Opinion

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

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