One of the early upshots of the Egyptian president’s call for a national dialogue is that it abruptly opened Pandora’s box of the extremely messy political scene. Egypt has a massive number of new and established political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations. However, they are working randomly in an extremely chaotic sphere, where their roles and missions are usually intermixed, pushing many of them to be either idle or manipulative.
The chaos in the Egyptian political system is one of the factors that may hinder the success of the national dialogue, or at least prevent the best utilization of its outcomes. But, at the same time, fixing this political chaos is one of the topics that needs to be openly addressed by the participants of the national dialogue.
Comprehensive political reform is the most engaging topic on the agenda of the national dialogue sessions, which should take off on the first week of July. According to the official statistics announced by the National Training Academy (NTA), which is the institution responsible for the logistical organization of the dialogue sessions; 70 out of the 386 proposals submitted by the interested participants are about political reform and guaranteeing more civil and political rights. Meanwhile, the topics related to economic reform and socio-economic rights came later.
This public craving for political practice is, apparently, a natural reaction to the closeness of the political space, during the past seven years, while the state was pre-occupied with controlling the security mess that followed the Arab Spring revolution, in 2011, and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Yet, in fact, the complications of the Egyptian political stage go way back to the establishment of the Egyptian republic, in the 1950s.
Ironically, Egypt is one of the oldest countries, in the world, to have a multiparty political system and a vibrant community of civil society organizations, even before many of today’s Western democracies were founded. In 1907-1908, Egypt’s seed political parties were established by the popular political activists of that era, such as the secular writer Moustafa Kamel and Al-Azhar’s Sheikh Ali Youssef. These parties managed to contain many of the Egyptian youth, from all social and political backgrounds.
In the two decades following the 1919 revolution, Egyptians grew fonder of social and political activism. Therefore, strong civil society organizations and political parties were formed, including the Al-Wafd Party, which is still active today. These parties proved to be successful in organizing the grassroots citizens and challenging the rule of the Mohammed Ali dynasty and the British occupation. They wrote the constitution, represented the public in the parliament, held the king accountable, and formed the government. Also, during that era, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded and started to be politically active against the liberal parties.
However, unfortunately, this vivacious political life was mercilessly suffocated by the Free Officers movement that took the lead of the country following the July 1952 revolution. For more than a quarter of a century, the Egyptians were prevented from officially organizing political parties, and the political activists who attempted to organize themselves in groups were brutally suppressed by the regime.
In 1976, former President Anwar El-Sadat, who adopted a relatively more liberal and progressive way of thinking than his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, decided to re-open the space for citizen social and political participation, via political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations. Still, the lack of political momentum, the lingering fear of political practice inherited from the previous reign of Nasser, and the many limitations leveled by the regime on the emerging and returning parties, created what is known today as ‘cartoon political parties.’ That means they existed on paper but without any real influence either on the regime or on the citizens.
Despite the many transformative political events that took place over the past decade, the ‘cartoon parties’ problem has not been solved. Currently, Egypt has more than one hundred registered political parties, including at least 27 parties that were formed in the years following the fall of Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood regimes. However, the grassroots citizens can hardly name two or three of them.
The National Dialogue could be an ideal opportunity to breathe life back into these ‘cartoon parties’ and, thus, orchestrate the entire political stage within a liberal democratic system that enriches and elevates the political life, in Egypt.
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