Saturday, July 2, 2011

Is politics in Egypt still for the elite?

The explosion of political activity in Egypt is lauded these days. With Mubarak gone, restrictions on the formation of political parties have been eased and new parties are being established every week. The result is an infusion of new blood into politics... or so it would seem. A closer look at the rules governing the emergence of new political parties and the legacy of political stagnation that Mubarak left behind reveals significant obstacles to political development. And with development slowed, politics is still a game for the elite.

- Obstacles to formation: Though the new Political Parties Law passed in March did do away with some stifling measures, the new law also requires that a party gain 5,000 signatures in order for legal recognition- five times the number required under Mubarak. To conduct an effective grassroots campaign in so little time (parliamentary elections are set to take place in September) is a daunting task for a new party that lacks experience, infrastructure, membership, and a sharp platform. Thus, only groups that possess political clout, financial muscle, or popularity within society can realistically compete the task. Parties that are already linked to elite networks in Egypt gain significant advantage over those that are not.

- Financial burdens: Until last week, it was extremely expensive to register a political party in Egypt. In addition to the money it takes to campaign for signatures and the cost of those signatures themselves, parties seeking legal recognition were required to publish their 5,000 names in two prominent daily newspapers. Some political activists claim that this process can take up to two million Egyptian pounds- roughly equivalent to $335,000. A common complaint is that these demands favor parties backed by prominent businessmen, for example the new Free Egyptians Party founded by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.

According to an article published by Al Ahram Online, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces lifted the requirement to publish the signatures last week. However, much time has been wasted; elections are now only two months away. 

- Political platforms: Since the establishment of Egypt's presidential republic in 1952, development of real political platforms has been either unnecessary or risky. Opposition parties were created and managed by the regime, for example during Nasser's era, or parties struck a deal with the regime in return for a few seats in parliament. This negated the necessity of an actual platform- in fact, under Mubarak, it was understood that opposition parties would not present themselves as a serious alternative to the regime in exchange for token representation. Any parties that did spell out a vision for reform were punished via oppressive measures and blocked from any meaningful political gains.

Thus, there is no precedent in Egypt for party platforms that list detailed policy alternatives.   A clear political, social, and economic vision distinct from that of other parties, and concrete plans regarding how the party would implement that vision via policy are anomalies here. In public debates, politicians have acknowledged that their newly established political parties do not yet have defined positions in all areas. For example, in a recent debate on social justice in Egypt, founder of the Freedom Egypt Party Amr Hamzawy prefaced his statements with, “What I’m presenting to you are some preliminary procedures… my full programme is not yet complete.”

The immediate effect of these factors is the emergence of new political parties dominated by high-profile individuals who can garner the popular support and money necessary for the formation of a party. These parties then become more associated with that individual than the party's ideas and policies. Their success may be dependent upon the individual himself, and the staying power of such parties is up for debate.

Domination of political parties by an individual leader is no novelty in Egypt. Many opposition parties have a history of dictatorial leadership- for example, the Tagammu' party is associated with Rifaat al-Said, who has run it for eight years despite protests from his own party members. Even the liberal al-Ghad party is inseparable from Ayman Nour, though others within the party have staged coups. Unsurprisingly, the development of these parties has been severely stunted to the point to where none have ever presented serious alternatives to the Mubarak regime (as if such a thing would have been tolerated anyway).

Egyptians are searching for democratic opposition parties whose platforms embody a serious struggle for reform rather than a bid for a membership base. They are wary of corruption and authoritarianism in party politics. But parties that represent average Egyptians' demands are unlikely to appear so quickly, before any real change in Egypt's political culture can take hold.  September elections may be a step towards democracy- but within the confines of elitist politics.

1 comment:

  1. This is so typical of both politics and big business. No matter how great an effort to affect a change, those in charge (or formerly in charge) know they can create new rules to win their upper hand back. And cash is king. Some things never change. I hope the people of Egypt have stamina, clearly their battles are just beginning. Ironically, this need for quick mobilization makes the label "Facebook Revolution" not seem so disparaging.