Egypt's former MPs coming back to political stage with big dreams

A group of former parliament members is reorganizing within Egypt’s opposition parties, but it remains unclear whether their efforts can threaten Sisi's grip on power, given the popularity of the Egyptian president and the very thin margin left for the political parties to communicate with the public.

al-monitor Egyptian parliament members attend a general session in the capital, Cairo, on July 20, 2020. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

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opposition parties, parliament, abdel fattah al-sisi, egyptian opposition, egyptian politics

Jan 7, 2021

CAIRO — Some of Egypt's former parliament members are returning to the political stage, braving fears from the difficulties they expect to face. But they have grand plans in mind.

Having acted as independents throughout their political careers, many of them are organizing themselves within the nation's opposition parties.

“A strong opposition is a sign of a sound political system,” former parliament member Haitham al-Hariri told Al-Monitor. “I hope the government will not commit a mistake by showing intolerance to this opposition.”

Hariri, from the northern coastal city of Alexandria, lost the latest parliamentary elections in October and November. Like other losing parliament members, especially outspoken critics of the government, he felt there was foul play.

He decided in December to join the Socialist Popular Alliance, the political party his father helped found in 2011.

Hariri expects to be promoted to a leading position within the party soon.

Other losing members of the House of Deputies (the lower chamber of parliament) are doing the same in what constitutes a phenomenon on Egypt's political stage.

Former parliament member Ahmed al-Tantawi, from the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh, on Dec. 25 became head of the Dignity Party, the Nasserite political party of former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

Other junior members of the same party were promoted to leading positions in what amounts to a renewal of blood in a party that appeared in 2011 with grand hopes, but then saw these hopes being dashed one after another because of stiff rivalry between the Islamists and the army.

Other former members of the parliament are joining the nation's political parties too, including — to name but a few — former parliament member Mohamed Fouad, who joined the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party back in September 2020. 

These former parliament members are united in the bitterness they feel for losing the elections and around their goal to strengthen the secular opposition and provide Egyptians with an alternative to the two forces vying for Egypt's rule for many decades now: the army and the Islamists.

“The presence of these former MPs within the political parties will give more energy to these parties,” political sociology specialist Said Sadek told Al-Monitor.

In doing this, these young politicians are reviving hopes for the presence of a robust opposition on the Egyptian political stage and a livelier political life.

Egypt boasts over 100 political parties, most of them founded after the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of late autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Nevertheless, the political parties have a feeble presence on the political stage, even a feebler one among ordinary people.

This, political party leaders say, is caused by the lack of necessary space for the parties to function and communicate with the public.

“The political parties function under intense restrictions by security agencies as well as vilification by pro-government media,” Farid Zahran, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told Al-Monitor.

Only 16 political parties were represented in the previous parliament.

Only 13 parties will be represented in the new parliament, which will convene later this month.

This new parliament will likely be controlled by a party loyal to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; namely, the Nation's Future Party.

The party, which was founded in 2014 as a platform for the nation's youth, managed to win 55% of the seats of parliament, whereas other parties and independents won the remaining 45%.

This gives rise to fears from a repetition of political practices prevalent under Mubarak, whose National Democratic Party imposed full control over Egypt's political life.

“We are witnessing a return of Mubarak's party, but in another form or name,” Zahran said.

Giving credence to such fears has been a political condition in the past years, especially since Sisi came to power in mid-2014.

The army chief turned politician stepped into the political arena at a time of major polarization.

He led the army in backing popular protests against late Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in mid-2013. This ended in Morsi's ousting, which continues to raise controversy to this day.

Sisi then crushed the Brotherhood opposition and put thousands of its affiliates in jail.

In subsequent years, he fought Islamist militancy in Sinai and brought order back to the streets.

Sisi also initiated major economic reforms that rescued the economy but proved hard on the pockets of Egyptians. He brought Egypt back to the Arab, African and international stages.

However, he showed little tolerance for opposition and free speech. He expressed hopes several times for his country's political parties to become strong, but in essence, the political parties complained of shrinking freedoms.

This is why many people view the grouping of the former parliament members into political parties with hope.

But whether these former members can threaten Sisi's grip on power is uncertain, given the popularity of the Egyptian president and the very thin margin left for the political parties to communicate with the public, analysts said.

“I believe the success of these former MPs hinges on whether the current political system will allow them to do this,” Sadek said.

Nonetheless, other people eye some chances for success.

Egypt's disgruntled youth, especially those frustrated with the failure of the 2011 uprising to bring in the required democracy they dreamed of, continue to abstain from political participation.

Most of those who were at the forefront of the uprising are in jail now. Many others still watch and refuse to be part of a political life that fails to reward those who do not belong to either the military or the nation's Islamists.

Sisi tries to engage his country's youth politically through a series of youth conferences.

Army-affiliated academies also offer political and professional training to hundreds of youth to create a new generation of leaders inside state institutions.

Having received a new supply of energy through the former parliament members, the opposition parties can, meanwhile, draw in some of the nation's disgruntled youth, analysts said.

“The political parties are more than capable of attracting youth to them,” Tayseer Mattar, head of the liberal Will of the Generation Party and member of the Egyptian Senate, told Al-Monitor. “They need, however, to formulate strong strategies for the training of these youth to prepare them for elections.”

For his part, Tantawi said he would work to make his party express the aspirations of the 2011 revolution.

The Dignity Party, he said, would field many of its young members in the elections, including in the next municipal elections.

“Making the ballot boxes an arbiter is not an easy matter,” Tantawi told the independent online newspaper Mada Masr. “However, we cannot accept for the foundations of despotism to be laid."

The date of the municipal elections has not been set yet. In November 2018, Sisi said the elections would be held in early 2019.

Hariri says he will lead his party into more presence on the political stage, including by planning for upcoming elections.

“We are ready to participate in the municipal elections,” Hariri said. “However, I hope the authorities will not make these polls a copy of the latest parliamentary elections by allowing only the candidates they like to win.” 

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