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Egypt's Political Map: Clearing the Fog

By       Message Esam Al-Amin     Permalink
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Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Two Years After a Popular Revolution

If parties from across all of Egypt's political spectrum agree on one thing, it's this: the country is currently witnessing the greatest turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's ouster and is facing massive upheaval with no end in sight. The unity and resolve displayed by millions of Egyptians two years ago when they decisively deposed the authoritarian and corrupt Mubarak regime is long gone. Throughout these tumultuous two years, there emerged two major fault lines across the country's political class: one that resulted from the revolution, namely the revolutionary vs. the counter-revolutionary groups; and one along ideological grounds, namely the Islamic vs. the secular parties.

All agree that the revolution was launched spontaneously by non-ideological youth groups, who paid the heaviest price and made the biggest sacrifices during the early days of the revolution. Such groups proclaim the mantle of the revolution and maintain that it has been hijacked by better-organized and established groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafis.

The MB, however, asserts that although it did not publicly join the initial protests on January 25, 2011, it immediately joined forces within three days and protected the revolution as the group mobilized its massive membership and supporters across the country, especially during the battle of the camel on February 1, ultimately forcing the surrender of the regime ten days later.

The more conservative Salafi groups, while acknowledging that they were slow in joining the ranks of the revolution, argue that they embraced its objectives and the democratic process unleashed in its aftermath and thus legitimately represent the interests and aspirations of a substantial segment of Egyptian society.

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On the other hand, the secular and liberal groups, including the Coptic Church, which are quite wary of the religious groups and are very adamant about limiting the role of Islam in political life, have been very frustrated in seeing decisive electoral victories by the more popular Islamic groups. Since the fall of Mubarak, Egyptians have been to the polls in largely free and fair elections on eight different occasions. And each time the voters decisively favored the Islamist groups.

In March 2011, the electorate voted 77 percent for a political process advocated by the Islamists that called for elections before writing a new constitution. Furthermore, between November 2011 and January 2012 Egyptian voters went to the polls four times to choose the upper and lower chambers of parliament. Once again the Islamist parties won over 73 percent of the contested seats. By June 2012 Egyptians went to the polls yet again in two stages to choose a president, eventually electing in a tightly contested race, though narrowly, the MB candidate, Muhammad Morsi. In December 2012, the Egyptian electorate went to the polls an eighth time, approving by a 64 percent majority a new constitution endorsed mainly by the Islamist groups, while strongly opposed by the secularist, liberal, and leftist parties as well as by many revolutionary youth groups.

As the second anniversary of the remarkable and peaceful Egyptian revolution approached in late January 2013, new alliances and coalitions were formed largely as the mistrust had widened between those who support and oppose Morsi, the Islamists' agenda, or the new constitution. Consequently, new battle lines were drawn in anticipation of the new parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring.

With over 100 registered or declared parties across the country, what is the political map of Egypt two years after the revolution?

1) The Islamist Parties: There are at least a dozen parties that proclaim to be Islamist in nature. They belong to three distinctive blocks. The first block constitutes the MB and its political affiliate, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The 85-year-old Brotherhood has established itself as the most organized political and social group in the country. Additionally, the FJP cemented its position as the majority party when its former head, Morsi, was elected as president last June and when it won 47 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament before it was dissolved last June by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), as well as winning almost 60 percent of the seats in the upper chamber of parliament. Although hundreds of members resigned from the group in opposition to its manipulative tactics or dismissive attitudes, the group still has a strong and disciplined base between seven and eight hundred thousand members and several million supporters.

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The second ideological block within the Islamist parties is the more conservative Salafist groups led by al-Noor Party, which came in second in last year's parliamentary elections with 25 percent of the vote. But more recently the party was split into two because of differences over tactics, priorities, presidential endorsements, and clashing personalities. As a result, a new Salafist party, Al-Watan al-Hurr, or the Free Nation party, was formed and led by former Noor party head Emad Abdul Ghafoor. While the greatest support of the Noor party is centered around Alexandria and the Delta, the greatest Salafi support of the newly established Watan  party is in Cairo and upper Egypt. Another Salafi stronghold is in Giza province where its head, Hisham Abul Nasr, has not made up his mind yet as to whom he would lend his support. Other smaller parties affiliated with the Salafi school of thought have yet to decide which block to join, while a Salafi group in the city of Al-Mansoura has formed its own party under the name of Al-Sha'ab  or the People's party. Meanwhile, former presidential candidate and popular Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail recently established his own Salafi-oriented party called the Umma (Nation) Party. Subsequently both Abu Ismail and Abdul Ghafoor announced that they would form a coalition in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In short, the politically nascent Egyptian Salafi movement has splintered and its supporters fear that their block vote that earned them a second place finish in the previous elections might be further fragmented and wasted.

The third ideological block within the Islamic current consists of the moderate and more independent parties. Many of these parties are led by former MB leaders who were disenchanted by the current leadership of the group. This block includes Al-Wasat (Center)  Party and  Al-Hadara (Civilization) Party led by former MB leaders Abolela Madi and Ibrahim al-Za'afarani, respectively.  There are also other smaller political parties such as Building and Development, Asala (Authenticity), and Islah (Reform) parties. While these parties are considered to the right of Al-Wasat, the Strong Egypt Party, led by former MB leader and presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abol Fotouh is considered left of center focusing on issues of social justice and liberal domestic spending. Currently most of these Islamist moderate parties are negotiating with each other to form an electoral bloc in order to compete in the next parliamentary elections.

While the FJP has ruled out forming a coalition partnership with the other Islamist parties, most experts believe that it might form a tactical alliance with Al-Watan to protect its right flank. A tactical alliance is where parties decline to field a candidate in a particular district; instead, they ask their supporters to vote for another candidate from a friendly block in order to not split the Islamist votes and to defeat vocal secular anti-MB or anti-Islamist candidates.

2) The Secular Parties: There are several dozen liberal, nationalist, Nasserist, and leftist parties that belong to this category. Some are old and prominent such as Al-Wafd Party that was established over 90 years ago, while others were just formed in the past year. Last November, 13 of these parties formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) after Morsi issued his ill-fated constitutional declaration. The most prominent members of the NSF are former presidential candidates Mohammed Elbaradei (Constitution Party), Amr Moussa (Congress Party), Hamdein Sabahi (People's Current), Ayman Nour (Ghad al-Thawrah or Revolution Tomorrow Party) and Elsayyed El-Badawi (Al-Wafd Party). Most Coptic Christian-affiliated groups such as the Free Egyptian Party also belong to this alliance. Combined, these groups barely won 20 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections, with Al-Wafd gaining almost half of the non-Islamist seats.

Principally what united these various groups was their hatred and contempt for the MB, which they claim angered them, in part, because of its arrogant attitude towards its former pre-revolution political partners turned rivals. More significantly, the failure of the secular parties to win democratically at the polls added to their frustration and hardened their position by taking to the streets and airwaves, raising questions about the legitimacy of the president and his government while using tactics that undermine the political process, democratic principles, and economic stability in the country.

3) The Revolutionary Youth Groups: Invariably every political party in Egypt acknowledges the indispensable role these groups played in initiating and sustaining the revolution not only in the early days of anti-Mubarak protests but also subsequently during the sixteen-month military rule. Genuine youth groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement and the Egyptian Current have been at the forefront of reminding the Egyptian political class about the objectives of the revolution, namely, decent living, freedom, social justice, and human dignity. Because of inexperience and a lack of resources, the energy and sacrifices of these groups did not translate into electoral gains. For the past two years, the political support of these groups was sought by all sides. During the presidential elections Morsi met with youth leaders such as Ahmad Maher (April 6 Movement), Wael Ghoneim (We are all Khaled Said), Taqadum Al-Khatib  (National Society for Change), and Islam Lotfi (The Egyptian Current), affirming his support for the goals of the revolution, such as purging the government of former regime loyalists and bringing to justice those who killed the martyrs of the early days of the revolution. Today, most of these groups complain that Morsi has either neglected his promises to them or has been slow in fulfilling them. Many were angered by the November constitutional declaration and the speed by which the new constitutional referendum was passed. Although they declined to join the NSF because it included many personalities affiliated with the former regime, they have been a significant part of the opposition formed against Morsi and the MB rule.

4) Other Youth Groups: Because political life during the Mubarak era was meticulously manipulated and staged, many youth groups spent their energy in groups that supported popular soccer teams. In Egypt such support teams are called the Ultras. The Ultras of Al-Ahly of Cairo, the most popular team in Egypt, number in the millions. During the military rule in January 2012, 72 of their supporters were massacred in Port Said, a city along the Suez Canal, after a soccer game. Subsequently the Ultras have charged the security forces of condoning the massacre if not actually committing it and have staged many protests during the year demanding justice. Uncharacteristically for Egypt, several recently-founded youth groups have called for chaos and violence against the government. One of these new groups, whose members wear black clothes and masks and modeled after a character in the film "V for Vendetta," has been called the "Black Bloc." For the past several weeks this mysterious group staged several violent acts and robberies while claiming they were committed in support of the revolution. Another group that called for resisting the government by spreading chaos and fear, and torching public properties call itself the Anarchists, claiming to model itself after similar Western style groups. So far it has not been clear who directs or finances such groups even though the secular parties have largely either defended or condoned their behavior or put the blame on the government for instigating the violence that produced counter reaction from these self-styled vigilante groups.

5) The Fulool  groups (or former regime elements): For almost a year after the revolution the individuals, business people and groups affiliated with the former regime were nowhere to be found. In fact, many of their political and business leaders were either arrested and tried for corruption, or fled the country. But as the rivalry between the Islamist and secular groups intensified, these groups and many of the media-affiliated organizations they control became increasingly more active and visible especially since last spring when Mubarak's former prime minister, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq (tacitly supported by the military leaders ruling the country at the time) became an official presidential candidate. As the crisis over Morsi's declaration and the new constitution deepened by the end of 2012, many fulool  elements openly joined the NSF and the opposition and filled the airwaves while viciously attacking Morsi, the MB, and the Islamists in general. Listening to the rhetoric of many of the proliferating private Egyptian media outlets, in less than two years, the former regime loyalists have suddenly become the fervent supporters of the revolution while the MB and their allies now represent the counter-revolution. What these groups bring to the political equation is deep pockets and massive resources, connections to the security apparatus and state bureaucracy, and a keen knowledge of the weak links of state power.

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Esam Al-Amin is a regular contributor for a number of websites.

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