Inside Egypt’s electoral alliances

Freedom and Justice Party campaign banner

Ten months after the January uprising, Egypt’s political scene is more diverse and competitive than ever before, as dozens of new parties ranging in ideology from Salafi to secular seek a place in the post-Mubarak political order. However, only a handful of the more than fifty-registered parties are organized enough to stand a chance at winning parliamentary representation on their own. Acknowledging that strength lies in numbers, most of the smaller parties have aligned themselves with one of four major electoral coalitions, which differ significantly in their constituencies and ideological orientation.  So far, the primary beneficiaries of the coalition-building process appear to be the Islamist movements, which are confidently predicting a strong showing in the parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, liberal and civil parties – weakened by divisions and rivalries – have struggled to build a cohesive alliance with a clear campaign platform.

Taking advantage of these divisions, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has moved swiftly in the weeks leading up to elections to consolidate its power and privileges by issuing a set of constitutional principles  that would preserve a strong political role for the military and shield its budget from oversight by the next elected parliament. Whether or not the four major electoral coalitions will be able to overcome their fragmentation and work together in the next elected government to hold the SCAF accountable remains to be seen.

The four main alliances:

  • The Democratic Alliance for Egypt includes many small parties and is led by the Freedom and Justice Party, the official political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • The Islamic Alliance  includes the Salafi al-Nour (Light) and Asala (Authenticity) parties along with official political arm of the formerly militant Islamist group, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the Building and Development party.
  • The Egyptian Bloc Alliance includes the liberal Social Democratic Party, the Free Egyptians Party (founded by the prominent Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris), and the leftist Tagammu Party.
  • The Revolution Continues Alliance includes seven primarily leftist parties, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, and the liberal Egypt Freedom party.

The electoral coalitions reflect the polarization between Islamist and what so called “Civilian powers” as well as between new political powers after the revolution and what so called “Flol” or (the ex regime remnants) and under the unstable security situation, and the political tension, there is a potential that the election will witness violence increase the state of polarization.

The Democratic Alliance for Egypt, initially launched by the Freedom and Justice and Wafd parties, at one pointed included 43 parties.  However, the FJP’s dominant position within the Alliance and alleged efforts to manipulate its electoral lists prompted the Wafd and several other liberal parties to defect from the coalition.

The FJP was keen to keep the Democratic Alliance, to avoid a state of polarization. Before it began to fragment under the strain of internal rivalries, the Alliance succeeded in reaching a consensus on key principles to be included in the next constitution, including citizenship rights and the preservation of Article 2 of the 1971 Constitution, which identifies Islamic Shari’a law as the primary source of legislation.  The FJP continues to advocate a strong role for religion in Egypt’s next political system, despite constitutional and legal provisions that ban religious-based political parties and the use of religious slogans, such as the Brotherhood’s Islam is the solution,” in campaigning.  Meanwhile, the SCAF has continued to grant licenses to Islamist parties such as Building and Development, formed by the formerly militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which appear to violate the existing legal framework.

In addition to the FJP, other new Islamist forces are emerging as serious contenders on the political scene. The Salafi Movement is fielding candidates in the elections under the banner of the Islamic Alliance. The Salafi al-Nour (Light) Party, which dominates the Islamic Alliance, has significant financial assets enabling it to coordinate extensive voter outreach and campaign activities across the country. 610 of the Alliance’s 693 candidates are affiliated with al-Nour.

Overall, the Islamist parties appear more organized and better funded than their secular and liberal counterparts, while maintaining a clear goal of establishing a Shari’a state.  Meanwhile, “civil” parties have failed to form a strong coalition that offers a clear alternative, and still practice politics with the same defensive mentality that they were forced to adopt under Mubarak’s rule, when the opposition had no real chance of winning meaningful representation in parliament.  Given the disorganization and timidity displayed by its civil rivals, it is no surprise that the FJP is confidently acting as though it has already won a parliamentary majority.

An FJP victory is far from certain, however. Some think that the large number of Islamist candidates from a variety of parties and movements may contribute to splitting the Islamist vote, reducing their overall representation in parliament and giving an advantage to civil and liberal candidates, independents as well as the so-called remnants of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which have regrouped in at least eight different NDP-affiliated parties that are fiercely campaigning in the hopes of staging a political comeback, despite the government’s promise reactive a Nasser-era Treachery Law that would bar former NDP members from political activity for five-year period.

In an attempt to confront hardline Salafis groups with a strong grassroots following, the civil parties are now beginning to coordinate with another Islamist force, the Sufis, whose 15 million followers adhere to a more moderate interpretation of Islam. Although the Sufi movement has traditionally been largely apolitical,Sufi groups have recently stepped into the formal political arena by licensing official parties, like the Sufi-dominated Egyptian Tahrir Party.  

Despite the weak coordination between “civil” parties and their lack of preparedness, most of these new parties, including the Adl (Justice) Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and al-Masriyin al-Ahrar (Free EgyptiansParty), are working hard to catch up. One the oldest and most organized parties in the civil camp, the Wafd, will benefit from established support networks, although the party has recently suffered from internal disputes over its alliance with Brotherhood prior to its withdrawal from the Democratic Alliance.

Although Islamists had an antagonistic relationship with the former regime, the FJP and other Islamist forces have shown support for the SCAF since Mubarak’s fall, Islamists forces are taking a very different and more cooperative approach to the current military leadership in an effort to carve out a strong role for themselves in the new political system. Early on in the transition, the Muslim Brotherhood showed support for the SCAF by backing the constitutional declaration in March 2011.  

But the alliance between Islamists and the SCAF began to deteriorate in July, after large-scale demonstrations by the FJP and other groups fueled fears of an Islamist takeover. As Islamists became increasingly assertive in the post-revolutionary political order, the SCAF made a clear shift, moving closer to liberal and civil political parties and drafting a set of supra-constitutional principles that Islamists fear would limit their influence over Egypt’s next constitution. In another sign of its alignment with liberal forces, the SCAF appointed two well-known liberals as deputy prime ministers, Hazem al-Beblawy and Ali al-Selmi, who was assigned to draft the new constitutional document.

The draft constitutional principles signaled the SCAF’s commitment to preserving a civil state, but political forces soon realized that the document has another important objective: protecting the military’s political and economic privileges and shielding its budget from parliamentary oversight.

While these four major coalitions will play an important role in upcoming elections, the polling process will likely give rise to new political forces and unforeseen alliances that could either work together or against one another in the next parliament. The inability of any one party to secure an absolute majority will encourage the formation of new coalitions or mergers between parties with similar orientations such as the more than fifteen new liberal parties that have formed since the revolution.

The campaign season and electoral process will likely deepen the division between Islamists and "civil” powers, which has been expanding since the March referendum. Election results are impossible to predict, but Egypt’s next parliament will undoubtedly reflect a fundamentally altered political landscape marked by new voices, alliances and rivalries. 

Magdy Samaan is a freelance journalist and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute.

Photo Credit: The Egypt Report

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