HAVANA TIMES, May 21 (IPS) – Liberal and secular Egyptians at the core of mass protests that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak are scrambling to form a unified political front ahead of critical parliamentary elections in which they will face the better-organized Islamists.
“Time is short, and we are trying to unite the 12 million protesters who took to the streets to topple the old regime,” says Gameela Ismail, co-founder of the Madaneya movement to protect Egypt’s civil state. “We welcome all the revolution’s various political forces, but we are against anyone who would bring religion into politics.”
Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11 reshaped Egypt’s political landscape, allowing for the first time Egyptians from all ideological streams to express their views openly, participate in politics, and establish new parties. The country’s 82 million citizens now face the difficult task of building a democracy after decades of authoritarian, one-party rule.
Dozens of new political parties have formed or are in the process of registering since Egypt’s ruling military council issued new party guidelines. Secularists worry the nascent parties will not have sufficient time to organize, and could further split the liberal vote, ahead of critical parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
The stakes are high, as the new parliament will have the power to draft a new constitution and pass new legislation that will shape Egypt’s future for years to come.
Yehia El-Gammal, Deputy Prime Minister of Egypt’s interim government, says the country’s secular forces can expect stiff opposition at the ballot box from Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The biggest and most organized political force in the Egyptian street is the Muslim Brotherhood,” he told a recent Cairo forum. “While the group does not have majority support, in any election it is certain to take a large share of votes.”
Banned but tolerated under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to benefit from the short run-up to parliamentary elections and the court’s decision to dissolve the former ruling party, its only significant rival. The conservative Islamic movement enjoys widespread grassroots support and has the organizational experience and financial muscle to make a strong showing in the poll.
The Muslim Brotherhood captured 20 percent of the 2005 parliament by running its candidates as independents, but lost all of them in a 2010 vote marred by fraud. By some estimates, its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party is good for at least a third of any vote.
Prominent liberals and secularists say they are deeply worried by the prospect that Islamists could gain control of the parliament. Some fear Egypt could go from one form of authoritarian rule to another, citing the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-advocated goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state.
“There is nothing worse than a police state, except a religious state,” El-Gammal said.
A referendum in March demonstrated the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which rallied the masses to secure a 77 percent vote in favour of constitutional amendments that paved the way for quick elections. The vote was a crushing defeat for secularists, who had argued for more time to draft a new constitution and to build political forces able to compete with established groups.
The poll results convinced many liberal activists that the only chance for the fragmented secular parties to mount an effective campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood juggernaut in the upcoming election was to form a broad coalition with a unified candidacy list.
Earlier this month, four newly formed liberal parties meeting in Cairo to debate policies instead agreed on a tactical alliance. Leaders of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Free Egyptians Party, Justice Party and Democratic Front Party recognised their platform differences, but pledged cooperation to achieve their common goal of defending the civil state.
“We agreed to arrange ourselves into a broad coalition of liberal, leftist and (centrist) parties, but not to merge, as that would be very risky,” says Emad Gad, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “If all of the civil powers merge into one political party it will be easy for Islamists to divide society and use religion against us.”
He points to how various Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were able to sway votes during the March referendum by using religious slogans and spreading rumours that secularists were atheists or wanted to suppress religion.
“We are not against religion,” Gad says, “but we are against those who would mix religion and politics.”
The new liberal party coalition is one of several political alliances in the making.
On May 10, five leftist parties announced a coalition aimed at increasing their visibility and clout in the new era of political freedom. The group includes the Egyptian Communist Party, which surfaced in March after having operated secretly since the 1920s.
Local press reports also hint of a possible alliance between three of Egypt’s main secular parties. The liberal Wafd Party is said to be holding talks with Al Ghad, the party of dissident Ayman Nour, and the Nasserist Party, which espouses the political ideology of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The three parties were among the dozen or so attenuated opposition groups that Mubarak used to create the illusion of democracy – their representation in parliament determined less by the will of voters than on the whims of the regime. Most liberals and revolutionary youth have rejected the parties on account of their political lethargy and perceived ties to the old regime.
For Gad, it’s reports that Wafd Party leaders are courting the Muslim Brotherhood to join their coalition.
“We can forgive the Wafd Party’s past collaboration with the regime, but we cannot forgive its willingness now to ally with religion-based parties,” he says.
With just four months until parliamentary elections, many activists think the secular front will need to coalesce further if it is to have any impact. Yet some fear this could narrow the political spectrum, stripping the individual parties of their identity.
“We could end up with basically a two-party system that lumps the secularists against the Islamists,”
says law student Mohamed Fahmy. “That wouldn’t be much of an improvement on the one-party system we had under Mubarak.”
The condensed elections schedule has made alliances between secular forces an unfortunate necessity, asserts Ismail. The liberal politician and activist says that while she campaigned vigorously for a “No”
vote in the March referendum, she does not see any advantage to pushing back elections.
“Even if we postpone elections for another six months it is not going to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from moving ahead,” she told IPS. “They will move forward, and we will move forward, but the gap will always be there.”
The revolution will continue far beyond September elections, Ismail says. Secular parties should use the remaining months to build networks in various electoral constituencies.
“Even if we miss some rounds, we’ll succeed in others,” she says. “This is not a one-round battle – it’s going to take years.”