A major issue in Egypt’s political transition of the last three years has been the chronic weakness of political parties not associated with Egypt’s Islamists. With crucial elections coming up later in 2014—first a presidential election, probably in late spring, and then a parliamentary election in the fall—questions about the role that non-Islamist parties will play are once again coming to the fore.

In this Q&A, Ahmed Morsy, a nonresident associate at Carnegie, addresses some of the key issues related to these parties. He says that although non-Islamists still face a host of challenges, they might have a chance to win over swing voters who helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012.

What are the main non-Islamist parties, and what ideologies do they represent?

Morsy was a nonresident research associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ahmed Morsy

Nonresident Associate
Democracy and Rule of Law Program

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As part of the opening of Egypt’s political space after the fall from power of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, non-Islamist parties have multiplied. There are now more than 50 of them, representing a range of ideologies, including socialism, liberalism, and nationalism (often laced with conservative nostalgia for Mubarak-era power structures). Many of these parties blur ideological lines, and almost all of them try to represent the citizens’ demands that surged forth in the 2011 uprising—bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity. The most well-known non-Islamist parties include the Free Egyptians Party (FEP), al-Wafd, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (SDP), and al-Dostour as well as leftist groups like the Egyptian Popular Current and groups with Mubarak-era leanings, such as the Conference Party and Masr Baladi.

The Free Egyptians Party was formed in 2011 and is financed primarily by two business tycoons, Naguib Sawiris and Raouf Ghabbour. The party represents a clear, economically liberal line. It advocates capital market policies, unrestricted freedoms and citizenship rights, and separation between religion and state. The FEP has been regularly accused by Islamist parties of advocating secularism, a term tainted in the Egyptian psyche, and of being the Coptic party, despite its majority of Muslim members.

Another quasi-liberal party in Egyptian politics is al-Wafd. The party was founded in the 1920s by the famous Saad Zaghloul and was for a time the most popular party in Egypt due to its national, liberal, and anti-British policies. Al-Wafd, along with all other Egyptian political parties, was dissolved by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1953, but it was reestablished in 1978 under the name New Wafd. Despite its long-standing liberal positions, al-Wafd is still trying to redefine itself in the post-Mubarak landscape.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, founded in July 2011, represents a new stream in the Egyptian political sphere. The SDP is comparable to the social democratic parties of Europe that advocate gradual reforms of society and governance to achieve a welfare state within the framework of a regulated capital market. The party’s president, Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, and vice president, Hoda al-Sada, were members of the committee of 50 that drafted Egypt’s 2014 constitution. In addition, the Egyptian cabinet that resigned in late February 2014 was headed by prominent SDP members Hazem el-Beblawi and Ziad Bahaa El-Din.

Al-Dostour (the Constitution Party) advocates positions and policies similar to those of the SDP. Founded by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei in April 2012, al-Dostour aimed to attract Egyptian youth and unite opposition voices under one umbrella party to implement the goals of the 2011 revolution. On February 22, 2014, party members elected Hala Shukrallah as president—the first female and the first Coptic president of any political party in Egypt. She inherits serious internal challenges relating to the party’s organization and management.

The non-Islamist landscape also includes a number of socialist and leftist parties, whose ideology has roots in the Nasser era. Egypt’s leftist parties are numerous, known more for their close ties to labor groups than for having any tangible electoral or policy successes. Today, there is a wide range of parties representing several brands of the Left, from the long-standing al-Tagammu (National Progressive Unionist Party) and Arab Nasserite parties to the recently formed Egyptian Popular Current movement, led by presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party. These parties advocate increasing social welfare benefits, supporting labor rights, and reducing economic inequality.

In contrast to these groups, which many Egyptians associate with the post-Mubarak political landscape, there is a set of non-Islamist parties that includes nostalgic supporters of the state (or the “deep state”) and the perceived stability of the Mubarak era. These groups include the Congress Party and the Egyptian National Movement Party, which have become more vocal in the aftermath of the July 2013 ouster of then president Mohamed Morsi. These parties are led mainly by people directly associated with the Mubarak regime (known as felool), like presidential runner-up Ahmed Shafiq, and they echo chauvinist slogans in support of state institutions, especially the military.

In November 2013, former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) established Masr Baladi (Egypt Is My Country), a political front backing the country’s transitional road map and calling on Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to run for the presidency. These parties have contributed to a surge in support for Sisi’s candidacy and the slandering of any critics as anti-nationalists.

How did the non-Islamist parties perform in the previous parliamentary election, held in late 2011 and early 2012?

The non-Islamist parties (including the felool) won 114 seats in the People’s Assembly, 23.3 percent of the total, while the Islamist parties won 350 seats, controlling 71.5 percent. The rest of the seats went to independents. Almost all the seats won by non-Islamists were through party lists. In individual districts, non-Islamists did well in cities, especially Cairo, and in the Nile Delta region.

The largest non-Islamist party in the parliament was al-Wafd, with 41 seats, followed by the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, with sixteen seats, and the Free Egyptians Party, with fifteen. The SDP and the FEP both campaigned with the leftist al-Tagammu as part of the Egyptian Bloc.

What are these parties’ flaws? Are they showing signs of overcoming them?

Many analysts point to a familiar set of flaws. And indeed, Egypt’s non-Islamist parties have long been afflicted by a whole set of serious deficiencies relating to leadership, organization, platform development, and funding.

In the lead-up to the first parliamentary and presidential elections after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, these parties missed great opportunities to market themselves and build effective coalitions. They made attempts to mobilize voters and organize national conferences, but these initiatives lost momentum due to a lack of funds and sustained commitment as well as bickering among party leaders.

However, some parties have been trying to overcome these challenges. They have started to make positive changes, but they still face obstacles in all of these areas.

For instance, several non-Islamist parties, especially those with a sizable youth membership (al-Dostour, the SDP, and the Popular Current), have made concrete efforts to communicate their message to rural areas in the Delta and Upper Egypt and to break free from their Cairo-centric nature. Some parties are planning internal elections to choose leaders as a first step toward building legitimate and accountable party management. Others are advocating mergers between like-minded parties and discussing electoral alliances in an effort to increase their chances of public recognition and parliamentary representation.

What electoral system will operate in the upcoming parliamentary election, and what effect is it likely to have on non-Islamist parties?

The 50-member committee that wrote the 2014 constitution failed to agree on an electoral system. The committee left that decision to the “president,” but it failed to stipulate whether the interim or elected president would be responsible for issuing the electoral law.

There are two proposed electoral systems under discussion by political parties and the state.

The first, supported by pro-state groups and remnants of Mubarak’s regime, basically represents a return to the Mubarak-era electoral system of 100 percent multimember electoral districts (multiple nontransferable votes). According to this proposal, the districts would be redrawn and made smaller, and the two candidates in each district who receive the most votes would be elected to parliament. Many of the political parties, including non-Islamists, believe that this system would hinder their ability to compete and would open the door to gerrymandering and a revival of the old business and family networks that controlled electoral processes for decades.

The second proposal envisions a mixed electoral system, like the one used for the 2011–2012 parliamentary election, based on proportional lists and multimember electoral districts. The suggested structure would allow both political parties and independents to field candidates to compete on the proportional lists as well as for individual seats. This would overcome the possibility of the law being ruled unconstitutional. (In June 2012, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court deemed the country’s electoral law unconstitutional because it allowed political parties to compete for seats designated for independents while not giving the independents the same chance).

Most political parties strongly recommend the mixed system, seeing it as a step toward political plurality and maturity. If there is a decision to implement the mixed system, it is likely that one-third of the seats will be elected by proportional lists and two-thirds through individual seats.

Do the non-Islamist parties have enough space in the current political environment to operate openly and prepare for the elections?

The space for open political debate and organization has certainly been reduced in recent months. The political scene has been altered dramatically since Morsi’s ouster and in some ways resembles the pre–January 2011 environment. Recent crackdowns and mass, often arbitrary, arrests, as well as state institutions’ continued intolerance of opposing voices, create an atmosphere that does not allow equal political opportunities for contending political forces or, ultimately, the growth of a democratic society. Despite the fact that non-Islamists and the state joined forces to oust Morsi, this “coalition of convenience” did not yield any tangible gains for the non-Islamist parties or the “democratic” camp in particular.

The reduction of space has not hit the non-Islamists nearly as hard as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been subject to a systematic state-led crackdown, but it has affected them negatively. “Pro-democracy” forces have largely failed to capitalize on the political space opened up by the damage to the Muslim Brotherhood, failing to articulate any clear political message or seize the chance to build a firm grassroots constituency.

A smear campaign the media has launched against any opposition to the state, in addition to a chauvinistic atmosphere of heightened nationalism, has put several of the youth movements and non-Islamist political parties on the defensive, pushing most of them to conform with the military-backed state and accept the political road map or else be excluded or shunned.

Will these parties benefit electorally from the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood?

They might, but it is not certain.

It is important to distinguish the core Muslim Brotherhood supporters, many of whom may boycott the whole electoral process this year, from the swing voters who voted for the Brotherhood not out of loyalty but because they sympathized with the Brotherhood or did not want Mubarak-era contenders or groups to succeed in 2011 and 2012. Non-Islamist parties can win additional votes if they can find a way to engage this group of swing voters.

The non-Islamist parties most poised to win such support are the former cadres of the NDP, which is the most organized and experienced group remaining after the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. This reality might give them the upper hand in the upcoming parliamentary election, especially because of their deep ties with state institutions and with prominent tribes and families in Upper Egypt and the Delta.

There is still an opportunity for the other share of non-Islamists—particularly those parties that stand against the felool and the notion of the deep state—to mobilize swing voters and Egyptians at large. But they have some work to do. These groups need to stay away from political jargon and articulate what they really stand for and how they plan to achieve it. They need to build trust with the electorate by engaging with voters and not depending solely on television campaigns and other media. It is imperative, moreover, that these parties merge into fewer but more significant alliances. Doing so would allow them to maximize resources and experience and to refine their platforms and rhetoric to attract voters.

Two other factors that will influence the performance of political parties are the passage of the new electoral law and voter turnout. The law will shape the rules for competition, and an engaged electorate and high turnout will increase the legitimacy of the electoral process in the public eye. Furthermore, the upcoming presidential election and the victor of that contest will have a significant impact on Egypt’s political mood and on whether and how people will vote in the parliamentary election.