Secular parties fail to set Egyptian poll campaign alight

Secular parties fail to set Egyptian poll campaign alight

By Amil Khan

Party officials say the National Front, which includes most of the significant secular opposition forces, aims to take up to half of the seats in parliament, but analysts say it is more likely to gain 20 to 25 seats in total

EGYPT’S late President Gamal Abdel Nasser inspired millions of Arabs but the party that champions his pan-Arab ideals looks unlikely to win a single seat in Egyptian parliamentary elections starting this week.

The Nasserite Democratic Arab Party, like the other secular parties taking part as a united opposition front, has failed for decades to connect with Egyptian voters, analysts say.

The Nasserites and 10 other parties and groups that make up the National Front for Political and Constitutional Change are challenging the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which holds more than 85 percent of seats in the outgoing parliament.

The agreement to cooperate has done little to ease the internal rifts and external pressures that have left the parties out of touch, short of popular appeal and unprepared to challenge the NDP, which can rely on backing from the state.

“There is no transparency of decision making or accountability…There are no forward plans. It’s more of a friendship party than a political party,” said one Nasserite party member who did not want to give his name.

“Not one of the Nasserite candidates is going to be voted into the parliament,” he added.

The National Front, which includes most of the significant secular opposition forces, ranging from leftists such as the Tagammu Party to the traditional liberal Wafd party, will field 222 candidates for the 444 seats at stake in the elections.

The group also includes smaller parties that have split from more established parties in recent years. The analysts say many of these have little support outside their central committees.

Party officials say the National Front aims to take up to half of the seats in parliament but analysts say it is more likely to gain 20 to 25 seats in total. The parties and groups in the front hold about 10 seats in the outgoing parliament, the Nasserites none.

‘Waste of resources’: Mahmoud Abaza, deputy head of the Wafd party, says the coalition came together because of a popular desire to see the opposition parties cooperate against the NDP, which for the past 30 years has acted as the political wing of the executive.

“There was a feeling that it would be a waste of resources to compete against each other,” he said. Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains banned but has candidates standing as independents, says it is supporting the group but its members will not stand on a unified opposition list.

With little hope of taking control of the state, the parties cannot promise services demanded by voters in many rural areas, where the turn-out is much higher than in towns.

“This election, like others before it, will not be about ideas or policies. It’s about loyalty, families, local pride and mobilisation of the state apparatus by the ruling elite,” said Mohamed el-Sayed Said, a political analyst with a Cairo think tank. In rural constituencies people vote en masse for candidates who can fulfil demands for new schools, roads or other services that should be provided by the state, says Said, deputy director of al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. The Brotherhood has a social service network while the NDP has access to state resources. Candidates from secular opposition political parties have no such resources to draw on.

Personality conflict: With a few voters casting their ballots on the basis of a political ideology, many parties have neglected to develop and adapt their ideas, the analysts add.

The parties in the opposition front suffer from internal splits, on top of their differences with their coalition allies.

Kamal Khalil, a socialist, is running against a Nasserite candidate in a working-class neighbourhood of Cairo after a disagreement over who would represent the National Front in the area. A Wafd member is also standing in the constituency. A member of Khalil’s campaign team said candidates from members of the National Front would be running against each other in about 12 constituencies after similar disagreements.

The Wafd’s Abaza said a “conflict of personalities” was one of the coalition’s main challenges. reuters