[Note: This is the third in a series of posts titled “Mubarak’s “Mubarak?”” Click here to view the first post and here for the second post in the series]
In my last post I argued that there are some signs that individuals within the opposition are starting to believe that Mohammed ElBaradei’s initiative to offer an alternative to Egypt’s de facto royal family is not working. Since then, ElBaradei announced that he is no longer attempting to run for the presidency, conceding what everybody has known for quite some time: the next president will come from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Since his return to Egypt, the regime never gave him a chance—for obvious reasons. Even though his name on the ballot would have helped the NDP put on a “good show” for Egyptian viewers and the international community, the thought of being compared to a Nobel Laureate clearly clashed with the Mubaraks’ egos (even if her big shot dad secured her the lead part in a Hollywood movie, Tori Spelling would still not want Angelina Jolie as her supporting actress). But ElBaradei’s decision to give up was not only a result of the regime’s resistance to his candidacy. Indeed the regime refused to accept his demands for constitutional amendments that would allow independents a reasonable chance at getting their names on the ballot. Yet the regime’s initial resistance never stopped ElBaradei from pushing his campaign forward. It was the opposition’s persistence in sidelining his demands and undermining his agenda that forced him give up hope. As so-called opposition parties snubbed his calls for a legislative election boycott that could pressure the regime into making substantive democratic reforms before next year’s presidential race, it became embarrassingly obvious that ElBaradei is on his own and that transformative political change has very few friends in Egypt (and even fewer friends outside it).
ElBaradei may have taken the term “opposition” in “opposition parties” too seriously when he assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood and parties like Al-Wafd and Al-Tagammu‘ would in fact rally behind his calls for a boycott. It is one thing to ask these groups to participate in publicity stunts—press conferences, rallies, and gathering signatures—but to ask them to rebel against state-managed electoral façade and demand real political competition underestimates the extent to which these groups have become vested in the political status quo. A truly free political field in which political groups can easily form and compete for votes and support not only challenges the NDP’s monopoly over power, but also threatens the continued survival of these same parties and groups we often refer to as the “Egyptian opposition.”
Who is this “Egyptian opposition,” anyway? And in what ways would a democratic reform agenda such as the one proposed by ElBaradei challenge their interests and preferences? Let us start with the formal opposition: the groups that compete for votes and that field candidates during elections.
Behind every Egyptian opposition party is a proud rent-seeker—though they usually vary in their type and scale. There’s the political party that is led by one or a few ambitious individuals who tried their luck with political activism or journalism in state-owned media outlets or one of the traditional opposition parties’ papers, but had to call it quits either because their bosses forced them out or they failed to move up the professional ladder due to limited skills. These parties were allowed to operate freely only after the Ministry of Interior ascertained that their leaders were driven by opportunistic or narcissistic predispositions rather than an actual interest in advancing a political agenda. I call these parties, apolitical parties. The party consists of 3-4 individuals crammed in a low-rent one-bedroom apartment somewhere in downtown Cairo. The bedroom (the largest room in the flat) is the party chairman’s office, the hallway is for the receptionist, and the kitchen is for the little boy who prepares tea and coffee for the staff and guests. To make the most out of the 100 thousand Egyptian pounds that he gets from the state in public funding every year, the party chairman is inclined to keep his payroll and support staff to a minimum. He prefers to rely on a group of stringers and free-lance reporters to put together the party’s weekly paper. The paper’s circulation and subscriptions are fairly limited, and thus it is heavily dependent on advertisement revenues. Because no rational profit-seeking enterprise would want to spend money on ads in some obscure party paper that barely circulates beyond the party officers’ circle of friends and family, the only organizations willing to waste money on such useless ads are government agencies. Thus, the party’s weekly will passionately cuss the heads of ministries that refuse to place ads in the paper (or ministries that failed to pay their dues on time) and expose their ineptitude and corruption.
The party chairman is quite happy with such an arrangement. His position provides him access to a range of government officials—people who would have never returned his calls or text messages when he was some unknown “second class” reporter. He boasts to his friends and acquaintances about meeting with celebrities, like “His Excellency the Minister of Water and Irrigation,” and about having attended VIP events, such as Gamal Mubarak’s wedding. The goal of seeking office is usually off the chairman’s radar, in part because it is costly and hopeless, and in part because he still dreams of that presidential appointment to the Shura Council—a pretty nice shortcut to office that does not include the hassle of fielding an election campaign, paying bribes, or building real constituents. As for the lucky ones who do get into parliament via presidential appointment, they will speak in the name of thousands of anonymous constituents and party members and make demands on their behalf. But they will never attempt to advance any real political agendas (after all the only reason the regime let them into parliament in the first place is because they’ve got none). Put simply, they are just happy to be there. When the regime demands that they field their candidates for the presidential election to put on a nice show, they will happily oblige and will say that they are competing with the incumbent president for the love of the Egyptian people, not for their votes. "وربنا ما يحرمنا منه ومن خيره"
Given the narrow personalist interests that drive these parties, it is anything but surprising that these groups did not greet ElBaradei’s return to Egypt with any sense of enthusiasm. To undermine ElBaradei they borrowed the same strategy often used by NDP propagandists to challenge the credibility of serious opposition voices such as Kifaya: they called him a foreign agent.
Apolitical parties gone rogue
But not all apolitical parties remain apolitical forever, which brings us to the second type of opposition parties that exists in Egypt, namely: apolitical parties that went rogue after their relations with the regime soured, either because they began taking politics too seriously or because what started as a personal conflict between the party’s leader(s) and one of Mubarak’s associates escalated into a full fledged political war. But quickly after realizing it created a monster and that this group has crossed into the lands of political adventurism, the regime begins to resort to Plan B. To understand the workings of Plan B, you must bear in mind that state security has padded many of these parties with part-time agents (opposition parties have no shortage of opportunists who will happily collaborate with the Ministry of Interior, especially when they are frustrated with self-absorbed leaders who have no interest in sharing power). Once they feel that an apolitical party has crossed the line, state security encourages its allies within the group to start stirring up trouble. News of internal rifts inside an opposition party—particularly in cases wherein one side of the conflict is led by a bunch of inactive members who hadn’t set foot in the party’s offices for years—is usually a sign that state security has activated its cell inside the group. If in-house divisions and bickering don’t temper the party’s oppositionist tone, the regime can always use the state of internal conflict as a legal pretext to freeze the party or replace its leaders. If Plan B proves burdensome, the regime can also jail a bunch of the party’s leaders based on politically motivated charges. In practical terms, leveling such charges is made easy by the fact that the leaders of these opposition parties have a long history of shady practices—which partly explains why the regime is usually more receptive toward sketchy opposition figures who can be easily charged for illegal ways should they misbehave than those with “clean files” such as ElBaradei.
Leaders of apolitical parties gone rogue may not be the most committed democrats ever to exist, but for people who believe that democratic change is the result of pragmatic choices rather than an ideological struggle for democracy, these parties have some potential. Because their dissatisfaction with the status quo makes them willing to flirt with adventurous political activism, they could conceivably rally around (though probably not initiate) an agenda that calls for serious democratic change. Thus, these are the parties that were more receptive toward ElBaradei and seriously entertained the idea of an election boycott. However, it is unclear whether these parties’ support for EBaradei’s boycott reflects a long-term strategic choice to push for a credible democratic reform agenda, or if they are simply boycotting for the sake of short-term tactical convenience. These parties do not have the long experience in legislative elections that could enable them to win seats in the face of state security’s resistance à la Muslim Brotherhood—so the “ElBaradei factor” aside, they are probably anything but eager to enter the electoral arena. It is also plausible that they chose to boycott because the regime did not offer them the same deal it had allegedly offered the parties that ultimately dismissed the boycott (more on this below).
The bad news is apolitical parties gone rogue usually do not last for very long. Internal divisions and state intervention can either bring about their demise or steer them back to an apolitical equilibrium. Also if they continue to use their party to channel serious political dissent they will likely face the fate of their predecessors among vocal opposition groups and leaders. "ربنا يكفينا الشر"
Public Sector Political Parties
These are the good old opposition parties that survived from the 70s and 80s. I call them public sector parties, partly because they are as indecisive, inefficient and incompetent as government agencies and partly because they are heavily controlled by the state in various ways. They are similar to apolitical parties in their aversion to substantive political dissent, but unlike apolitical parties, public sector parties inherited an organization with some name recognition, a relatively large membership base, and a more developed organizational structure. In some of these parties, officers and leaders resemble the NDP’s so-called new guard: bankers and business people whose economic interests dictate a commitment to the political status quo. They would have probably advanced their business interests via the NDP if it weren’t for their familial or historical ties to public sector parties, not to mention the fact that Gamal can only accommodate so many people under his NDP tent. Even if their ties to Egypt’s growing class of politicized entrepreneurs are weak, leaders of these parties tend to own businesses that depend on government support (e.g. printers that happen to receive big contracts from government ministries).
Public sector parties’ offices are essentially museums displaying the history of Egyptian political dissent in the 70s and 80s. Many of their ranking officers will recount decades-old stories about chronic arrests and detentions, but they’ll be hard pressed to come up with similar stories from the past five years—political activism for them can be reduced to “mere memories.” From the left hand side of the spectrum, at public sector parties you’ll find former “intellectual revolutionaries” who will pontificate for hours about how they stood up to Sadat and how they’ve mobilized masses in opposition to infitah and Camp David. But where are these intellectual revolutionaries today in the golden age of neo-liberal reforms in Egypt? They are sitting at the ministry of culture, promoting their books, serving as part-time government spokespeople and editing the ministry’s publications. The intellectual revolutionaries of the past are no longer revolutionary (and hardly intellectual). They have made their peace with the political status quo, ironically at a time when the state is becoming more and not less aggressive in advancing a neo-liberal economic agenda, which was (allegedly) what got them into the business of political dissent in the first place. If you are to ask these former intellectual revolutionaries to explain why Egyptians are not actively resisting state-inflicted socio-economic injustices, they’ll conveniently blame it on people’s ignorance and lack of “true consciousness.” They’ll tell you that Egyptians have sold out their class struggle and instead rallied behind meaningless religious rhetoric. The victim and the perpetuator (and the sell out), they explain, is the average Egyptian. "أصله شعب جاهل معندوش وعي"
There is more to public sector parties than just their leaders and officers. In some ways, each public sector party represents a “mini-Egypt”: ruled by an (uncharismatic) autocrat who is trying to keep his people in order. Breathing down the neck of the leaders of these parties are a wide range of fervent political activists and journalists (not mutually exclusive in these sorts of parties). Aware that many of these activists mean business in their calls for political change, leaders are willing to allow a certain level of oppositionist party activities and writings as long as they do not put the group in confrontation with the same regime on which the party’s ranking officers depend. Thus, reports of clashes and disagreements between activists and their leaders are not uncommon in these parties. Stuck between the party’s autocrat-in-residence who refuses to incorporate them into the organization’s highly centralized decision-making, and Egypt’s autocrat-in-chief who denies them the opportunity to organize outside of a set of sham opposition parties, these activists are fairly helpless. Unless they choose to channel their activism through a different sphere outside of opposition party politics, they face a dead end. "طريقك مسدودٌ مسدود"
Thus, like other young leaders whose bid for an official party license continues to be denied by the state, many frustrated activists from public sector parties are straddling the line between legal political parties and contentious politics. Whether non-licensed political activism and protest movements can bring transformative change to Egypt is debatable. But one thing is for sure: the argument that these political parties are capable and willing to use electoral competition to advance substantive political reforms is unpersuasive given that that the interests of these organizations are fundamentally linked to the political status quo. ElBaradei’s experience with these groups is a case in point.
Despite some signs of support for ElBaradei’s agenda among these parties’ junior members, their leaders have deliberately slighted him and his calls for pressuring the regime into playing fair. Some ranking members of Al-Wafd have even confirmed media reports that the party has struck a deal with the regime to rebuff ElBaradei in return for parliamentary seats (others from Al-Wafd have implicitly acknowledged that there is some truth to these rumors but refused to call it a “deal”—rather, a “gift”). No wonder Al-Wafd’s leader El-Sayed El-Badawi confidently speculates that his party will “win” at least 20 seats in the upcoming election. Also no wonder El-Badawi gladly took on what used to be the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior: silencing dissident writers on behalf of the regime (for more on this story, see my fellow co-editor’s post). In short, public sector opposition parties are spiting ElBaradei and participating in the upcoming parliamentary election not in an attempt to ‘shake Egypt’s authoritarian past’ as some have claimed, but rather to preserve it.
One might argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is different and could conceivably lead the way in advancing reforms through state-managed politics. Others will say that the NDP could generate a new reform-minded leadership serious about working with the opposition in ushering Egypt into a new era of politics. More on these issues in my next post…