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Abdicating Responsibility: Political Parties in Egypt

Marina Ottaway
Banners supporting current Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for a second term for the presidential elections at crowded Al Moez Street, Gamalia district
Cairo, Egypt - March 25, 2018: Banners supporting current Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for a second term for the presidential elections at crowded Al Moez Street, Gamalia district

Political parties in Egypt have emerged from the turmoil of the last ten years weakened to the point of irrelevance. Most of them have abdicated the role and responsibility to represent the demands and aspirations of their constituents. Rather, they have settled for eking out a presence on the margins of a process dominated by the military establishment and the Nation’s Future Party, the de facto government party. Although a few political parties still try to play an honest role of representing their constituents’ interests and demands, they are too small to count. Most Egyptian parties see their fortunes dependent on their relations not with the voters, but with the government.

The decline of Egyptian political parties started a long time ago, with the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s subsequent imposition of one-party rule. It is not that Egypt was a fully democratic country before 1952. Suffrage was limited to the male population and there was considerable interference in politics by the monarchy and by foreign powers. However, lively political parties, appealing to different constituencies and embracing different ideological stances still existed. The most important was the Wafd, created in 1918 as a permanent delegation (which is the meaning of the word in Arabic) to represent the demands of nationalist Egyptians. It evolved to become the party of a nascent, nationalist Egyptian bourgeoisie, which played an important role in the country in the first half of the 20th century.

Nasser forced the disappearance of the old political parties and new ones did not re-emerge until President Anwar Sadat choreographed a very restricted reopening of multi-party politics in 1976. He formed his own party, which in 1978 became the National Democratic Party as a centrist organization, and solicited the formation of two other parties, the Liberal Socialist Party on the right and the Nationalist Unionist Progressive Party or Tagammu on the left. Other parties were formed later, most notably the New Wafd Party in 1978.

When Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 to demand change, the existing political parties were not well situated to take advantage of the new mood in the country.

Despite the restrictions on party formation imposed by the government, more organizations emerged during the Mubarak years. By the time of the 2005 elections, six parties, including the NDP, competed for seats. The NDP, to nobody’s surprise, won 324 of the 454 seats. The Wafd and the Tagammu each secured a few. The big change was that the Muslim Brotherhood, which remained a banned organization, managed to secure 88 seats for members running as independents; while in earlier elections only a few of their candidates, running on the list of other parties, has squeezed into the parliament. The election provided an early warning of the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood even as a banned organization. It prompted the NDP to clamp down on it in the 2010 elections, sending an unmistakable message that only tame parties willing to accept the few seats to government was willing to concede to them would be allowed to participate. The outcome of the 2005 elections also convinced the United States to stop pressing the Egyptian government to increase transparency and fair competition, as it had done in 2005.

When Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 to demand change, the existing political parties were not well situated to take advantage of the new mood in the country. The old parties were weak, having neglected the task of developing strong organizations linking them to the voters in favor of concentrating on negotiations with the NDP to allow some additional representation in parliament. Although many personalities from the old, so-called liberal political establishment tried to ride the wave of the upheaval, they had little if any connection to the protesters and no organized constituencies.

Numerous new political parties emerged in the months following the overthrow of President Mubarak in February, as the military, which was openly in power but initially played the game of the democracy, eased rules concerning party registration. Twenty-one secular political parties, including some off-shoots of the disbanded National Democratic Party, had been registered by 2012—only seven had existed before the uprising. In addition, several Islamist parties were legalized, most notably the Freedom and Justice Party, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Al-Nour party, representing Salafis. Largely absent from the new constellation of political organizations were representatives of the protesters whose actions had precipitated the fall of Mubarak. The youth groups that had spearheaded the demonstrations were not inclined toward electoral politics and were also torn apart by internal divisions.

Islamist organizations made rapid headway once legalized. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis had invested heavily in organizing their followers as a way of protecting their lifestyle and propagating their ideas even as they were banned from politics. Secular parties, on the other hand, had spent little time building party structures and constituencies. These differences were reflected in the lopsided results of the 2011-12 parliamentary elections: Islamists secured almost 70 percent of the vote and 358 of the 508 parliamentary seats. The liberal Wafd won 38 and the center left Egyptian Bloc alliance 35, with the rest divided among small parties and independents.

Parties abdicate their role

It would be difficult to overestimate the disastrous effect of the 2011-12 elections on political parties in Egypt and more broadly on the country’s politics. Secular parties were humiliated and frightened by the defeat. Instead of fighting back in parliament and organizing better for the future, they gave up on elections and elected bodies, counting on state institutions that bore the imprint of three decades of Mubarak’s rule to curb the Islamists. The judiciary obliged, dissolving the parliament and the 100-member Constituent Assembly that the parliament was charged with forming. In the process, the parties made themselves irrelevant.

An administrative court rejected the first Constituent Assembly formed by the parliament on the ground that it contained too many members of parliament and overrepresented Islamists. A second Constituent Assembly was not immediately rejected, but a decision concerning its legality was postponed repeatedly, creating constant uncertainty.

Much more consequential was a June 13 decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the parliament entirely for having been elected on the basis of an unconstitutional election law. The law violated the principle of equal rights, the court ruled, because it did not allow independent candidates to run on party lists as well, while party members could run as independent candidates (one third of seats were filled by votes for party lists and two thirds by votes for independent candidates). From a juridical point of view, the ruling raised many eyebrows, but the political intent was clear. Coming on the eve of a presidential election that favored the Muslim Brother candidate, the dissolution of the parliament put legislative power back in the hands of the Supreme Military Council, ensuring Islamists would not control both the executive and the legislature.

The coup marked the defeat of the Islamist parties, not at the hand of their political competitors who had bowed out of the fight, but by the military.

Shortly after the disbanding of the parliament, the presidential election saw the victory of Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. He won by a narrow majority, and apparently the SCAF considered altering the results to give the presidency to the runner-up candidate, Ahmed Shafik, a former air force officer and briefly prime minister in the last days of Mubarak. In the end, it allowed Morsi’s victory to stand. Thus started a year-long battle between the military and the Islamists to oust the president from which political parties were largely absent. With the parliament disbanded, the parties did not have an obvious arena where they could fight. They could have tried to resist the Islamists in the Constituent Assembly but chose instead to boycott meetings and refuse to cooperate, assuming that the Supreme Constitutional Council would solve the problem for them by declaring the Assembly unconstitutional. But the Council procrastinated and allowed the Constituent Assembly to survive until on November 30 it approved a constitution that was too Islamist for the secular parties, although it was by no means a hardline Islamist document. Submitted to a referendum, the charter was approved by 64 percent of the voters, but with very low turnout.

For all the angst it caused among secular parties at the time, the 2012 constitution was an irrelevant document. Power was already in the hands of military and security forces, which during the first half of 2013 mounted an elaborate campaign to delegitimize and oust Morsi. A youth organization called Tamarrod (meaning rebellion in Arabic)—which had been largely taken over by the security forces, claimed to have collected 22 million signatures on a petition asking for Morsi’s resignation—an unlikely logistical feat. The campaign culminated in large scale demonstrations beginning on June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration and continued until July 3, when the military ousted Morsi in what can only be defined as a coup d’état, but was portrayed as a response to popular demand. The demonstrations were undoubtedly very large and widespread, but a widely circulated claim that forty million people had participated was absurd—40 million was more than the country’s entire adult population. The coup marked the defeat of the Islamist parties, not at the hand of their political competitors who had bowed out of the fight, but by the military.

Secular Parties Acquiesce to the Coup

There was no condemnation of the coup and the widespread arrests of Islamists by Egypt’s secular parties, nor of the violent break-up in August of camps set up in Cairo to protest the military take-over. (Human Rights Watch reported at least 900 people were killed in what in their opinion might qualify as crimes against humanity).

But the damage was already done, with secular liberals showing that they were willing to choose the military over elected Islamist leaders.

Instead, secular parties and leaders from several secular and self-proclaimed prodemocracy parties that had been organized after 2011 initially chose to join the transitional government that the military was organizing, effectively endorsing the coup and the new military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Most prominent among them was Mohammed ElBaradei, a former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who had returned to Egypt in January 2011 hoping to be handed the presidency and to guide the transition. He founded the Destour Party but rebuffed by Egyptians who did not see him as the country’s savior, he left the country, but returned immediately after the coup to accept the position of vice president in the military controlled government. Other prominent secular politicians also accepted positions, though many, including ElBaradei, soon resigned in protest over the bloody crackdown against the Islamists.

But the damage was already done, with secular liberals showing that they were willing to choose the military over elected Islamist leaders.

The Death of Politics

Since the 2013 coup d’état, Egypt has held parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2020 and presidential elections in 2014 and 2018. Political parties played no part in the presidential elections that saw Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who had resigned his military position, run as non-affiliated candidate against opponents carefully vetted so they would not pose a challenge to him. Not surprisingly, he won both times with about 97 percent of the vote but an embarrassingly low voter turnout.

The parliamentary elections only gave a small, restricted role to political parties. The 2014 new election law called for a mixed electoral system which favored individual candidates, leaving little space for political parties. Of the 567 seats, 420 were filled in single member districts, and 120 in multi-seat districts where the party list receiving the most votes would take all seats. There were only four such districts for the entire country. Further hampering the parties, each list had to include representatives of women, youth, Copts, workers and farmers, persons with disabilities and Egyptians living abroad. Presidential appointees filled the remaining 27 seats.

Although members of political parties were also allowed to run as individual candidates, the new law put parties at a disadvantage, particularly smaller ones. The drafters of the law wanted a parliament of individuals, not organizations. They got what they wanted. The large districts were won by four different parties, of which only two, the Wafd and the Free Egyptians Party, were independent secular parties and two, the Nation’s Future and the Protectors of the Nation (or Homeland’s Defenders) were new organizations formed after 2013 and closely aligned with the military. The Wafd and the Free Egyptian Party won additional seats in single members constituencies, but other independent secular parties did poorly. Among Islamist organizations, only the Salafi Al-Nour Party was allowed to participate and gained a handful of seats.

The 2020 election showed the continued rise of the parties aligned with the military, as well as the fragmentation of the rest of the political spectrum.

Despite the controls the election law imposed on political competition, the 2015 elections showed that there remained a desire by some Egyptians for an independent political voice in the parliament. The Free Egyptians Party managed to win 65 seats, more than any government-aligned party. It was well financed and thus was able to create an organization. Its founder Naguib Sawiris was a member of the family controlling Egypt’s largest private business conglomerate. Sawiris was opposed to the Islamists and had supported the 2013 military coup d’état, but it sought to maintain a degree of autonomy by refusing to join the pro-regime bloc in the parliament. Not all members agreed and the party was soon weakened by internal divisions that supporters of al-Sisi welcomed and encouraged. The party quickly went in decline, and by the time of the 2020 election it was a spent force.

The 2020 election showed the continued rise of the parties aligned with the military, as well as the fragmentation of the rest of the political spectrum. The Nation’s Future Party won 316 of the 596 seats. Of the 38 parties that participated, thirteen gained representation in parliament, mostly in the single digits. Independents won 124 seats and in Egypt independents tend to align with the ruling regime.

The elections thus confirmed that politics as a competition among organized political forces representing the demands of different constituencies was, for all intents and purposes, dead in Egypt – as the military always wanted.

Can Political Parties Make a Comeback?

Egypt’s military government and President Abdel Fattah al Sisi have achieved what they set out to do after the 2013 coup d’état: to build a political system that scrupulously carries out elections at the prescribed interval but eliminates any element of competition – and thus voters’ choice. Just as in Mubarak’s days, Egypt has once again become the epitome of a semi-authoritarian regime, that is, one that respects the forms of democracy but not the content.

The neutralization of political parties is an important element in the consolidation of this semi-authoritarian military state, and it is unlikely the country can move toward democracy unless independent parties emerge again. In the short run—say in the time horizon of the next two elections cycles—the emergence of such parties seems extremely improbable, because of government manipulation not only of any organization that could constitute a threat or even a challenge, but also because of the history and characteristics of Egypt’s political parties.

Islamist organizations, with their proven capacity to build constituencies, organize support, and win elections, are seen an outright threat to the military semi-authoritarian project and have been labelled as terrorist and suppressed. Leaders have been jailed or forced into exile, and members who escaped arrest are lying low. The financial assets of the Muslim Brotherhood and the businesses that helped finance it have been seized and the network of charitable, medical and educational organizations that anchored the Brotherhood in the community have been dissolved. Even more remarkable, however, is the degree to which the government has sought to disrupt moderate secular parties. Election laws, which Egyptians rewrite anew every time, are always geared to limit participation by parties and favor individual candidates. And the government has worked hard at creating divisions within the most important secular parties such as the Free Egyptians Party and the Wafd.

Ever since Sadat reintroduced political parties in Egypt in a tightly controlled fashion, Egyptian secular parties have adapted to those restrictions rather than fighting them.

The decisions made by the parties not aligned with the regime are as important to their decline as government restrictions and manipulation. Ever since Sadat reintroduced political parties in Egypt in a tightly controlled fashion, Egyptian secular parties have adapted to those restrictions rather than fighting them. Islamist organizations, outlawed and repressed, fought to maintain a presence and to gain support. The Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament in 2005, even as a banned organization. Salafis had done enough quiet organizing in their communities while not participating in the political process that they were able to burst forth in 2011, organize the Al-Nour party, and win almost 30 percent of the seats in the 2012 elections. Secular parties took a different tack. They did not fight the restrictions, or find ways to circumvent them. Instead, they accepted them and negotiated for a small presence at the table. This was true during the 1990s and the 2000s and it remained true after 2011. New parties, most of them secular, registered as soon as they could, but their reaction to the Islamists victories in both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012 was not to fight but to wait for the government institutions to solve the problem. The courts invalidated most elections results, but when they allowed the second Constituent Assembly to survive, secular parties decided to boycott meetings rather than engaging the Islamist members. Instead, they waited for the government to intervene again, oust the elected president, abrogate the new constitution, and engineer the writing of a new one.

It is this passivity of the secular parties that bodes poorly for the future of the Egyptian political system, thus for the emergence of a political life that is not dominated by the military using both coercion and manipulation. Political parties are weak in the entire Arab world, as the studies in this series show. But nowhere else have they abdicated a meaningful role as completely as those in Egypt.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Marina Ottaway

Marina Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Senior Research Associate and Head of the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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