Standoff deals blow to secular parties in Egypt

On a rainy spring day a week ago, one of Egypt’s most prominent politicians and about 50 gunmen shot their way into his party’s headquarters in Cairo, tossed Molotov cocktails and ransacked offices to settle a leadership dispute.

When the smoke cleared after the 10-hour standoff, 23 people were wounded, the politician and at least one legislator were in custody, and the image of the Wafd Party – Egypt’s oldest opposition party – was tarnished in the eyes of millions of Egyptians.

The spectacular showdown was the latest blow to moderate Egyptian dissidents, who are struggling to carve a niche between President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule and the growing Islamist fervor of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main opposition group. Other secular opposition groups also are struggling with internal rivalries and clashes with the government, dashing hopes of a unified front that could challenge the ruling party’s tenacious grasp on power and the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative Islam.

“In Egypt, political parties are in very bad shape,” said Mohamed Sayed Saied, deputy director of the prestigious Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “There is a climate of despair.”

The politician involved in the Wafd standoff was Noman Gomaa, 70, a lawyer and former Wafd leader who refused to abdicate his seat to a new chairman. He and 15 of his alleged accomplices were charged with attempted murder, possession of firearms and “baltaga,” an Egyptian word that roughly translates as “thuggery.” The Cairo press corps went into a frenzy. Egyptians followed the drama as though watching a soap-opera cliffhanger.

“This is a catastrophe for party life in Egypt,” the head of the Cairo press syndicate told Al-Jazeera satellite television. “Appalled” was the word used by Saied of the Ahram center. The editor of the Wafd’s newspaper opined that Gomaa must have been “overcome by the devil.”

“There is no difference between Mubarak and Noman Gomaa. They both want to stay in power forever,” said Emad Gad, an Egyptian political analyst.

The fragmenting of the venerable Wafd Party was the nastiest recent Cairo political dispute, but other opposition groups have battles of their own.

The leader of the Tagammu Party, which blends Marxism and pan-Arab nationalism, managed to retain his seat after a similar succession quarrel. Ayman Nour, the Ghad Party leader who came in a distant second to Mubarak in last year’s presidential elections, is serving a five-year prison term on disputed charges that he forged signatures to form his party. The pan-Arab Nasserists, the traditionally liberal Al Ahrar Party and the Labor Party are all in turmoil. Al Karama, an offshoot of the Nasserist group, isn’t even recognized as a party because the government deemed its ideology too radical.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Islamist group that projects an image of orderliness and unity, is quietly settling internal rumblings. Brotherhood leaders expressed sadness at the state of other opposition parties, but acknowledged that they benefit when the secular opposition crumbles.

“The government is responsible for this chaos,” said Essam el Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “It has become so hard to get a license to establish a party that all the party heads cling to their positions despite internal differences.”

Wafd, which means delegation, traces its name to a group of Egyptian political activists who were instrumental in ending Britain’s presence in Egypt in the early 20th century. For decades, the Wafd Party enjoyed wide popular support until all political parties were disbanded under former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution in 1952. Although the Wafd re-emerged in the late 1970s, it’s never been able to recoup the influence or power of its heyday.

With the government’s pressure on opposition parties and the recent shootout, the Wafd and other parties face an uphill battle for to make their voices heard in Egyptian politics.

“There is an immense responsibility on our shoulders,” said Mounir Abdelnour, a senior member of the Wafd Party. “We need to restore our image, the perception of the public and the institutions of our party.”

El-Naggar is a Knight Ridder special correspondent in Cairo.