The Egyptian revolution that began on January 25, 2011, and ended 18 days later on February 11 with the ouster of President Husni Mubarak, ushered in a new era of competitive politics. The revolution not only ended Mubarak's reign, but it also ended the dynamic of limited political contestation and participation in Egypt through the introduction of new and alternative political voices. These change have not only brought about institutional changes such as the new Law on Political Parties, but have also forced traditional parties, both religious and secular, to articulate alternative political platforms.
A New Dawn for Secular Parties in Egypt
Contentious politics was not possible under Mubarak’s authoritarian political system. In 2007, The Political Parties Court rejected the legalization of 12 parties, 11 of which were considered secular, on the grounds that they all offered similar political platforms, and could not garner the necessary signatories required from each of Egypt 29 provinces. This placed parties articulating a secular platform (whether liberal or socialist) struggling for representation within a closed political environment against the National Democratic Party, which maintained a hegemonic party status.
Furthermore, this exclusion posited them against the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime’s single most organized opposition movement, to vie for popular support. Secular parties in Egypt lacked the organizational structure and social support the Brotherhood enjoyed even under political constraints. As a consequence, under Mubarak, secular parties (in 2006 over a dozen registered political parties were secular) faced two kinds of challenges: institutional constraints and organizational limitations.
Even during the much lauded 2005 multiparty parliamentary elections that resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood wining 20% (88) of the contested seats, the registered secular parties of al-Wafd, al-Ghad, and the two leftist parties of al-Tagammu’ and the Arab Nasserite parties, together won only 5% of the contested seats.
However, on March 28, 2011 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces revealed the new Law on Political Parties. This new law requires parties applying for registration to gather 5000 signatures from only 10 of Egypt’s 29 provinces, with the guarantee that their application will be reviewed within 30 days. This new law is being lauded as lifting the political limbo that most parties had found themselves in the past. Since the discussion of this law began weeks ago, dozens of parties have submitted applications for official party status.
One such party is the newly formed Egyptian Democratic Social Party, founded by Amr Hamzawy, which is comprised of hundreds of professionals and university professors. Hamzawy envisions the new party garnering the support of Egyptians, both Muslim and Coptic, and being represented by prominent secular figures such as Emad Gad and Fatima Naaot, to help articulate a new vision for post-revolution Egypt.
On March 31, 2011 the secular Wafd party hosted a symposium for all Egyptian secular parties, both old and new, to join forces to establish a coalition to secure a greater public and political representation in the coming parliamentary elections, currently slated to occur later this year in September.
On March 19, 2011 seventy-three members of Egypt’s oldest leftist party, al-Tagammu, walked out of the party’s conference accusing the leadership of the party of being too close to the remnants of the Mubarak regime, and called for the formation of a new party. They in turn joined the Popular Alliance, a new coalition attempting to bring the fragmented leftist parties of Egypt under a single umbrella organization independent of past political allegiances, with economic freedom with social justice as their new platform of social democracy.
It appears that for the first time since President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrow of the Egyptian Monarchy in 1952, that the secular parties of Egypt 's secular parties are emerging as alternative voices in the Egyptian political landscape. And while, in the wake of the revolution, Egypt's party formation has yet to be finalized, it appears that the newly formed political vision of the Egyptian leftist and secular forces are gearing up for a new era of political contestation, that will manifest itself in the forthcoming September’s parliamentary elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the end of their Monopoly of Islam
Just as the past six weeks have ushered in a new era for the leftist and secularist parties, the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood as the single opposition party vying for political power and representation in Egypt has been replaced by several alternative voices, also articulating a Muslim democratic platforms, the political ideological position of the Muslim Brotherhood since 2005.
On February 19, 2011, the first party to gain recognition by the courts in post-revolution Egypt was the previously illegal Wasat Party (The Center Party). Founded by Abul Ela Madi, and several other former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with Coptic leaders, and women, the Center Party’s political vision for Egypt is inspired by conservatism but not articulated through Islamism. Members of the Wasat Party, such as Amr Farouq, were integral in the 2004 popular uprising that led to the establishment of the Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kifaya.
In the wake of the revolution, the Brotherhood has found itself caught between the dual commitments it has struggled with over the past decade, whether to remain engaged in politics or return to its roots in da'wa (religious outreach). The latter approach involves a movement relegated to the social sphere that aims to foster a more pious Muslim community, through preaching, social services, and integrity by example. This bifurcation in vision has culminated along the generational divide that has been developing in the Brotherhood since 2005 (see Eric Davis, "Who's Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?," February 13, 2011).
The divisions within the Brotherhood are further exacerbated by the organization's youth, whose participation in the protest movement was not only essential to the success of the revolution, but also gave the youth a legitimacy they previously did not enjoy. Thus, the Brotherhood finds itself trying to hold on to its activist youth who during the revolution began to see their leadership as increasingly out of touch with Egypt's social and political realities.
On February 23, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau (Maktab al-Irshad) announced that it would establish a political party separate from the movement called The Freedom and Justice Party. The new party would be led by Saad Al-Katatni, former head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Parliamentary bloc from 2005-2010. And while the new party would still be banned due to its articulation of religion as its source of guidance, an indication of sectarianism which still renders a party illegal in Egypt, on March 29, 2011, the party invited Coptic Christians to join its membership.
On March 26, 2011, high-ranking Guidance Bureau member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, announced to the gathering of Muslim Brotherhood youth that he would be forming a more liberal Islamic party. This party would still reflect the core ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood, namely piety and social justice, but it would move ideologically beyond the Muslim Brotherhood and embrace "liberal Islamism" as reflected in Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Another high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood member, Ibrahim al-Zafaarani, who is widely respected by the Brotherhood's youth, announced the establishment of the Nahda Party ("Revival Party") that aims to become a party rooted in Islam, with political pluralism and democracy as its main goals.
As younger Islamists have begun to distance themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist political identity, moving instead towards a pluralistic framework where the past signifies a part of a strategic evolution of Islamism that is now over, the Brotherhood finds itself in a predicament.
The Muslim Brotherhood is no longer the single voice of Political Islam in Egypt. Over the past six weeks, a new Egyptian political landscape has not only opened the political arena, but is has also created a new marketplace of ideas in which new and different Islamisms are emerging. Islamism, as a reactions to and alienation from the state, is being replaced by pluralistic approaches to justice and development.
And while today much of the public debate on the future of the country centers on questions of the timing of parliamentary and presidential elections and the consequences of the March 17, 2011 vote on the constitutional referendum—one thing remains certain. Egypt has witnessed the end of single-party authoritarian rule with only one organized political movement - the Muslim Brotherhood - standing in opposition. Authoritarian rule has been replaced by a political landscape that has yet to be determined but is well on its way to political pluralism.