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Egypt's secular parties join forces to fight elections

Egypt's parliamentary election in September will see new alliances of secularists face better-organised Islamists and the country's former ruling party.

CAIRO // Egypt's historically weak secular opposition parties are bundling into alliances, preparing for a difficult September parliamentary election in which they will face better-organised Islamists and the former ruling party.

The new alliances come two weeks after a constitutional referendum on March 19 that demonstrated the weakness of both the secular parties and some of the youth activists who led Egypt's political uprising.

A short but intense campaign against the referendum failed to garner the secularists even 23 per cent of the vote in the face of superior campaigns by the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamist group.

Under new rules laid down on Wednesday by Egypt's military rulers, based on the results of the referendum, political parties will contest parliamentary elections in September and the presidential vote in November.

For the country's newest secular party, the Egyptian Social Democrats, the condensed schedule has made alliances with other secular parties a necessity, said Mohammed Aboul Ghar, a political activist who helped spearhead the group's founding on Tuesday. The party is itself the product of a merger of two smaller secular parties and includes a number of the country's most famous political analysts.

Dr Aboul Ghar, a physician known for his work on women's health issues in Egypt, said: "The party is open to alliances with all democratic forces seeking a secular society. We know that we are not strong enough to run in many places, but maybe similar parties are strong in those areas and vice-versa."

Meanwhile, the Wafd, a prominent secular party, is in the midst of negotiations with two parties, El Ghad, the party of the democracy activist Ayman Nour, and the Nasserites, which espouse the politics of the former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, to form an alliance that would run a slate of candidates in September, said Moataz Salah el Din, a Wafd spokesman. The Wafd leadership has not taken a final decision on the proposal, Mr Salah el Din said.

For decades, Egypt's secular political parties were relegated to practical irrelevance as they fought among themselves to lead political opposition to a regime that arrested their leaders and allowed them only a token number of seats in parliament. But a successful attempt to close ranks could harness support from newly mobilised youth and have a significant impact on the country's political balance, said Emad el Din Hussein, an Egyptian political expert and managing editor of Shorouk, one of the country's biggest independent newspapers."We'll witness more alliances in the coming period, but we should remember that the older political forces in Egypt are worn out, they're not very powerful," he said. "The real challenge is, can the civil forces form a real coalition, or a single alliance, against all the religious forces?"

Secular opposition groups have been criticised in the past for being elitist and too city-focused in a country where almost 57 per cent of the population still lives in rural villages, and only 71 per cent can read.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP both have well-developed grassroots networks to mobilise voters through door-to-door campaigning, speeches at mosques, and handouts of food and cash. The secular parties will have just six months to build similar networks, Mr el din Hussein said.

"This is a challenge for the new parties that are supposed to express the new revolutionary sentiments," he said. "The more they work in the next six months, the more that this can be translated into representation in the coming parliament."

At the same time as secular forces coalesce, they could benefit from divisions in the Islamist political movement. bIn the referendum battle, the Muslim Brotherhood worked on the same side as prominent Salafist preachers who espouse a far more conservative view of Islam's role in society. These preachers mobilised thousands of voters at radical mosques, likening the referendum to a "battle" between "armies" to defend their faith. But after the vote, the Brotherhood immediately strove to distance itself from such comments, and has rejected the Salafites in the past.

The Brotherhood is itself now riven by internal tensions. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fattouh, a Brotherhood leader who has long called for reform within the group, resigned on Wednesday to form his own political party, called Nahdat. The Brotherhood's leadership has said its members may support only its official Freedom and Justice Party, which is expected to include members from outside of the Brotherhood.

At the same time, Brotherhood youth held a pro-reform conference last Saturday that was not attended by party leaders.

The internal revolt represents "the most serious challenge" facing the Brotherhood, and could leave the group's support split among three or four political parties, Mr el din Hussein said.