’s political party programs elicit wonders, as we find that quasi-Marxist left-wing parties, such as the Tagammu Party, share common grounds with liberal parties as the Wafd, as well as with centrist parties and parties with Islamist overtones. The most significant of these common factors is the expressed respect for Islam as a source of values and rules. Besides, they call for social justice, plurality, democracy, economic reform, human rights, labor rights, etc. The coalitions in which Egyptian political parties have engaged into would clearly demonstrate this point.

In the 1984 parliamentary elections, the New Wafd Party (which represents Egypt’s liberal and secular elite) entered into a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood (the strongest politically active group in Egypt representing a party that is banned from politics) for purely pragmatic reasons. The Wafd wanted to take advantage of the popularity the Islamist group enjoyed at the grass-roots level, and the Brotherhood sought entering the parliament with the help of a legitimate partner. A second coalition emerged for the same reasons in the 1987 elections between the left wing Socialist Labor Party, the secular right wing Socialist Liberal Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

1-Apart from the state-founded parties, the spectrum of political parties is quite artificial, as it does not reflect Egypt’s political reality. Active political powers in the Egyptian society – Islamist, left wing and Nasserite – are deprived of legitimacy. They are thus deprived of forming parties representing them, while officially licensed parties that lack popularity or real presence in the Egyptian street. The problem is that the legal parties lack legitimacy, and the ones that enjoy social legitimacy are legally banned.

Apart from the state’s NDP, the Socialist Labor Party, and the Arab Democratic Nasserite Party, none of the existing parties really operate nation-wide. Only the major parties are the ones who enjoy representative presence in the capitals of the 26 governorates of Egypt. The New Wafd and the National Tagammu Progressive Unionist parties have offices in 23 of Egypt’s 26 governorates. The Liberal Party has offices in 16 governorates. Egypt 2000 and The New Generation parties have none, not even in the capital. This means that they only exist on paper, which is a joke. It is hard to imagine how a party would operate or even physically exist, without having an office. Each of Egypt’s remaining nine parties has a headquarter in the capital but none in any other Egyptian city outside Cairo.
The eleven parties, which had no candidates winning a seat in the 2000 parliamentary elections, could only afford to support 10 candidates at most. If we consider the number of candidates each party nominated, we find that none of the Egyptian parties nominated candidates to cover all electoral districts. Some parties’ representation in parliament does not exceed 1% of its members.

Our of the 444 elected members of parliament (in addition to 10 appointed by the president), opposition parties managed to win 17 seats (3.7%) of which the Wafd Party won 7 seats (1.5%), Tagammu won 6 seats (1.3%), Nasserites won 3 seats (0.7%) the Liberal Party won 1 seat (0.2%) and eleven parties had no representation at all. Taking into consideration the total number of 444 seats in parliament, the number of candidates were as follows: NDP 433, Wafd 424, Tagammu 58, Liberal 37, Nasserite 33, Labor 39, Green Party 7, Misr El Fatah 7, Reconciliation 6, Takafful 4, Social Justice 3, Ummah 1, Al-Shaab (People’s Party) 1, and three parties who did not nominate anyone.

2- The existence of parties in any political system means that a democratic process exits, which is based on elections, free choice and circulation of power. The reason behind this is that the essence of the existence of a political party is to reach power through elections. It requires the party to believe in democracy as a value and a source of legitimacy, as well as means to fulfill its goal of reaching power. Although these are basic facts in political science literature, political parties in Egypt constitute a different phenomenon. Egyptian political parties are not committed to democracy and do not apply democratic procedures. They are parts of a political system in which all parties, government and opposition; share a common principle, which says: democracy should be enforced on others to my benefit. Democracy is therefore a tool instead of a value. Rather than being an objective, democracy is simply a slogan used by various players to force the others to allow this party to achieve its own goals with no obligation in return on that player whatsoever.

Death, the biological factor, is the only force of change that leads to peaceful circulation of power in political parties. Among 17 parties, 13 are headed by their founders, while the remaining four leaders were changed due to the death of the previous leader. None of the party chairmen or heads of political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or others, were changed by elections or in any other democratic way, as they themselves founded these organizations and took control due to that. Hence, death is the only acknowledged factor in Egypt’s political system leading to a transfer of power. [Ikhwanweb: The Muslim Brotherhood is an illegal organization according to Egyptian law and cannot play by the same rules as a licensed political party and hold elections to choose its leaders through a democratic process. In recent history, when the Muslim Brotherhood Executive Bureau once convened to hold an election of its members, police interrupted the meeting and a large number of the Bureau’s members were arrested and sent before military courts

3- This state led to a number of phenomena, most importantly the emergence of the age of a political system as a whole, including the political parties. The chairmen of the Socialist Labor and the National Progressive Unionist Tagammu parties belong to a generation that has been politically active for over half a century. The same goes for the Nasserite and the Ummah parties. All are led by men in their seventies or eighties. This gave rise to a generational conflict in most of the parties, as well as internal conflicts in 10 out of the 17 parties. These conflicts resulted in court rulings on one hand and some decrees issued by the Parties Committee on the other, by the force of which five of these parties were suspended.

This process of ageing combined with the lack of democratic practices within the parties; deprived them of credibility and legitimacy. The lack of democracy goes beyond the manner in which chairmen are changed, as it also highlights a dictatorial manner in any sort of decision-making. Parties are generally ruled by individualism, tribalism, and small groups. This is not a new phenomenon in Egypt’s political parties. In the 1920’s, Egyptian parties were characterized by leaders who enjoyed absolute power as they were not elected, never replaced through any democratic means and did not practice democracy to reflect the opinions of the majority of the party members in the decision-making process. This was the case with all parties, whether they be national movements (Wafd and NDP), working class parties (Constitutional Liberal, Saadist, and Wafd Bloc), palace parties (Union and the People) or pure ideology (Misr El Fatah and Muslim Brotherhood).

4- The Egyptian government and its potential alternatives share the same value system. If the government was undemocratic in its practices, the parties that would theoretically be considered viable alternatives are also undemocratic. Corruption is wide-spread within the government, as every now and then one minister or high-ranking official is put on trial for financial or moral corruption. However, the same goes for political parties. At least three party leaders were tried or accused of financial and administrative corruption, most recently Mohamed Abdel Aal, chairman of the Social Justice Party, who was sentenced ten years in prison for accepting bribes. The Takafful (Social Solidarity) and Wifaq (Reconciliation) parties were embroiled in similar scandals. The activities of the latter were suspended on August 27, 2001 because its leadership faces corruption charges.

5- Any observer of the Egyptian culture will notice that the names given to parties are usually unsuitable for political parties and do not reflect an understanding of the concept of political parties and their central position in political systems. Some of the names are more suitable for fashion or grocery stores. The New Generation is a case in this regard; this name should rather be given to a tailor or a bookshop. Egypt 2000 seems to be more of a name for a boutique. Moreover, adding the qualifier new to old parties is a kind of marketing strategy for historical entities, which belong to the past. For example, the leadership and ideas of the New Wafd remained the same as those of the old party until 2001. The same goes for the Misr El Fatah party.

To sum up, the internal analysis of Egypt’s parties reveals that they are neither serious nor effective, which makes it hard to consider them as political parties in accordance with the scientific definition of the term.


The lack of meaning, role and function of Egypt’s political parties makes one wonder about their essence, as well as our ability to know them accurately enough to come to a correct judgment about them. Is what we know about these parties is to be considered as real knowledge or is it based on distorted information? Are the names they carry and the adjectives we describe them with reflected in their programs, organizational structures, objectives, policies and work procedures? Or do we suffer from optical illusion when words lose their meaning, the relationship breaks between concepts and the reality that manifests them, and when the names become no longer related to the phenomena they label? All these questions need a thorough look at the degree of our awareness and knowledge of the reality of Egypt’s political parties. Thus, there must be an attempt to approach them with a mind that is free from phenomena and appearances, focusing only on the objective reality of things as they are, regardless of the names and concepts that these parties use as labels. Only in this case, we come to the conclusion that the reality relating to the parties expresses one of the following possibilities:

1- The party may mean the state or the nation. This is the meaning most rooted in the Egyptian experience. As we have seen since the Orabi era, the word party is used to refer to the Egyptian nation or public. The 1952 revolution is referred to as the time when Egyptians started to rule themselves following many centuries of being ruled by others. At that time, the ruling party was equated with the state, which expressed the spirit of the nation. This concept prevails to date with the existence of the NDP.
The close relationship between party and state is not restricted to the level of awareness among people. This is obvious if we look at the NDP and its relation to the branches of the state, i.e. the executive, legislative and judiciary powers. Researchers can hardly differentiate between the party and the state when it comes to persons, policies or the authorities that formulate and implement policies.

2- The party may be associated with the elite because belonging to a party automatically means that the person joins a politically influential grouping capable of direct communication with the government and its authorities. This sector is also offering the achievement of different types of interests through a network of personal relations as well as the power of the party. This is all the most important as nepotism is the main rule of the political game and administrative process in Egypt.

3- The party may be the individual who established and leads the party. This meaning applies to all Egyptian parties without exception. The party is the private property of its chairman or founder who does not accept – under any circumstances – the separation between himself and his role. He is the party and the party is him. Voting for some parties is not based on their programs and objectives. Rather, it is usually based on the relative weight of the party’s leader, members and candidates. A study of the biographies of the leaders of major and minor parties shows the degree to which the party is associated with the person on the top and his relations with the government and the public.

4- The party may be a tribe, in both its internal or external relations with the state and society. Since parties emerged their structures have been reflecting the tribal concept, which they adopt. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Egyptian parties are modern tribes or a modern image of the tribe, carrying tribal symbols, and means of operation. Any criticism of party leaders or a call for their replacement or change is frowned upon as a violation of party/tribal norms. Decision-making within parties follows the tribal method, which involves respect for the relative weight of persons, respect for the elder and for those with senior positions in the party, regardless of their effectiveness and ability to benefit the party.
Similarly, in the relations between parties, the tribal principles are also adopted, which means that personal relationships among leaders are given priority over the strategic relations between the concerned parties. Personal agreement on objectives and policies is given priority over strategic thinking and planning. A review of the already mentioned alliances between parties, which have quite contradicting goals and programs, demonstrates that they have not overcome this tribal way of thinking. The presence of parties in society as well as the procedure of voting for them depends on the weight of tribes and families to which candidates belong rather than on party programs and objectives.

5- A party may be a pressure group. With the exception of the ruling NDP, the parties’ main ambition is to play an influential role within Egypt’s political system as pressure groups because reaching power through elections is impossible. The NDP controls Egypt’s political life using all available means, such as propaganda, fear, appeasement, forgery or rigging. Similarly, the army remains the only institution from among which the heads of state as well as most governors are selected. Thus, the main political ambition for Egyptian parties is to attempt to influence the government and to direct its policies in a particular direction or to convince that government to drop an issue previously pursued. However, parties posing as pressure groups are weak when compared to the influence of associations and unions, especially those of businessmen.

6- The party may be nothing more than a newspaper. This has been the case since the Egyptian parties were established. The Ummah party and the Islah party are examples for this. It was also the case for minor parties emerging during the liberal era (1923-1952). To the same effect, all of Egypt’s current parties, except for the six major ones, are not offering more than one or more newspapers to express their agendas. Moreover, establishing a party has become a means to receive the permission to publish a paper. The law governing the publication of newspapers usually gives parties the right of publication much more easily compared to individuals and non-party entities. This is why particular parties recently rented their papers to others, either as a whole or in part, or used their right to publish newspapers as means of material gains. This is the picture of political parties, which characterizes the political reality in Egypt. Although they all include the concept of a political party in their titles, their reality remains limited to one or more of these six aforementioned shapes.


Following this description of the conditions of the parties, the most pressing question coming to mind is concerning the causes of this extreme deterioration in political practice. Why is there this enormous difficulty to develop or reform? What are the factors impeding democratic development in Egypt? Is it an inherent condition or was it produced by factors and causes that can be addressed and remedied? There are a number of answers to these questions.

The most significant and credible reason in regard to difficulties with democracy in the Middle East revolves around one of the following three: The first reason relates this condition to the cultural formation of the Middle East, particularly the long heritage of inheritance of power. The second involves structural causes related to state power and control, and the third involves pragmatic reasons. Political regimes in the Arab world are reluctant to democratize as they fear to be eliminated and replaced by Islamic forces. Another point of view relates the crisis of parties to the circumstances in which they emerged, the powers behind their establishment, their relation to the government, the degree to which they represented the various social sectors and therefore the public support they enjoyed, and finally, their political ideology and intellectual sources.

This study summarizes the sources of Egypt’s party crisis as follows:

1- The crisis of the Egyptian political culture, which is a mixture of political Pharaonism, the culture of isolation and monasticism from the Coptic and Roman eras, the culture of obedience and servility inherited from the era of deterioration in Islamic history, particularly the Mamluk and Ottoman eras. All this is merged in the crucible of the tolerant Egyptian character that replaces a demonstration with a joke, a revolution with making sarcastic remarks about the ruler, pioneering and change with patience and following the flow. On the other hand, the concept of parties prevalent in the Arabic culture is laden with a passive system, which is influenced by the historical conception that a party is any group of people that meet over objectives, which are often against justice. All this prevented the concept of political parties from taking root or being employed within the framework of political practice.

2- Concerning the crisis of the Egyptian political system as a whole: Since the establishment of Egypt as a modern state during the era of Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1805, there was a tendency to give the government exaggerated powers and to grant it complete control over the political process. Over a period of two centuries, the Egyptian government evolved into the central axis within the political process. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the government is the main, if not the only, variable in this process. Based on this fact, successive constitutions gave the ruler, who represents the state, a certain power over the legislative. The president, like the king before him, has the right to suggest laws and issue decrees, as well as to object to draft laws. Article 38 of the 1923 constitution gave this right to the king, and then article 136 of Egypt’s permanent constitution of 1971 gave the same right to the president.
As for political participation through parties, article 5 of the latest constitution prescribes plurality as a general principal. The organization of this principle, however, is delegated to the public law. Then it was referred to the Political Practices Organization Law number 40 of 1977, which established a mechanism to organize this constitutional right. The right to license parties was given to the already mentioned committee of six persons who usually represent, either directly or indirectly, the ruling party. Thus, the Egyptian government was able to nationalize (or confiscate) political opposition and tailor it to its specifications.

3- Institutional crisis as manifested in the tyranny of the individual and the weakness of institutions is one of the most significant historical weaknesses of the political system. Over a long period, such political system did not witness the emergence of strong political institutions to resist the authority of the individual ruler or challenge that of the ruling elite. Egypt’s political system was based on individuals rather than institutions since the rule of Mohamed Ali until today. Despite the fact that the parliament was established in 1866 and ministries were set up around the same time, these institutions did not take root to become the focal point of and the power behind the political process. On the contrary, these institutions revolved around the ruler, and their existence depended on his satisfaction. Thus, the lack of strong parties as institutions can only be analyzed in the context of the nature of the institutions operating within Egypt’s political system and their power to face rulers, be they the individual rulers or the accompanying elite.

4- The crisis in the relationship between the state and society: Throughout their history, Islamic societies, including Egypt, witnessed regimes in which the state was mostly governed by a tyrant, either as an individual or as a family. However, this did not produce the negative effects of a tyranny as known in modern and contemporary history because the relationship between the state and society in Islamic civilization witnessed the model of a weak state and a strong society. Sometimes, the society is so strong that it becomes able to preserve an independent development line. The state’s weakness or collapse did not mean the weakness and collapse of society because the latter was self-sufficient through the Waqf (religious endowments) institutions, which represented a source of financial stability to various civil society institutions that covered all the functions society needed, including education, medicine, culture, entertainment and social care.

At times, these institutions even provided security services, promoted commerce and provided animal care. There were also natural social institutions, such as religious sects, unions, associations of professionals, scientists, etc. The role of the government was restricted to only four functions: external protection, internal security, the judiciary and tax collection. Other functions were covered by the society. This situation continued until Mohamed Ali Pasha ascended to in Egypt and wanted to build a modern state based on the European model. He weakened society to the advantage of the state. He eliminated all active social or civil society institutions and social powers. He placed the traditional system of religious endowments under state control. Since his rule, the society found itself in a state of bankruptcy as it was stripped off and thus lost every power that gave it a certain degree of independence from the government.
Even individual people were weakened, as all aspects of their lives were linked to the government – to the point that they cannot live or achieve any of their personal interests without depending on it. Many researchers have attributed the lack of democracy in the Middle East to the fact that civil society institutions are in a weak position, dependent on the government and incapable of convincing it to adopt policies that reflect their political positions.

5- The crisis of the relationship between the indigenous and the incoming culture: Middle Eastern societies in general are witnessing a state of conflict between institutions adopted from the West on the one hand, and their own indigenous institutions, which have developed naturally on the other. This conflict is not restricted to institutions. It includes all aspects of society. Since people began to admire western civilization there is a kind of social, political and cultural split between two conflicting trends; the imported Western component and the indigenous legacy or historical components. In other words, there is a conflict between the traditional and the modern, which is raging in the sphere of politics, economy, society, culture, education, the arts, etc. This split resulted in a constant mood of self-destruction because both parts of society are set to destroy each other. At best, each of the two parts of society is aborting the effectiveness of the other and is working to ensure its failure.
Parties modeled after European political systems were set up to replace intermediary institutions that played a similar role, such as the sects, the unions, the scientist and merchant groupings, the tribal institutions, etc. All these institutions played the role of political recruitment, expression of interests as well as political communication. They also offered themselves as alternatives to gain power through various means. They represented a social monitor over the political power and protected individuals against the state. All these institutions were weakened but not eliminated. Thus, they neither gave an opportunity for political parties to take root nor did they openly fight to regain their original role and effectiveness. As a result, they seeped into political parties and tried to make them their natural extension. Political parties failed to achieve their objectives because they were inhibited by traditional institutions that forced them to pursue objectives far removed from their goals, functions and roles.


Egypt’s political life witnessed successive cycles with similar results. Thorough observers of the conditions of Egypt’s party system in 1950 find that it is not different in 2000. It is enough to refer to the fundamental phenomenon of the weak results achieved by parties during the legislative elections and noting the emergence of the phenomenon of independents or the political powers that operate outside the framework of the party system. In 1950, the legislative elections showed that political powers not represented in existing parties had the strongest influence. These elections also saw weak public interest in voting. The same phenomenon was repeated during the 2000 legislative elections, in which only around 20% of the eligible voters actually participated in the polls.

During the same elections, 3,957 candidates competed over the 444 parliament seats, of which 2,034 were independent candidates, which is a majority of 51%, i.e. the number of independent candidates exceeded the number of candidates representing all 17 parties. Independents won 244 seats, a rate of 56%. Of the 244 independent representatives, 216 later joined the NDP, which had only won 172 seats. This was a clear betrayal of the contractual political relationship obliging candidates to retain the capacity and function they stood for when they were elected. The political implication of the phenomenon of independent candidates gives evidence to the weakness and erosion of Egypt’s party system. Moreover, some realistic alternatives to parties in Egypt have emerged. Unions as well as social and professional clubs have turned into platforms where political criticism is voiced and practiced. This shows that the party system in Egypt is on its way to die out until an alternative emerges, which should be based on real democratic practices.

Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) . All rights reserved.