Centrist politicians hope to evade Islamist-secular divide

Although no date has been set yet for the upcoming parliamentary elections, different political parties have already begun talks in order to build electoral alliances. While secularists hope to establish one bloc to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, centrist Islamists alongside non-ideological youth-led groups are coordinating their efforts to offer voters a third, moderate option with no overt Islamist or secular tag.

According to Omar Farouk, spokesperson of the Moderate Islamist Wasat party, the envisioned alliance includes so far his party, Adl, Hadara, and they April 6 Youth and Mesrona movements. It would encompass two parties still in formation: the Powerful Egypt Party, led by former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, and the Egyptian Current Party.

Called the “Coalition of Centrist Forces,” these groups seek to create a coalition that could breach the secular-Islamist divide, explains Farouk.

“In the parliamentary and presidential elections, we lived a state of severe polarization. That requires the presentation of another alternative,” says Farouk, whose party is one of the oldest Muslim Brotherhood offshoots.

“Each of these centrist forces cannot do anything on its own. It is hard for the voter to see each of them if it is standing alone,” he adds.

The exact date of the parliamentary poll has not been determined but elections are expected to be held after the constitution is approved.

The Constituent Assembly elected in June to draft Egypt’s post-Mubarak constitution should conclude its work no later than December. Once approved by the 100-member assembly, the constitution would face a public referendum.   

Last week, Prime Minister Hesham Qandil reportedly said the assembly will complete its task by the end of this month.

A new constitution will determine the electoral system and how seats will be chosen, which will affect how coalitions are built.

“It is too early to speak about the details of an electoral alliance because, simply put, nobody knows what electoral system will be implemented,” says Sameh al-Barqy, a leader in the Egyptian Current Party, a youth-led Brotherhood offshoot.

“The map of alliances will be influenced by the type of electoral system adopted.”

Besides electoral coordination, the burgeoning coalition intends to formulate common positions on critical issues.

“This is not a narrow electoral coalition but a larger political alliance,” says Farouk.

At press time, the allies were expected to convene to discuss a common position on the content of the constitution and the International Monetary Fund loan that the Cabinet may accept, according to Farouk.

The Wasat party leader argues that the new alliance can bet on the popularity his party gained in the last parliamentary elections, as well as the millions of votes Abouel Fotouh garnered in the presidential race.

In last year’s parliamentary polls, the Wasat Party won 10 out of 498 contested seats. The percentage seems low, but it was seen by many observers as a breakthrough for the nascent party, which had less than a year to prepare for the parliamentary race. Although the party was founded in the mid-1990s, it only acquired official status when Mubarak was ousted in early 2011.

Abouel Fotouh came in fourth in the first phase of the presidential race in May, securing more than 4 million out of nearly 23 million valid votes. In the lead-up to the poll, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader — long sidelined for his reformist ideas and then kicked out from the group for deciding to run for president — portrayed himself as the missing link between Islamists and secularists. He stressed his respect to religion and his commitment to democracy and freedoms.

Shortly after his defeat, Abouel Fotouh announced the establishment of a political party named after his electoral slogan, “Powerful Egypt.” The party has not applied for official status yet.

According to Mohamed Osman, a Powerful Egypt leader, the centrist coalition has so far agreed on broad principles including commitment to liberties, commitment to alternation of power, the denunciation of religious polarization and the pursuit of social justice.

Osman is opposed to naming the alliance “Coalition of Centrist Forces,” contending that such a title in fact reinforces Islamist-secular polarization.

“We want to surmount this classification of centrist forces,” says Osman. “Unfortunately, political groups are classified according to their position on religion rather than their policies.”

To overcome such classifications, the coalition needs to include secular forces alongside moderate Islamists, Osman says. Then the secular-Islamist polarization would be toned down, and the Brothers would face a real challenge, he added.

“If we do not build a large alliance that stands up to the Muslim Brotherhood as a ruling rather than an Islamist force, we will have another phase of polarization between Islamists and secularists,” Osman says. “This polarization will reinforce the use of religion and mosques and churches in the electoral process.”

Such polarization is believed to always play in favor of the Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Islamists.

In last year’s parliamentary elections, Islamists used mosques to dissuade voters from casting their ballot in favor of non-Islamists, arguing that the latter are enemies of Sharia. Meanwhile, churches directed followers to vote for specific lists, contending that secular candidates would guard against the Islamization of state and society.

“We want elections to be about real problems such as social justice, liberties and protecting alternation of power,” argues Osman.

In recent weeks, several secular parties, including Mohamed ElBaradei’s Constitution Party and the Popular Current, established over the summer by presidential runner-up Hamdeen Sabbahi, have begun talks to build an alliance that could balance the Brothers in the parliamentary poll.

Osman hopes these parties merge with centrists in the same alliance to challenge the Brotherhood.

Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, hails potential attempts to build an alliance of liberals and moderate Islamists.

“I believe that the formula we need for Egypt is Islamic liberalism. So this is a good way to at least take a step in that direction.” says Shahin. “Over the years, we can build a platform that corresponds to the identity of the majority of Egyptians and provides a safeguard to public and individual freedoms. In theory, it can be an excellent synthesis.”

Shahin explains that it is much harder for centrists to challenge the Brotherhood on their own.

“Over the past two years, the Muslim Brotherhood has shifted to the center in many of its positions and the constituency of these centrist forces will see no difference,” Shahin says. “This makes the Muslim Brotherhood more attractive to voters because the likelihood of their victory is already higher.”

Most democratic forces fear a sweeping electoral victory for the Brotherhood in the upcoming elections. Such a triumph would be seen as the group tightening their grip over the legislature after winning the presidency, which would possibly pave the way for a Brotherhood monopoly of power. Essam al-Erian, the acting leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, said last week that his party intends to run for all parliamentary seats.

The Brothers already have a robust electoral machine and a wide support base, assets that worry their competitors.

In the last parliamentary elections, the FJP secured nearly 42 percent of People’s Assembly’s seats while a Salafi alliance garnered almost 25 percent. Some secular optimists contend that the Brothers will not chalk up a similar victory in the coming elections, arguing that their popularity has diminished due to their poor performance in the dissolved Parliament.

However, Farouk disapproves of this reading.

“I do not think that the Brothers will be less popular in the next elections. On the contrary, I think their popularity will increase,” he says. “If [President Mohamed] Morsy’s performance is good, the FJP can invest in it, and the Egyptian people are inherently inclined to vote for whoever is in already power or is stronger.”

Farouk hopes emerging alliances could succeed in building a strong opposition to the anticipated full-fledged Muslim Brotherhood rule.

A version of this piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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