Understanding Egypt’s Political Map
February 8, 2013
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.
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?
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 eighty-five 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.
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.
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, thirteen 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.
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.
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, seventy-two 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.
The Fulool Groups (Former Regime Elements)
For almost a year after the revolution the individuals, businesspeople 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.
The Deep State, the Security Apparatus, the Judiciary, and State Bureaucracy
The concept of the deep state surfaced shortly after the success of the revolution in toppling Mubarak and his senior hirelings. This deep state that developed over decades of dictatorship and military rule is entrenched and intersects with economic and political interests of many oligarchs and the corrupt political or business classes. It was an open secret that this deep state and its massive bureaucracy was mobilized for Shafiq during the presidential elections that he lost by a mere two percent. Even seven months after becoming president and assuming power, Morsi hardly controls the levers of power in the country. Although he was able to outmaneuver and force the retirement of the top military echelon, it is clear that he only has nominal control over the military, the security forces, or the state intelligence services. Unfortunately, most of the officers of these vital institutions are functionaries of the old regime even while claiming loyalty to the new president. The MB leadership bitterly complains that even two years after the revolution these institutions still retain large autonomy and are difficult for ordinary citizens or affiliated groups to join or penetrate. In many instances during the past two months when MB headquarters and buildings were torched or ransacked, the group’s leaders protested that the security forces and the police stood by and did nothing to stop the carnage.
In every revolution or uprising against corrupt and dictatorial regimes people generally acknowledge the need to elect new political structures. But the judiciary is also not immune from decades of corruption and repression. In fact, a dictatorship could not have functioned effectively without the active participation or acquiescence of the judicial branch. Why would Egypt be the exception? Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt’s judiciary has demonstrated this dilemma. While in certain instances judges have shown courage and independence, in far too many instances some judges, especially within the SCC, have only shown bias in favor of the former regime and its supporters, or prejudice against the new regime. Within months of its election, the SCC dissolved the lower chamber of parliament and was about to dissolve the Constituent Constitutional Assembly and the upper house of parliament before Morsi issued his constitutional declaration and sidelined the SCC.
In short, part of the political problem in Egypt has been that many of the state institutions are full of former regime loyalists or anti-revolution proponents holding state power thus preventing or frustrating the implementation of the objectives of the revolution. Unlike Iran for example, the Egyptian revolution hardly purged any state officials and thus real change has become very difficult to achieve.
Regional and International Powers
Undoubtedly, the success of the Arab Spring meant the collapse of an old political order and the establishment of a new one. Once fully instituted, the new order promised freedom, equality, social justice, and the embrace of democratic principles. But the spread of such notions in the region would certainly threaten other established orders, particularly the wealthy Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. For over a year, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed of the UAE and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan have been busy undermining the Egyptian revolution. Reliable sources within the Egyptian government claim that Saudi and UAE money has been flooding the country and corrupting its political system.
Israel is also understandably very nervous about the change in the political order in Egypt and across the Arab world. After all, a former Israeli minister of defense described Mubarak as “Israel’s strategic treasure.” In turn, Israel has been pressuring the U.S. and Europe to keep political and economic pressure on the new rulers of Egypt. What Israeli leaders want in the near term is quiet on their borders and to focus on ending Iran’s nuclear program while consolidating their control over the West Bank through vast settlement expansion. The U.S. on the other hand, has a more complex calculus that includes a secure and powerful Israel, regional stability, effective control and access to oil with reasonable prices, providing protection for its regional allies especially in the Gulf, and curtailing or containing regional powers such as Iran or jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The U.S. and its European allies continue to keep the pressure on Egypt until it agrees to assist the U.S. in achieving these strategic objectives.
Two-Year Anniversary: Celebrating or Mourning?
The clash between the Islamist and secular groups reached its peak when Morsi issued his constitutional declaration in late November. He stated that his intention was to protect the Constituent Assembly from being dissolved by the SCC and wanted to give it additional time to reach consensus. But the secular parties immediately seized on this injudicious act and began a public campaign to undermine his rule and the domination of the MB and their Islamist allies. For weeks they mobilized the streets and the media, first calling on Morsi to annul his decisions, then calling on him to cancel the constitutional referendum, and finally challenging the president’s legitimacy and calling for early presidential elections. Upon each presidential call for a national dialogue, the secular opposition would raise its demands and harden its positions in order to justify boycotting the national dialogue and further weakening the president. Throughout this unsettling period, the NSF leaders consistently used hyperbolic language that charged Morsi with being a worse dictator in his six-month presidency than Mubarak was during his three decade rule. It is not too far fetched to conclude that the real objective of the secular elites is not the fulfillment of the objectives of the revolution as they claim but the downfall of Morsi and the end of the Brotherhood’s political domination.
But these exaggerated claims against Morsi could easily be refuted through demonstration of two examples. First, when the lower house of parliament was dissolved, all legislative powers were held de facto by the president in addition to his executive powers. Although Morsi tried several times to give up such legislative powers, he was overturned by the courts as well as strongly opposed by his secular rivals. When he tried through his constitutional declaration to protect the upper house from being dissolved by the courts the opposition decried his action and labeled him a dictator. After the constitutional referendum passed with a two-thirds majority, thus handing down all legislative powers to the upper house until the next parliamentary elections, the opposition again objected citing the domination of the Islamists over the upper house. In short, if Morsi retains all legislative powers that he inherited from the military council he is labeled a dictator. And if he transfers these powers to either the lower or upper houses of parliament, which were elected in free and fair elections, he is still called a dictator by the opposition. Either way he could not win.
A second telling example concerns the fulfillment of one of the main demands of the revolution, namely, bringing to justice the perpetrators of the crimes against the martyrs of the revolution and returning the tens of billions stolen by officials and corrupt elements of the former regime. With the exception of Mubarak, the state prosecutor failed for over twenty months to convict a single official or return a single penny of the stolen money. As many judges insinuated, it was abundantly clear that much of the damning evidence had either been withheld by the prosecutors or concealed. So last November when Morsi forced the retirement of Mubarak’s state prosecutor and appointed in his place an independent judge known for his honesty and integrity, not only did all the corrupt elements protest this move but the secular opposition also vehemently objected and demanded the return of the corrupt former prosecutor.
During this period NSF leaders committed grave mistakes that fundamentally put to question their patriotism, further underscoring their opportunistic behavior. In their dispute with Morsi and the MB, they called for the intervention of the military, invited foreign interference, especially from Western countries, and provided cover for the use of violence by sanctioning the violent behavior of some youth groups against the police as well as public and private property.
Such violent incidents condoned by the opposition took place on the second anniversary of the revolution on January 25 and the following two days. NSF leaders called for either the resignation or overthrow of Morsi in the same manner that Mubarak was overthrown. Although the government welcomed all peaceful demonstrations, the protests quickly turned violent as some demonstrators tried to storm the presidential palace and the Interior Ministry resulting in the death of several victims. By the following day, a court in Port Said convicted 21 individuals charged with murdering the seventy two soccer fans a year earlier and sentenced them to death. Shortly after, protests erupted not only in Port Said but also in Suez and Ismailiya, the three cities along the Suez Canal. By January 27, fifty four individuals lost their lives in the ensuing violence including some police officers, prompting Morsi to declare emergency laws and a curfew for 30 days in the three cities to restore calm and end the violence. The opposition promptly condemned his actions and called the residents of these cities to defy his curfew orders and continue the protests.
Meanwhile, Morsi called all the major parties and major leaders of the opposition including Elbaradei, Moussa, Sabahi, and Elbadawi, for a national dialogue in a meeting on January 28 but the secular opposition refused to meet and escalated the confrontation by demanding that he rescind his curfew orders, take full responsibility for the violence, suspend the constitution, disband the MB, and call for early presidential elections, practically, demanding his complete surrender. By the following day, all leaders of the major Islamist parties as well as liberal Ayman Nour met with Morsi for five hours resulting in the appointment of five committees to further resolve the major political and economic problems facing the country.
But one of the reasons NSF leaders have hardened their positions is foreign interference, especially by Saudi Arabia and UAE. The latter is hosting Gen. Shafiq and openly calls for the end of MB rule. According to one informed source in Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar’s plan is to topple Morsi through the spread of violence and chaos by the opposition. But if this scheme fails, his Plan B is to push for a tactical alliance between the NSF and the Salafist al-Noor Party, which receives much of its financial backing from clerics and private foundations in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after, the evidence was on display as the head of Noor Party met openly for several hours with the main leaders of the NSF, condemned Morsi’s government, called for a national unity government, and hinted at a future alliance after the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, the average Egyptian is disgusted and confused by the political theater created in the streets that basically created economic havoc in all segments including the breakdown in security, the collapse of infrastructure, the fall of the Egyptian pound, the rise of unemployment, and the decline in tourism. In addition, the timidity and weakness of Morsi’s government as well as the MB’s lackluster performance allowed such unscrupulous maneuvers by the opposition. The people complain that they gave their support in anticipation of the so-called ‘Renaissance Project’ by the MB, which turned out to be mere rhetoric. Economic experts complain that the government’s response to Egypt’s endemic economic problems are no different from Mubarak’s capitalist and market-oriented policies that ignore most social justice and economic structural issues. People also complain that the president has not been open with his people or transparent about the deep problems facing Egypt. If there is a foreign conspiracy facing the country, they ask, why hasn’t the president exposed it? But informed individuals close to Morsi’s advisors discreetly say that the president has been warned by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and threatened with the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian expatriates if he shows any hostility towards their host nations. On the other hand, Morsi is responding by slowly building closer relationships with Iran and Turkey in response to the hostile policies of the Gulf countries. While the CIA is giving tactical assistance to Bandar’s plans in Egypt, U.S. policy has not been definitive in backing either side of the internal dispute but hedging its bets on both sides by keeping open the line of communication to both the government and the opposition.
The political class in Egypt is so polarized currently that it is difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel. But the Egyptian people deserve to realize the fruits of their remarkable revolution. There must be a real national dialogue between all major parties regardless of ideology or political affiliation. The only conditions imposed should be: No to intervention by the military; No to the participation of the fulool; and No to foreign interference. Furthermore, the parliamentary elections must proceed on schedule this spring and all sides must pledge to respect its democratic outcome. The president must also be allowed to serve his full term, and the opposition must behave as a loyal opposition putting the national interests before party or personal interests. In return, the president must be seen as a symbol of national unity, and one who fulfills his promises. He must also speak openly and frankly with his people, explaining the obstacles facing the country.
In short, a magnanimous majority party and loyal opposition are essential requirements to restore the glory of the revolution, and the security, stability, democracy, and progress that all Egyptians aspired for when they rose up and cried in unison for a decent living, freedom, social justice, and human dignity.