The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Egyptian opposition parties begin to change

Noaman Gomaa, the despised dictatorial leader of the Wafd -- one of Egypt's oldest liberal parties -- has been unseated by an overwhelming vote of its secretariat, with Gomaa's former deputy Mahmoud Abaza taking his place for 60 days until a new leader is elected. This has been a brewing coup against Gomaa over the past few weeks, sparked by his decision to kick out former MP Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (who says he lost his seat in the parliamentary elections partly because he did not receive proper support from the party) without consulting party leaders. Nour has since mounted a campaign against Gomaa, rallying to his side other party bigwigs including the formerly pro-Gomaa Abaza and Mohammed Sarhan. There had been an earlier split soon after Gomaa's election after the death of historic leader Fouad (Pasha) Serageldin, with some members (notably those from the old landed gentry and aristocracy that formed the traditional core of Al Wafd), but an attempt at a lawsuit never led anywhere. The Wafd is now likely to emerge safely in the hands of Abaza (with Abdel Nour, probably not in line for the top job because he is a Copt, as an eminence grise), although Gomaa has refused to acknowledge the legality his removal and could yet grab on to power.

As Al Ahram Weekly pointed out in its coverage, police encircled the stately Wafd party headquarters in Doqqi (a mansion that belonged, I believe, to the illustrious Serageldin family) and blocked anti-Gomaa partisans from entering, while favoring pro-Gomaa ones. This confirms what observers have thought for a long time: that Gomaa was a tool of the regime, given the party as his personal fiefdom in exchange for support of the state. Gomaa's last minute decision to run for the presidential elections this summer (despite a previous agreement for an opposition boycott) and his poor performance, trailing behind Ayman Nour although he had been the state's preferred runner-up, finally discredited him.

If the crisis at Al Wafd is not resolved in favor of the reformists, there has been talk of forming a new liberal party that would gather like-minded reformists from other parties, including the ruling NDP. The key advocate of this idea right now is Mona Makram Ebeid, a former president of Al Ghad before she was muscled out by Ayman Nour and some of his less savory acolytes. She has little political pull, so it's not sure what will come of it. But it's an idea that could still rescue the best elements of parties like Al Wafd and Al Ghad should they be taken over by pro-state elements, which is the current situation -- although in Al Wafd's case, reformists would be better off if they could keep its powerful and historic name.

Meanwhile, a similar rethinking and restructuring is taking place on the left. As Amira Howeidy explains in another Weekly article, the left has been widely discredited:

In a follow-up seminar to last month's discussions of "the crisis of the Egyptian left" the Socialist Studies Centre on Sunday invited a number of leading left-wing figures, including veteran lawyer Nabil El-Hilali and the Tagammu's Abdel-Ghafar Shukr, to address the future of the left.

The results of the parliamentary elections, said Shukr, clearly showed that the left hardly qualified as "a political pole" in today's Egypt. In approaching the reasons why this is the case the speakers were initially cautious, though the discussion soon turned into a scathing self-criticism of the past failures.

Khaled Hamza, a communist and member of the left- wing Al-Tagummu, reminded the audience that the left once had a presence on the streets and in society. This, he continued, is obviously no longer the case. "The left's first major withdrawal was when it abandoned the people... Some then sided with the regime while others simply stayed at home."

The behaviour of Al-Tagammu, believes Hamza, singling out recent headlines in the party's mouthpiece Al-Ahali which appear to highlight the links between the government and a supposedly opposition party, has impacted negatively across the entire left.

" Al-Ahali," said Hamza, actually urged Mubarak to interfere and stop his party's thugs [from attacking candidates and voters] during the elections."

He listed other reasons why the left was no longer a presence on the political scene. It is too scattered and divided, and on too many occasions the various factions have squandered whatever political capital they possessed on squabbling among themselves. "We need to unite, we need a party," he continued, "an Egyptian communist party that can Egyptianise Marxism... An elected, democratic party... we communists have never experienced democracy [from within]. We know only centralisation."
This week, the Nasserist Party held a meeting -- presumably the first of many -- to talk about structural changes to the party, including the need to elect a new leadership. The Tagammu has been said to be doing the same thing. Both parties could learn from the criticisms of newer movements "for change," as well as more established pseudo-parties such as Karama, a breakaway Nasserist movement that actually did fairly well in the recent elections.

The domestic politics joke of the week in Egyptian papers, however, was news that a coalition of ten minor (read: utterly irrelevant) opposition parties, none of which have MPs, have decided to form a shadow government. A good idea by stupid people -- perhaps the real opposition (liberal, leftist and Islamist) should think about doing the same.