The Emerging Political Spectrum in Egypt

By Marina Ottaway

With some fifty political parties registered by the time the election process officially opened on September 18 and more seeking to form every day, the Egyptian political spectrum is both complicated and in flux, with crisscrossing fault lines that defy easy characterization. In addition to the plethora of political parties typical of transitional elections, other political actors remain on center stage, above all the military and the protesters. There is no doubt that the Egyptian political scene is highly pluralistic. It is less certain that out of this disorderly pluralism a democratic regime can emerge in the short term.

Four different sets of players will determine the answer to that question: the political parties, the military, the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and the protest movements.

Political Parties

There are broadly two categories of political parties in Egypt: those that can be considered “real” political parties even if they are weak; and those that are simply vehicles to get a specific person elected to parliament.

The second category can safely be disregarded. Experience of all countries in transition is that such parties tend to be ephemeral and rarely successful in getting anyone elected.

“Real” parties in Egypt are notable for several reasons. First, many tend to have a clear social profile and ideological line—they are Islamist, liberal, left of center, and so on. Second, each ideological group is becoming increasingly fragmented; Islamists in particular appear to be splintering in ways that in the past were typical of leftwing parties. Third, with the partial exception of Salafi parties and some on the extreme left, they have quite similar party platforms, essentially centrist ones. Most remarkably, even Islamist parties describe themselves as civil parties and call for a civil state, while liberal and leftist parties parties accept Islam as the religion of the state and advocate state intervention to moderate and correct the failures of markets and to promote social justice. In other words, even parties that have clear ideological affiliations are aiming for the center of the political spectrum.

There are two reasons for this convergence. First, Egyptian law forbids the formation of political parties that make references to religion in their platforms. The Building and Development Party, formed by al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, was denied registration because its platform was too explicitly Islamist. The second reason is political rather than legal—namely the uncertainty that prevails among all political parties about where the voters stand. For decades, Egyptian voters have been offered a choice between a well-funded NDP, with its promise of patronage for supporters, tired liberal and leftist parties, and Islamists in the banned Muslim Brotherhood participating in elections through a variety of subterfuges. As a result, election participation was extremely low, possibly below 20 percent. Now, more Egyptians are expected to vote, but nobody really knows how they will respond when provided with more meaningful choices. Hence parties are going for the center hoping to appeal to a wide range of voters.

No matter how parties represent themselves, however, the public sees them as quite different from each other. Islamist parties in particular are portrayed as extremists by their opponents, while attracting supporters because they are Islamists, not because they are “civil” parties. Nor does the willingness of liberal parties to accept Islam as state religion convince the public that they are not essentially secular in outlook.

This means that despite the similarity of the platforms, the division between Islamist and secular political parties is sharp. An early attempt to form a Democratic Alliance of essentially the pre-uprising political parties, no matter their orientation, failed. Most liberal parties have left the Democratic Alliance, joining instead the liberal Egypt bloc. The al-Wafd party has so far remained nominally in the alliance together with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, but the compromise the two organizations reached in order to remain together voids the alliance of any meaning: the Democratic Alliance will present two lists in the parliamentary elections, one headed by al-Wafd and one headed by the Freedom and Justice party, and other parties will choose which list they want to join. It is quite likely that this tenuous compromise will not hold and that the Wafd will abandon the Democratic Alliance, sharpening the split in the political spectrum between an Islamic and a secular wing.

The Military

During the last two decades of the Mubarak regime, military officers had become much less visible than the emerging stratum of wealthy businessmen in the political inner circle and there was even speculation that the days of the military in Egyptian politics were over. Officials in the NDP counted on the military to keep them in power, but even they were convinced that the military would continue to work to prop up the party, rather than act autonomously.

After the uprising, the military is playing an openly political role and the question is whether it will relinquish that role any time soon. There is some ambiguity on this point.

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Marina Ottaway works on issues of political transformation in the Middle East and Gulf security. A long-time analyst of the formation and transformation of political systems, she has also written on political reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and African countries.

 

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