Speaker of the Egyptian House of Representatives Ali Abdel 'Al (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Egypt’s Party Consolidation and the Stifling of Pluralism

06/22/2018 . By Timothy Deedy

When Egypt held its parliamentary elections in fall 2015, a mere 26.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the election. Egyptians seemed apathetic about the vote: the parties lacked familiarity and did not articulate credible platforms—a far cry from the parliament elected in 2011 and 2012 with 54 percent turnout, before the body’s operations were suspended in 2012 and 2013. This time, more individual representatives were recruited to campaign for office (often based on their allegiance to the military regime or their wealth), leading to a legislature designed to affirm President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi’s policies at whim.

Recently, the legislature has called to consolidate existing political parties to “stabilize the political vacuum” present in the House of Representatives. Amid these discussions, the Coalition in Support of Egypt—the majority bloc in the unicameral parliament, with over 400 members and comprising eight different parties—first expressed its desire to reclassify as an official political party. But recently, the ballooning membership of the Nation’s Future Party, which was created in 2014 at the behest of Egypt’s military intelligence, has laid waste to the coalition’s efforts and upended Egyptian party politics. In late May, 51 representatives within the Free Egyptians Party (FEP)—about 80 percent of its representation in parliament—announced their decision to join the Nation’s Future Party, leaving the FEP a shell of its former self. An additional 150 independent members from the Association for Egypt, a bloc within the legislature, announced their decision to join Nation’s Future, bringing its cumulative membership to 250 representatives (about 40 percent of the legislature). The Wafd Party has emerged as the nominal opposition party, as the organization has called for smaller groups to consolidate and form a bloc of 150–200 representatives to rival the new plurality grouping. Despite claims by government officials and members of the House that party consolidation would be beneficial to parliamentary dynamics, these efforts pose pressing consequences for a legislature that lacks meaningful debate, and for the future of political organization in the country. Consolidation serves as another attempt by the regime to tighten its grip over political thought in Egypt and further centralize its authority.

Current House statistics state that the legislature consists of 596 members representing 20 different political parties, and 343 members elected as independents unaffiliated with an official political organization. Despite the multitude of parties, TIMEP’s Egypt Parliament Watch project has demonstrated that many of these groups maintain allegiance to Sisi and provide little contest to executive policies. Although some parties present also held seats in 2011, this body represents a distinctly different dynamic from the previous legislature that, though imperfect, was considered a success for pluralism, with nearly 30 political parties characterized by substantive variance in political thought. This time, allegiance to the executive had been cultivated in the body even before its first session in January 2016. The Muslim Brotherhood was prohibited from involvement in the election, eliminating a main source of contention. Deliberate attempts by state intelligence to interfere in the election led to a multitude of government-supported candidates, and, after faltering steps, the Coalition in Support of Egypt was eventually formed from the military regime’s desire to create a parliamentary bloc loyal to the president.

The coalition has played a major role in the House, and engaged in lobbying efforts and campaign endeavors to support Sisi’s reelection bid, but has undergone a tumultuous period in recent weeks. On April 23, 30 representatives pledged to join the bloc, bringing its total membership to over 400. Exactly one month later, the Nation’s Future Party withdrew from the bloc and gained over 200 members between the FEP and Association for Egypt.

The Coalition in Support of Egypt and Nation’s Future Party expressed similar rhetoric during this period of reshuffling, claiming that they seek to fill the political vacuum in the legislature and stressing that consolidation will bring “stability.” Representatives and other government officials say a reduction to fewer than 10 official organizations will stabilize the political process and yield more fruitful political debate; they say consolidation will help stabilize tense relations within the government; they state consolidation is a measure to stabilize pluralism, a national security concern. In reality, consolidation promotes stability from an authoritarian perspective, as the regime will further distance itself from citizens engaging in civic affairs. This rhetoric and attempts by the Coalition and Nation’s Future to become the majority group in the legislature call to mind the National Democratic Party in former president Hosni Mubarak’s era, when the parliament represented a more or less united front with majority dominance in terms of representatives and primacy in the nation’s clientelist system. During this time, clear power lines existed between members of the party and the regime, as political leaders appealed to the military powers’ agenda to secure a greater patronage contribution for themselves and their constituencies. But today, Sisi is loath to empower any institution that may act independently of his desires, and so has a difficult needle to thread. The contestation between organizations illustrates that the future clientelist system between the legislature and regime has yet to be determined.

The calls for party consolidation come at a time when the Egyptian government has used various means to eliminate any political opposition to the regime. Control over the political discourse may come as direct repression: individuals who criticized Sisi leading up to the presidential election in March often found themselves imprisoned for their actions. But subtler efforts, as in the favoring of pro-regime political figures in parliament, have marginalized independent parties—such as the Dostour or the Social Democratic Party—that either boycott or failed to gain seats in the current parliament. Consolidation, which by most accounts would bar parties without seats in parliament, would further marginalize minority parties that may refuse to cooperate with the regime and join the larger blocs, and would eliminate potential sources of dissent. While the overwhelming majority of recognized parties are currently too small to actively influence policymaking, each party maintains a constitutional right according to Article 5, which establishes pluralism as the basis of the political system, and Article 74, which guarantees the right of political parties to form under certain stipulations.

In terms of Sisi’s relationship with parliament under its newly merged composition, party consolidation would likely prove beneficial for Sisi’s regime. Having only three official parties compared to 104 creates a more unified system, where prominent blocs including the Coalition in Support of Egypt, the Wafd Party, and Nation’s Future Party can provide a veneer of partisan debate, but will advocate for Sisi’s policies and other components of the military regime’s agenda. Though the extent of this new patronage dynamic remains to be seen, as the consolidation process has yet to be finalized and official blocs continue to be determined, these consolidation efforts mark an effective end to political pluralism, as parties are legally eliminated from the political forum in exchange for majority groups committed to Sisi’s regime. These endeavors by members of the legislature will codify party dynamics and eliminate future potential for change as they require additional legislative measures to revert the initiatives, which will prove impossible in a parliament committed to consolidation to support the regime.