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  • Egypt's Uneasy Party Politics
  • Gehad Auda (bio)

In December 1990, Egypt held its third set of parliamentary elections since President Hosni Mubarak assumed office in 1981. The elections were forced by the High Constitutional Court's ruling last May that the 1987 election laws—and hence the parliament elected that year—were unconstitutional. That was not the first time under Mubarak that elections for the country's unicameral People's Assembly were held as a consequence of a Constitutional Court ruling: Mubarak had dissolved the 1984 parliament in anticipation of a similar ruling from the High Constitutional Court concerning the constitutionality of the 1983 election laws. In fact, since the democratization process began under the late President Anwar Sadat in 1976, only one parliament has completed its five-year tenure. The Assembly of 1976, the first democratic parliament since the 1960s, was dissolved by Sadat in 1979.

The troubled career of the Egyptian parliament since 1976 has been marked by more than failures to finish allotted terms. The greatest problem has been the growing dissatisfaction of the opposition parties with the authoritarian tradition of presidential supremacy that has dogged Egyptian politics since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

From the time of its establishment as a fully independent Arab republic in 1952 until 1976, Egypt was an interventionist welfare state ruled by a single authoritarian party and a military-dominated regime. Despite the social dynamism coming from a new and growing middle class, civilian politicians did not succeed in eclipsing the influence of [End Page 70] military men. The regime's legitimacy was closely bound up with ideas of radical social change, mass social mobilization, and Arab nationalism laced with antipathy toward the West and liberal democracy.

Liberal democratic ideas and practices gained ground gradually, with most of the impetus coming from within the ruling elite. Three episodes were crucial in the evolution toward democracy: military defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six-Day War of June 1967; the rift within the ruling elite following Nasser's death in September 1970 and the accession to the presidency of Anwar Sadat; and the economic liberalization measures introduced in 1974. The regime embraced democratization in order to show the world an image of moderation and openness; to reshape the political arena to fit the new leadership of Sadat; to forestall possible instability; and to preempt political opposition. The movement toward democracy was thus largely the result of rational calculation on the part of the regime, which viewed controlled reform as a method of ensuring its own survival.

Egypt's democratic reform, in other words, was not the political reflection of increasing social differentiation, but was aimed rather at containing the democratizing potential of such differentiation. Democratization was mostly decreed from above; democratic forces emerging from below had a hard time fitting into the imposed scheme. State and society contended over the depth and limits of the democratic process. The first democratically elected parliament (1976-1979) became a major forum for this debate. The state was neither ready nor willing to widen the democratic process for fear that the regime's hegemony might be subverted. The state even tried to smother the debate, dissolving parliament and accusing leftist and liberal opposition leaders of inflexibility and divisive intentions.

In an effort to craft a democratic process that would bolster its sway over the political arena and society at large, the regime rigged the 1979 parliamentary elections to exclude troublesome opposition elements. Sadat even went so far as to establish the Socialist Labor (or Action) Party as an official opposition to his own ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). People and groups with democratic aspirations saw their hopes for parliamentary representation wither. Al-Wafd, the major liberal opposition party, temporarily suspended its legal existence. Liberal professionals turned instead to Egypt's traditional corporate associations, the syndicates, to vent their grievances against the state. Leftists, meanwhile, remained active in the popular sectors, and radical Islamists found conditions ripe for clandestine plotting and violence. Sadat's controversial 1978 rapprochement with Israel further inflamed the situation. Furious opponents accused his regime of adopting unconstitutional measures, siding with the rich against the poor, and betraying...


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