The perils of Egypt’s party system

There is a critical need to reconsider the entire political system in Egypt, especially the role of the opposition. In an article entitled “Activists, don’t bark up the wrong tree!” Salah Essa outlines how he thinks the current political situation should be addressed. But the answers he offers invite further contemplation on the status of the Egyptian opposition.

Essa begins his article by acknowledging that the urban protest movements which have emerged over the past few years, and which challenge political parties as the standard form of opposition, have succeeded in revitalizing Egyptian political life.

Essa however offers well-grounded criticisms of Egyptian protest movements: they lack organizational structures and decision-making mechanisms, they have members with contradictory political orientations, they express radical demands which alienate many people, and they naively believe that Egyptians need only a slight push to achieve an aspired democratic transformation. Indeed, the individualistic tendencies exhibited by these movements and their arbitrary mode of action has plunged them into a deep and prolonged crisis.

I totally agree with Essa that these protest movements suffer from crippling weaknesses, which myself and other leftists have written about. I take issue however with Essa’s solution: that we rebuild political parties.

Essa suggests that all liberals should unite around the Wafd Party, leftists around Tagammu, Islamists around the Wasat party, and nationalists around the Nasserist party. But is that the lesson to be learned from the failures of protest movements? Doesn’t the party system itself suffer from shortcomings, some of which gave rise to protest movements as an alternative in the first place?

Several points justify these questions. First, political parties in Egypt were dysfunctional before 2005 and remain so up to this moment, despite the widening scope of political demands expressed by the Egyptian public. Not a single entity, partisan or non-partisan, has been able to respond effectively to social injustices and state repression, such as the forcible break-up of the Amonsito workers’ protest by the police last month. Second, protest movements often include members of political parties, some of whom have played major, though not always positive, roles in those movements. For instance, they have used their presence within movements to recruit new members into their respective parties or to sabotage protests for their own partisan interests.

Modern political struggle has generally been led by political parties, a good reason why parties deserve closer examination.

Some have described Egyptian opposition parties–perhaps a little cruelly–as “accomplice parties”. The latest manifestation of their collaboration with the ruling regime came during the Shura Council elections earlier this month. The seats won by opposition parties were in fact granted to them by the government security apparatus. I don’t raise this for the purpose of moral condemnation; rather the question here is what other options do these parties have? They have no choice but to be weak and submissive. Party elections usually have low turnouts and, in some cases, they enable a complex set of internal mechanisms to suppress partisan action.

The entire party system is of marginal significance in the Egyptian political structure, where real power lies in other institutions that belong mostly to the security apparatus. The problem therefore is not that opposition parties are weak. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) itself is not even a strong party, as it plays an insignificant role in formulating and implementing policies. Put differently, the opposition parties are, in effect, opposing a “non-ruling” party.

The party system has a limited role defined primarily by relationships of mutual benefit, a pattern that was largely created by the 1952 revolution. In such a situation, popular political and ideological tendencies are pushed to the margins of Egypt’s power structure.

Being enthusiastic about protest movements, as Essa says, is like barking up the wrong tree. But then again so is being optimistic about political parties.

One of the comical aspects of the current political situation is that those at the helm the political and intellectual scene do not know what constitutes a party in the first place. Ever since late President Anwar Sadat broke with Nasser’s single-party legacy and introduced a three-party system, the state has made us believe that parties are about visions, platforms, and policy formulation. A party is ostensibly a group of leaders who try to mobilize supporters in favor of the party’s platform. In short, we have adopted a bureaucratic concept of political parties which is the corollary of a having a police state.

In reality, political parties are born out of certain historical moments. Important parties generally emerge when the time is ripe and they quickly manage to gather supporters, for those supporters are already present. Only when they have gained prominence within the political system do parties begin to operate in the bureaucratic sense. Given our current state of affairs, a robust party system will not exist until major parties emerge as the result of a critical turning point.

While parties can always change directions, what keeps their identity intact is the basic principles and positions that originally prompted their establishment. What pulls a party together is general orientations, or what I call political and ideological waves. Parties are organizational expressions of those waves.

It follows then that choosing between parties and protest movements is not the issue. Essa should in fact be asking how we can create a new political structure that will reconnect parties to daily life. Seen from this perspective, parties can only be salvaged as part of a more comprehensive political transformation.

The current regime relies on a large security apparatus–present in almost all state institutions–that interferes in all forms of political activity. This has created an atmosphere where people search for individual solutions to political and social problems, while ineffective parties revel at any attention they can get from the media.

There is a need to take up a gradual and long struggle to disconnect the security apparatus from the institutions of the state. Constitutional amendments will not suffice since they must be preceded by other, more important political gains. I suggest we work on three axes.

First, we must aim to loosen the grip of the security apparatus by working towards the establishment of independent syndicates, civil society organizations, and, for that matter, political parties.

Second, we should work to liberate citizens from the fear of state terrorism.

Finally, civil and official institutions should introduce their own democratic mechanisms to build public confidence in democracy. This, in turn, requires a bottom-up struggle in many institutions where top-level positions will only be seized gradually.

The role of political parties should be to help this vision materialize and to evade the hegemony of the security apparatus by whatever means necessary. Our parties may not be ready for such challenges. Nevertheless, the old notion of a populist party that can rally the masses around a single and compelling platform is out of touch with the present moment.

Sherif Younis is a lecturer of Egyptian and European modern history at Helwan University, and a professional translator. 

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