MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

May 19, 2014
Political parties in Egypt have three choices for this year’s presidential elections: supporting former defense minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, or boycotting. It is a simple task that does not require the scrutinizing of multiple electoral programs for their compatibility with party agendas—so simple that it was put to member votes.

When the higher committee of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party met on April 26, they opted for a fourth choice. The numbers in an internal poll indicate Sisi won with a landslide 78 votes (46.2 percent), while Sabbahi received only 16 (9.5 percent). Seventy-five members (44.4 percent) chose not to back either candidate, in favor of giving members the freedom to choose for themselves.

Had the party gone with its first choice, Sisi, it would have lost “a considerable percentage of its members, the combative members,” founding member Mohamed Naeem told EgyptSource. This loss of members would have voided the party of its edge, rendering it like any other party, he added.

Just before the vote, the committee approved a suggestion by party president Mohamed Abul Ghar, requiring a two-thirds majority for this specific decision. When none of the three choices received 66 percent, the party decided to give their members the freedom to vote for their favorite candidate without formally backing either.

Where presidential elections are concerned there is no room for compromise, said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Constitution Party. He described it as a battle in which “You have to take a stand.” Dawoud preferred his party’s decision to select a candidate rather than boycott: Sabbahi received 60 percent of the votes, 30 percent opted to boycott, while Sisi received 10 percent. Some in the party did not want Sisi on the ballot at all.

Inside the Social Democratic Party, there was a keen awareness that posing a question challenging its members’ collective interpretation of the party’s founding principles would destroy its fragile unity. Sources from within suggest that among those seventy-five members that voted not to back any candidate, many had candidate preferences but chose a compromise instead. A sigh of relief, however, would be premature; the crisis was not averted, merely postponed.

The process of selecting a candidate revealed to the public the struggles plaguing Egypt's political parties, especially after the military ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in the wake of mass protests last July. Despite the occasional difference over strategy, it was easier to unite against Morsi’s rule, either within parties or among them. With parties aligning themselves with the winning side, critical differences over the interpretation of the principles that hold the parties together and the perceived common goals have been slowly coming to the surface.

What is an acceptable compromise for a self-proclaimed liberal party: supporting a former general whose government has clamped down on dissent or opting for a socialist candidate whose chances for victory are slim? For the sake of political pragmatism and survival, can parties forgo some of their defining principles? What are liberalism, socialism, and Islamism and how do they fit in today’s Egyptian political context?

Answering these defining questions poses a threat to parties founded as an alternative—and in opposition to political Islam. With parliamentary elections mere months away, each parties’ political strength and reach will soon be tested, making the threat all the more imminent. “All parties established during a phase of democratic transformation are not sustainable,” Naeem argued. Mergers, disintegrations, and new parties constantly surface.

The political climate is deterring some players from participating. The Strong Egypt Party, founded by 2012 presidential candidate and former Brotherhood member Abdel Moniem Abol Fotouh, said it will not participate in the presidential elections. Last January, over ten of its members were arrested while campaigning for a “no” vote during the 2014 constitutional referendum.

Other parties appear to be holding together and ready for the race. Coming to this decision with almost unanimous votes, however, does not mean problems don’t exist.

The Salafi Nour Party opted for Sisi with 93 percent of the member votes. Party spokesman Nader Bakkar said Sabbahi’s profile did not sit well with members while Sisi most closely fit sixteen criteria set by the party’s higher committee. Its choice remains controversial.

Often criticized for ultraconservative Islamist views and its former alliance with Morsi, the party could not get any support outside its Islamist base, which itself voices scorn for Nour’s support of the military takeover. Many decry the deadly dispersal last August of the pro-Morsi sit-ins and the Nour party’s association with the government that carried it out. For them, the party, which has been struggling to cement its political voice and clout, is on the wrong side of a deadly war on religion.

Despite an ongoing crackdown on Islamists that is not exclusive to Muslim Brotherhood members, Nour remained largely immune. Its alliance with the winning side could be its only ticket to maintain space for its religiously infused fieldwork.  

In the course of doing so, the party has the oddest bedfellows. The leftist Tagammu party and Al-Wafd pledged support to El-Sisi campaign. . Their efforts are dwarfed by the liberal Free Egyptians Party and al-Mo’atamar (Conference) Party, established by former Arab League Chief and 2012 presidential candidate Amr Moussa. The Conference Party has offered plenty of logistical support to the campaign and Moussa himself lends his diplomatic weight as chief of Sisi’s advisory board.

In the Free Egyptians Party, about 90 percent of the supreme committee voted for Sisi on April 28, according to committee member Mohammed Fareed. The party has tried to balance support for the new order, while remaining critical of the government and some of its rights abuses. Sabbahi’s socialist agenda of deep governance, public sector focus, and interference in the economy ran counter to the party’s free market philosophy. Despite indications that Sisi might adopt similar Nasser-era policies, Fareed explained that this choice was not about aligning the party with the winner, but rather with whom it can work.

“We are working on being part of the government,” Fareed told EgyptSource. This is “highly likely” to happen, but depends on the results of the parliamentary elections, the date of which is yet to be decided.

The Free Egyptians see the prize as a say in the future government—and they are not alone. Other parties are taking this opportunity, as they did with the January referendum, as a practice run for parliamentary elections.

The National Movement Party has its eyes set on the majority of seats and says it has built an extensive network that can make it happen in less than a year. The party was founded by former presidential candidate and Hosni Mubarak’s last premier, Ahmed Shafiq, who criticized the elections in a leaked statement, saying the ballots would be stuffed for Sisi. He however put his and his party’s weight behind the former defense minister for the sake of “unity.”

“Sisi won’t be able to work without a strong parliament. We will take a lot of seats, God willing,” youth secretary Nermine Shokry told a hall of the party’s provincial members who came to declare support for Sisi.

“The real game will be in the parliament,” Fareed said.

Sarah El Sirganyis a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is a Cairo-based journalist and television producer, contributing to regional and international publications and networks including CNN, the New York Times, Al-Monitor and Mada Masr.