“Rights, equality, democracy,” reads a large banner pinned high on the wall of the headquarters of Masr al-Hurreya (the Egypt Freedom Party), on a quiet side street just away from the hustle and bustle of Qasr al-Aini Street in downtown Cairo.
In parallel to its marginal location, the party — which defines itself as center-left with a social liberal ideological framework — has been attempting to carve a name for itself in the past two years, away from the pandemonium that defines much of mainstream Egyptian politics.
Similar to other leftist and revolutionary parties and movements, Masr al-Hurreya has been struggling to forge what is currently an unpopular and alternative position, one that is critical of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim military-backed government. Those who take this third stance are often accused of being foreign agents representing a “fifth column.”
While the party was supportive of the June 30 mass protests against then-President Mohamed Morsi and demanded early presidential elections, they eventually accepted the military’s intervention.
With over 1,000 people killed since Morsi’s ouster on July 3, a few prominent figures, including members of the party, have called for dialog with the Brotherhood. They have spoken out against the isolation of the Brotherhood, stressing the importance of national reconciliation.
Mohamed Menza, secretary of the party’s political bureau, believes that violence on both sides must end, adding that “a non-inclusive democracy, where there is a competition of extremes, will never function as a country.”
Likewise, Amr Hamzawy, the head of the party and former member of the 2012 Parliament, wrote on July 16 on his Twitter account that Egypt is “falling prey to two fascisms.”
Yet, while many from the radical and leftist camps agree with the party in this regard, some criticize it for accepting to participate in institutionalized electoral politics.
Menza partially disagrees, and believes fighting for a third alternative cannot only happen through pressure groups or boycotting the political process.
“The lack of constructive criticism in Egypt highlights the importance of expressing a dissenting voice,” says Menza. “The cost of non-participation and boycotting would be immense.”
Although officially registered in May 2012, Masr al-Hurreya was functioning unofficially as a party since the previous year.
The party argues that its center-left approach has allowed it to forge alliances with many political streams and to act like a mediator. The party joined the Revolution Continues Alliance — a left-leaning, mostly secular alliance formed during the 2011 parliamentary elections, winning seven seats or 1.4 percent of the total. Later, Masr al-Horreya aligned with the anti-Islamist National Salvation Front formed in the wake of Morsi’s controversial Constitutional Declaration in November of last year.
Menza admits that the NSF coalition remains loose and has several internal disagreements, but believes that participation, rather than tacking a backseat, is the only way forward.
An increasingly frustrated and impoverished population continues to get the short end of the stick. With rising inflation and increasing prices, and with foreign reserves more than halved since December 2010 — standing at around US$14.9 billion at the end of June — many Egyptians struggle to make ends meet.
Likewise, Egypt’s revolutionary movements are increasingly seen as irrelevant by a general populace that is critical of their failure to move beyond protests or small initiatives into a fully mobilized, organized movement.
“Most Egyptians have felt threatened and betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and have become frustrated with chants and protests and see them as disruptive” says Shahir George, secretary general of the party. “We need to realize that many have families to feed and need to see concrete steps towards change.”
While admitting that Masr al-Hurreya is indeed still too small to provide a proper alternative, many party members have been publishing detailed policy papers and proposals proposing solutions in various sectors, such as the economy, social issues, gender, healthcare and the environment. A detailed policy paper on the crisis surrounding Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, for instance, was published at the end of July by several party members, including hydrology experts, and argued against idea that the dam could cause a water shortage in Egypt.
Although the party believes there are some good-willed politicians in the current government, in the main, they have been sharply critical of recent legalization — for example, the draft protest law, which could open the door to increased violations on the part of security forces. The party has also been critical of military trials of civilians, which amount to around 12,000 since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
The party advocates greater participation of women and demands that the government play a proactive role in addressing gender discrimination. Salma Nagy, a member of the party’s political bureau, says that women, as well as Islamists and Christians, are underrepresented in the current political process.
Although unprecedented in number, there are currently only three female ministers. Likewise, the committee of 50 tasked with producing a constitutional draft only has five women, three Islamists and four young members.
From an ideological point of view, the party also accepts free-market economic principles, including limited privatization — another point of disagreement with some leftist parties — on the condition that social safety nets and free public services are guaranteed.
George cites the example of the Cabinet’s recent announcement that the minimum wage in the public sector would be raised from LE700 to LE1200 by January 1 2014, describing it as inadequate and criticizing it for excluding those who work in the informal economy, a sector that the World Bank says constitutes up to 60 percent of GDP.
The question remains, however, whether it is possible to create a policy platform alternative in the current hostile political environment.
The party has attempted to safeguard itself from the monopolization of businessmen by placing an LE100,000 maximum limit of funding by any single member per year. The downside, however, is that they have limited funding to improve their grassroots reach.
With 5,000 members in six governorates — Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Monufiya, Sharqiya, Luxor and Daqahlia — the party’s outreach remains at an embryonic stage.
It also means that most of the party members remain volunteers, and thus cannot dedicate full-time attention, a common issue among several parties in Egypt.
Nevertheless, Masr al-Hurreya has attempted to expand its influence through other means, such as working with civil society groups in collaborative projects, campaigns and initiatives.
“We work in a networked, rather than hierarchical structure, even outside of the party,” says Nagy.
George has hope for the future. He believes that returning to the status quo that prevailed before the January 25 uprising is impossible because we are in a phase of opportunities.
“We have not exhausted all our options, and that means that the playground is open for change,” George says. “We must organize and adapt our strategies both in the long-term and short-term in a manner which understands the needs and hopes of all Egyptians.”