Egypt’s Secular Political Parties: A Struggle for Identity and Independence

By Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy

Beirut -  Secular political parties in Egypt have always been caught between an overbearing state and a largely Islamist opposition.

The brief, chaotic political opening from 2011 to 2013 offered them unprecedented opportunities, but the violence and intense polarization that followed the military coup have put them under more pressure than ever. Formal politics in Egypt is now a tightly controlled game in which no real independence is allowed, but some secular parties might reemerge as contenders should there be another opportunity for free competition.

Throughout Egypt’s modern history, political parties have struggled to project clear identities and maintain their independence while operating in environments dominated by fervent rulers. Since the partial democratic framework was abolished in the 1950s following the country’s first military coup, Egyptian parties representing different ideological platforms have faced legal and political constraints. This has been particularly true for secular parties, and to analyze their present and future political relevance, a historical understanding of these struggles is needed. However, one must first consider what it means to be a secular party in Egypt and how identity and the political environment have shaped the parties’ evolution. How secular parties have identified and defined themselves has had—and will continue to have—a direct impact on their capacity to mobilize support and participate in policymaking.

Regarding identity at its most basic level, merely uttering the phrase “secular political party” in Egypt can ignite a debate. What does secular mean in this context? Does it mean the party is atheistic, that it advocates the removal of all mention of God or religion from the constitution, or simply that its doctrine is not based on a religious philosophy? In answering these questions, Merriam-Webster’s definition of secular helps as a starting point: “not overtly or specifically religious.”

In applying this definition, secular parties’ defining characteristic is that they are not based on a religious ideology. Not all of them call for a state whose defining documents make no mention of religious principles—and, of course, many members of such parties are personally religious—but religion is not among the pillars of their platforms. For example, the mission of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, founded in March 2011, is to build “a civil, democratic, and modern state . . . whose people are the source of sovereignty.” Religion is not mentioned in the party’s founding statement. In contrast, while expressing support for democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, founded in April 2011, called for “a civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” and for “the application of sharia (Islamic Law) in all walks of life, as it is the source of wisdom and divine mercy.”3 Recognizing that even core identity issues are complex, for ease of discussion here, a party is identified as secular if religion is not a pillar of its declared identity or mission.

Moving beyond basic identity questions, what specific challenges do secular parties face in carving out their political role? Since their inception, secular parties have operated under exceedingly difficult conditions. Unlike Islamist parties, they have been unable to benefit from the use of facilities and personnel associated with religious institutions (for example, to organize and collect funds inside mosques). And unlike state-affiliated parties, they have been unable to benefit from the use of state-owned facilities or state-controlled media or from the ability to mobilize bureaucrats. These conditions have generally pushed secular parties toward one of the dominant power centers: the military-dominated state or the Islamist opposition—the former generally much stronger than the latter.

Caught in the crossfire between a state dominated by the military/security apparatus and an opposition dominated by Islamists (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood), secular parties have struggled to define coherent identities as well as to build bases of support and funding. Their challenges—leading them to support, oppose, compromise with, or be compromised by the state—have profoundly shaped the parties and their relationships with citizens.

Since the 2013 military coup, even those parties that agreed to participate in politics under the once-again-emerging authoritarian framework have been systematically marginalized and have seen their space of autonomous action shrink as the grip of the military/security apparatus over political and economic power has tightened. The ideological and organizational tactics they have used in their struggles offer some indication as to which parties might be more viable than others should a new political opening come along.

For the full paper, please visit the Carnegie Middle East Center




  • The Moroccan Gold Eldorado

    The Moroccan Gold Eldorado, a Myth or a Reality?

    Rabat - Recently, a conspiracy theory video about a large gold discovery in Morocco is making rounds online. The video claims that a substantial gold reserve was discovered and is being extracted by a Canadian mining company called Maya Gold and Silver. We Moroccans are very proud human beings, we love our country and cherish...

  • Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani

    Qatar: How the Tables Are Turning in The Gulf

    Rabat - Amidst harsh sanctions and a long list of demands from its neighbors, Qatar’s ability to thrive under pressure may prove to be problematic for Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia and its coalition attempt to wait out Qatar, the recent spat in the Gulf continues to become more and more global, and severely against...

  • FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, a plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. If the nation doesn’t do more, the U.S. probably won’t quite meet the dramatic heat-trapping gas reduction goal it promised in last year’s Paris agreement to battle climate change, according to a new study. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

    Climate Change : If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Fix It

    Chefchaouen - Climate change is happening at home and around the world. Chefchaouen is doing its part by embracing clean energy climate solutions and engaging its citizens in climate action. When it comes to fighting climate change, cities and local leaders are best positioned to lead that charge. Local leaders from coastal to landlocked communities are...

  • 20

    India Orders Internal Probe into Mistaken Use of Morocco-Spain Border Picture

    Hyderabad - The Indian Ministry of Interior on Wednesday ordered an internal investigation to find out how a picture of Morocco-Spain border was used in its annual report to show floodlights along the India-Pakistan border. What is most embarrassing is that the annual report of previous years was tabled during the Budget Session of Indian...

  • Amid Growing Tension, Thousands of Moroccans Stage Pro-Rif March in Rabat

    Neglect in Harsh Soil: The Deep Roots of the Rif Crisis

    Rabat - The ongoing protests in northern Morocco started almost eight months ago, but they have their origin in nearly a century of violent repression by the state. The Rif has, in spite of itself, got involved into a peaceful revolt since the death of the fishmonger Mohcine Fikri at the end of October 2016, a...

  • Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani emir of Qatar

    The Qatar Crisis: What Does It Mean?

    Rabat - The recent diplomatic fallout between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East could have serious economic and geopolitical consequences across the globe. Earlier this week, Qatar’s diplomatic crisis took an extreme turn as several Arab states severed diplomatic ties with the Gulf nation.  The original list of countries in the coalition against...

  • Moroccans spend Laylat al-Qadr, the 26th day of Ramadan, at the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.

    Ramadan: Not just Abstinence from Daily Intakes 

    By Abdellatif Oudra Rabat - The observance of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, compels Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. But it is not just about abstaining from food or drink.  Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is observed in commemoration of the revelation of Qur’an to the prophet Mohammad,...

  • Morocco Threatens to Terminate Agriculture Agreement with Europe

    Morocco and the EU: Managing the Future

    Rabat - Morocco enjoys proximity to Europe and is at an advantage of being favoured by the European Union as a close partner on political, economic, and cultural levels. Historical archives and political legacies tie Morocco directly with at least three influential European countries: France, Spain, and England. Demography, kinship, and immigration compel other EU...

  • The Educational and Cultural Implications of the Arab Spring

    The Educational and Cultural Implications of the Arab 'Spring'

    Rabat - In the last ten years or so, the Arab world has seen unprecedented collapses in the realms of politics and economy, among others. World NGOs regularly release area-specific rankings, in which Arab nations commonly rank at the bottom of lists in education, human rights, and income for instance while they top those of...

  • Thousands Hold Peaceful Demonstration in Memory of Mouhcine Fikri

    Al Hoceima and the Pedagogical Exercise

    Ottawa - What makes a democracy different from non-democracy? This is the classical and historical question asked by philosophers over the centuries and deeply questioned in the discipline of political science. Democracy cannot prevent inequality as the case in the United States where inequality is the highest globally. Democracy cannot stop corruption like in Brazil...