Wafd’s Abdel Nour: In defense of political parties

Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour certainly gives the appearance of a man at the center of a vital and bustling political operation. Seated behind a huge wooden desk at the Wafd Party’s headquarters in Dokki, he fends off calls from a pair of constantly chirping mobiles and two more landlines. Abdel Nour, the party’s secretary general, handles the barrage with ease, promising one caller he will “contact the ministry” on his behalf and telling another he can’t talk because he is “being interviewed by a foreign correspondent,” then making a face at the phone as he hung up.
But by almost any standard, Abdel Nour’s party is a faint echo of its glory days in the 1920’s, when founder Saad Zaghloul helped end British dominion over Egypt. These days, the party holds just seven seats in parliament.
With Egypt heading toward both parliamentary and presidential elections, the Wafd Party faces both the power of the ruling National Democratic Party and widespread frustration with all “legal” parties–frustration which has fueled fascination with outsider Mohamed ElBaradei.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Going into the parliamentary season, how do you feel about the party?
Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour: The party is doing quite well. I think it’s in much better shape compared to where it was in 2005 and 2000 [the last two rounds of parliamentary elections]. There’s a wave of enthusiasm. There’s a wave of optimism within the party–frankly speaking, an optimism that is not justified.
Al-Masry: What is causing the optimism and why do you think it’s not justified?
Abdel Nour: The NDP’s popularity is at its lowest. They [the Wafd Party members] think the man in the street is fed up and that the whole atmosphere is conducive to change. In their minds, they think the government will be very harsh toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and that those who will benefit from this situation will be the legal opposition parties.
In that sense, they are right to be optimistic and the management of the party will not stand against this optimism. But we have to be realistic. The government has many ways to compensate for that lack of popularity.
Al-Masry: How would you rate the current state of the Egyptian opposition–the legal opposition?
Abdel Nour: The opposition in general–both the legal parties and the movements–is extremely divided. Unfortunately it has been unable to rally around one person, one leader, one party, one organization. And this division obviously plays into the hands of the NDP and the government and is the main reason for the inefficiency of the opposition.
Al-Masry: What stops them from uniting? Ideological differences? Ego?
Abdel Nour: Several reasons: lack of a charismatic leader, ego, ideological differences, past positions. All the liberal parties are ridiculously divided.
It’s unexplainable, the division between the Wafd and the [Democratic Front Party], and to a large extent the Ghad Party. And I believe that one political party with one charismatic leader should be able to encompass all the different views of within liberal thought.
Al-Masry: In American politics they talk about the Big Tent theory, in reference to parties that try to attract people with diverse perspectives. Are you creating a big tent that includes everyone, or a small tent that includes a smaller number of passionate people who are all on the same page?
Abdel Nour: The Wafd has always been the big tent, and the Wafd should play the role of the big tent for liberal thinkers, activists and liberal parties.
Al-Masry: But is there any room in that tent for, if not the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization, then the “Islamic trend” in general? How far can anything go without them?
Abdel Nour: I hate these kind of labels–the “Islamic trend”, the Muslim Brotherhood. I hate this kind of generalization. Let’s get down to brass tacks. We have one major difference with what you call the Islamic trend, and this is to be clarified once and for all.
Do they agree on equal citizenship rights between Egyptians–yes or no?
Are they for the equality of men and women? Are they for the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims? Are they for an Egyptian nation or are they for an Islamic umma? It’s very simple. The answer has to be either yes or no. And if the answer is no, then we can’t sit at the same table. We have a different project.
Let’s answer questions. What are their ideas about the present banking system? Do they accept ribh (bank interest) or not? What is their position vis-a-vis tourism?
Al-Masry: Will they shut down Sharm el-Sheikh?
Abdel Nour: Exactly. It has become the major source of foreign currency for this country and one of the major employers in Egypt. What is the position? We want a straight, clear answer. We’re fed up with games and we’re fed up with playing with words. Let’s clarify the position. It’s as simple as that.
Al-Masry: Obviously one of the big topics this year is Mohamed ElBaradei. How has his campaign affected the opposition? Is it inspiring? Is it a challenge to you? Is it a threat?
Abdel Nour: No, I think it is an addition to the quest for change. It is an addition to the pressure that is on the government and the NDP to change the Constitution. Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei hasn’t said anything new. But his arrival was a breath of fresh air that inspired a lot of youth and rocked the boat. He’s an addition to the reformists’ efforts, and we in the Wafd welcome his entering the Egyptian political scene.
Al-Masry: You mentioned that Egypt needs a charismatic figure to rally around. Does he have the potential to be that kind of figure?
Abdel Nour: Maybe. I don’t know.
Al-Masry: It seems that he’s not only challenging the government; he’s challenging the opposition parties too.
Abdel Nour: We don’t look at him as a challenge at all.
Al-Masry: Do you think he’ll join a party? He seems determined to stay outside the system.
Abdel Nour: Do you think it’s wise for him to stay outside the system? Do you think he will be able to do something outside the system?
Al-Masry: You look skeptical.
Abdel Nour: I am skeptical, of course. To my mind there are several key points. First, if you want to lead, you need a machine to manage and to follow.
Point number two: The natural, safe and respectable organization or machine is a political party–a party as opposed to a protest movement. A party has a life span, it’s a responsible organization because you can monitor its position. You can’t do that with a protest movement because it’s an ad hoc movement which you can’t really follow.
The third major difference is that a political party has a face. When you say the Wafd, you can see Mahmoud Abaza. If you want to criticize or praise the Tagammu Party, you think of Refaat el-Saeed. When you’re talking about the NDP, you have either Safwat el-Sherif, or Hosni Mubarak, or Ahmed Ezz in mind.
But when you’re talking about the 6 April movement, who are they? When you’re talking about Kefaya, who is Kefaya?
Because you can monitor, because you can follow, because it has a lifespan and a face, a political party is a responsible institution. It will think twice before talking or taking a position–at least it should. It will weigh its acts and its words
A protest movement can say anything, so it’s a very very dangerous type of animal.
Al-Masry: When we started our conversation you said there was great frustration and dissatisfaction with the NDP. Is there also dissatisfaction with the whole party system? Is it part of your challenge to deal with that frustration? Can you understand that frustration?
Abdel Nour: Of course I can understand it. I can justify it. The opposition parties’ image has been diminished–first of all through the official media, which is the mouthpiece of the NDP. Let me tell you, 90 percent of what has been published in the official media and television channels about political parties is incorrect.
Even the independent press, including Al-Masry Al-Youm, is looking for sensationalism. Saying all is well with political parties does not sell. So they always exaggerate any differences. They want to sensationalize and blow things up. It gives people a very bad image.
Al-Masry: What can you do to counteract that this year?
Abdel Nour: We’re trying. It’s not easy.

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