In 2009, Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt with the aim of organizing the scattered political forces that wanted change under his leadership. Three years and one revolution later, ElBaradei’s newly formed political party, the Constitution Party, adopts the same vision.
The party presents itself as an umbrella to unite moderate revolutionary factions and ultimately rule Egypt. But with the lack of a concrete ideological platform, many believe that the party’s ambitions are unrealistic and will only strengthen the Islamist-liberal polarization that has dominated politics since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
As he made his way into the Journalists Syndicate Saturday to launch his long-awaited party, the crowd huddled around ElBaradei chanting, “This ship needs a captain and ElBaradei is the captain.”
ElBaradei announced that his party has no ideology and aims to unite all moderate Egyptians who want to continue fighting for the revolution’s basic demands, which transcend ideological differences.
He said that from the far right to the far left, everyone can agree on the party's platform, which he described as revolving around the three pillars of the revolution: bread, freedom and social justice.
“Our only ideology, if any, is that we are all Egyptians together,” said ElBaradei during the party launch.
Repeating the slogan his supporters have urged him to use to continue on the road for change, the crowd chanted, “There’s no turning back, ElBaradei.”
Despite the pleading by staunch supporters who see him as a savior, ElBaradei has turned back before. While he took bold initiatives, he always stopped one step short of getting his hands dirty playing politics.
“ElBaradei prefers the role of a political preacher rather than a politician,” journalist Wael Abdel Fattah wrote in a column in independent Al-Tahrir newspaper. “He sees himself as a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. This is his image that made him a political icon, but he hesitates to get into the political work with what it entails, from engaging, to fighting, to confronting years of oppression."
ElBaradei built a strong following in 2009 when he led a popular movement to collect 1 million signatures to demand reforms and started the National Association for Change. Before the revolution, he rejected popular demands for him to run for president, saying that the previous constitution did not provide for fair elections.
ElBaradei announced his bid for president in March 2011, but withdrew from the race 10 months later in objection to the military council’s management of the transitional period. He had been one of the strongest proponents of drafting a constitution before the presidential election. In his withdrawal statement, ElBaradei reassured his supporters that he would continue his political work outside of the official framework. A party to unite moderate revolutionary forces is the proposition that he returned with.
Many see the presentation of his party — as a body to unite all seeking democracy and pledging not to compete with other parties — as a continuation of ElBaradei’s refusal to be immersed in the imperfect political scene, and his insistence to play by his own rules.
“Instead of operating within the political reality imposed by the rulers, we want to create a new political reality,” journalist Gamila Ismail, one of the founding members of the party, said at the launch.
With no clear ideology, many of those backing the party said that their support is a result of their trust in ElBaradei.
“Dr. ElBaradei has always been the hope,” said Ola Afify, a human resources manager, who left the Egyptian Social Democratic Party to join the Constitution Party. “He is always influential even without a formal post, and time always proves him right; I want to learn politics from him.”
Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that ElBaradei’s weight as an individual is enough to build a strong popular movement, but cannot sustain a political party. The lack of a concrete platform is a weakness that the party needs to work on if it wants to achieve anything, he said.
“This loose ideology leads to an institution with no identity,” said Abu Taleb. “As an institution that competes for power, a party has to reflect a social identity or else it will fail to attract followers.”
But the image that the party is trying to create for itself is not that of the average party that competes for power.
“This party doesn’t aim to compete with anyone or attract any other party’s supporters. It’s meant to be a body to include all the political forces on the scene that want to continue this revolution, including the parties,” said Constitution Party spokesperson Wael Qandeel* in an interview with Al Jazeera last week.
Different ideological currents have collaborated in political movements before, such as Kefaya, which emerged in 2004, and ElBaradei’s National Association for Change. The Constitution Party seems to attempt to replicate this dynamic in the form of a political party.
The party announced that it aims to unite all the forces of the 25 January revolution and the supporters of moderation, hoping to start off with 5 million members to be an influential lobbying power.
In four years, ElBaradei says ambitiously, the party will include all those who started the revolution and will be able to dominate the government and Parliament.
“We are the majority of the Egyptian people and we will determine Egypt’s future,” said ElBaradei.
Some observers, however, interpret the party as an attempt to form an anti-Islamist bloc that will further polarize politics.
“The party represents political demands rather than ideologies and a bloc to counter other blocs,” says Abdel Fattah. “It’s an attempt to push a large sector into the political arena through a gate other than the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Leading the Islamist front, the Brotherhood has garnered the most political gains since the fall of Mubarak. ElBaradei’s party is seen as a potential leader for the non-Islamist front.
“If ElBaradei doesn’t confront the Brotherhood and the Salafis, who can?” asked Jihan Kamel, an English professor at Ain Shams University who went to the launch to join the party.
However, many see the party ambitions as unrealistic.
Abu Taleb said it “needs to do its homework,” which would require forming a clear platform and taking it to the streets to gather support, rather than presenting itself as the representative of moderate and revolutionary powers and expecting people to come.
Abu Taleb said ElBaradei’s activities since the 25 January uprising, which were mostly limited to public statements rather than concrete actions, did not lay the groundwork for a strong party. He added that to form a party, ElBaradei would have to engage the masses with a specific program to attract different factions.
Despite espousing the same rhetoric of unity that many other revolutionary groups have employed, the parties it hopes to unite do not support it. The Constitution Party's relationship with other non-Islamist parties has so far consisted of more competition than cooperation.
Some leading members of other parties have crossed over, but none of the parties rumored to be merging with the new party, including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Adl Party and Democratic Front Party, have confirmed this.
Tamer al-Mihy, a member of the policies bureau of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said there are currently no plans to merge with the Constitution Party, though he didn’t rule out the possibility in the future.
Mihy added that the decision couldn’t be made until the Constitution Party had a concrete platform that could be compared to his party’s.
Contradicting ElBaradei’s vision of one body to include all supporters of democracy and a civil state, Mihy expects the political scene to shift in the coming years toward parties differentiated by specific economic and political views, rather than the current Islamist-secular divide.
Even though ElBaradei says his party’s goals are for the mid rather than short term, many said the party is tailored for the transitional period, in which ideology does not weigh heavily, and would struggle to survive in a more stable phase, in which people look for parties that correspond to their specific views.
*Correction: This sentence originally identified Wael Gamal as the spokesperson for the Constitution Party. The spokesperson quoted is Wael Qandeel.