x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Islamists and leftists meet to urge political change in Egypt

The secular leftist El Tagammu Party is to sit down with the Muslim Brotherhood as popular calls for challenge to the ruling party mount.

Hussein Abdel Razik of El Tagammu said talks with the Brotherhood were narrow in scope, and their views remain divergent.
Hussein Abdel Razik of El Tagammu said talks with the Brotherhood were narrow in scope, and their views remain divergent.

CAIRO // The leadership committee of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political opposition bloc, was preparing to meet today to discuss future co-operation with the El Tagammu Party, a leftist party that has long been inimical to the Brotherhood's Islamist ideology.

The expected meeting of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau follows discussions between the two groups on Sunday, which marked the first meeting in recent memory between Egypt's secular and religious opposition. The meetings may reveal a willingness among opposition groups to respond to increasing popular demands for political cohesion to oppose Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which has dominated the political scene here for more than 30 years. But the fledgling dialogue between El Tagammu and the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to amount to any serious political collaboration before parliamentary elections this year and the presidential vote in 2011, analysts said.

"A meeting is a clear sign of an attempt to break the ice between the two of them. Is it going to lead to anything new on the ground or any reco-ordination? I would really rule it out," said Amr Hamzawy, an expert on Egyptian politics and the research director for the Middle East Programme at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr Hamzawy said this week's meetings are representative of the parties' need to pay lip service to calls for a unified opposition rather than a real convergence of political views.

"It's basically adapting to the changing atmosphere where demands are being put forward to meet, co-ordinate and challenge the government jointly," he said. "They're sort of adapting to that, but there is not much substance behind it." Such demands for unity, Mr Hamzawy said, are not new. Egypt's official opposition political parties met during the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005. The Muslim Brotherhood and El Tagammu were also somewhat united in opposition to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Egyptian politics has rarely seen productive co-operation between the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal but tolerated Islamist political movement, and a secular opposition party such as El Tagammu - despite the political objectives they share: the introduction of democratic reforms and an end to decades of emergency law, among others. The impetus behind this week's meetings may come from a new player in Egyptian politics, Mr Hamzawy said. After more than a decade living abroad, Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Agency and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, returned to his native Egypt in February and immediately rallied a coalition of once-disparate regime opponents to push for democratic reforms.

In the past several weeks, Egypt's established opposition parties have released lukewarm statements about Mr ElBaradei's stated reluctance to join them. But many Egyptians consider the legal political parties - who won fewer than 10 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections compared with the 88 seats by independents affiliated with the Brotherhood - to be in collusion with a regime that allows them to participate in politics as nothing more than a feeble but loyal opposition.

While participants in Sunday's meetings acknowledged Mr ElBaradei's large following and substantial political influence, they denied that his National Association for Change was the sole reason behind their renewed dialogue. "It's because there are new demands in 2010 and 2011 and because of the movement in the political street that is calling for constitutional amendments and for rights," said Mohammed el Biltagy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc. "It's not ElBaradei as a person. It's the demands launched by ElBaradei that made us ask: 'Are we part of all these political movements and why shouldn't we co-operate?'"

Hussein Abdel Razik, a member of the presidential council of the El Tagammu Party who attended Sunday's meeting, said his party's discussions with the Muslim Brotherhood had "no relation" to ElBaradei's movement. Instead, he said, the Brotherhood and El Tagammu met only to consider co-operating in the small space upon which their political interests overlap. In nearly every other sense, Mr el Biltagy and Mr Abdel Razik said, the two political movements remain almost entirely divergent from each other.

The El Tagammu Party, and especially its leader, Rifaat Said, who opposed Sunday's meeting, have long harboured deep suspicions of the Brotherhood. The party takes particular exception to the Brotherhood's views on the political roles of women and Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. Mr Abdel Razik said El Tagammu's political bureau will discuss the Brotherhood meeting in the coming weeks. But he added that the Brotherhood's entreaties to the legal opposition parties - they have also requested meetings with the right-leaning Al Wafd and the leftist Nasserist Party - is more a response to their waning power following the arrests of several prominent Brotherhood leaders this year rather than a genuine desire for collaboration. Mr el Biltagy denied that arrests among the Brotherhood's leadership motivated the meeting.

"There are great differences in ideology and in many serious aspects," Mr Abdel Razik said. "But I think we can co-operate with each other in these next two years in facing the oppression of the government and in trying to open the doors to democracy in Egypt. But it doesn't mean that El Tagammu and the Muslim Brotherhood will have the same agenda forever." @Email:mbradley@thenational.ae