Hala Shukrallah was elected the new president of the Dostour party on February 21. The 59-year-old sociologist, a Coptic Christian and the first woman to be elected to head a party, was immediately besieged by journalists. Shukrallah is a new face, although she has been active in politics and community organizing all her life. She was part of the student movement on university campuses in the 1970s; participated in the foundation of some of Egypt’s first NGOs, such as the New Women Foundation and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and founded a consultancy that advises civil society organizations.
Mada Masr finally sat down with her recently for a far-ranging conversation about the unfolding political landscape and the role that new political parties can play within it, as well as upcoming elections, entrenched elites, and how to put an end to the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Dostour Party
The Dostour (Constitution) Party is a young party, in all senses of the word. It was established in 2012 around the reform figure of Mohamed ElBaradei, and over 85 percent of its members are under 35-years-old. Shukrallah says it is, “A party for all, whatever their ideological references.” Following ElBaradei’s resignation from the interim government in protest over the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-in (which left over 600 civilians dead), and the attacks on him as a “traitor,” the party experienced a decline in popularity. Its membership dropped from about 25,00 to 18,000. Now, new members are joining once again. “People are still very hopeful of the role that a democratic movement can play,” says Shukrallah. She adds, “I think a lot of people are extremely tired, but the more people see what they worked for, what they hoped for, has not been achieved, the more they hang on to that hope and say: We’ll go another mile. Too many people have died already so people feel it’s just not right to sit down and say: It’s finished.”
Shukrallah’s election follows a series of leadership crises within the Dostour Party, where repeated pleas from members about misrepresentation arguably affected the work of the party. Shukrallah was elected by 200 delegates, each representing about 100 party members. “Part of what people hoped for through these elections was to gain leadership that could provide direction in the coming years,” says Shukrallah. The party is currently voting on internal statues that will govern how other party officials are selected and how decisions are made. “We’re trying to push because time it really key,” says Shukrallah. But “the whole decision-making process is supposed to be very participatory.”
While the presidential elections are currently getting the most attention with speculation around the potential candidacy of military commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with some rivalry from Nasserite politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, for the Dostour, other elections matter as much, if not more.
The party’s priority is local council elections, says Shukrallah, which have not yet been scheduled by the authorities but may take place next year. Meanwhile, “For the presidential [contest] we’ll probably back one of the nominees, depending on how close that person is to our viewpoint. Hopefully we can do that jointly with other political parties that are representative of a democratic perspective. But, first we have to look at the law that shapes the environment in which elections take place. That’s something we’re worried about now because [the recently issued presidential Elections Law] puts the election committee above any kind of appeal. That’s going to be an issue for a lot of different groups and parties that want to see a real democratic process. Now the parliamentary elections that come — I think in October — will probably see us much more involved. But again, we have a problem with the law because it promotes the individual [candidate] rather than the [party] list formula and the individual formula has always been about money and clientele relationships. This is one of the ways in which the National Democratic Party is making a return.”
Yet, Shukrallah relays the critical nature of the upcoming parliamentary elections, “because they can make this constitution a farce or translate it into laws that give a certain level of rights to people.”
Economic unrest and social justice
“I think if the government is going to continue to not make serious changes, it’s going to lead to escalating problems and strikes,” says Shukrallah.
The interim government’s reliance on assistance from Gulf countries is the “same formula” others have used. “The Muslim Brotherhood used it. They were not reliant on Saudi Arabia and the Emirates; they were mainly reliant on Qatar. It’s a very short-term policy. It’s a band-aid. There’s absolutely no vision for the future, and social justice keeps taking a back seat. And everyone comes and says: We don’t have money. But people think, ‘we know you have some money.’ So that sort of loses credibility after a while. When you know that there is an immense amount of corruption,” she says.
The question of the Brotherhood
For Shukrallah, the Brotherhood are guilty of a discourse of violence, but handling this takes a political process not sheer repression. “There has to be some kind of transparent process. What we called for from the beginning is an independent investigation into the violence by different parties. And how do you deal with non-violent sectors of the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you feel they’re all guilty by association, or not? I personally think their whole discourse is violent, but that’s another issue. This is something that needs to be confronted through discourse, through ideas, through talks, through debates. You can easily pass a law against hate discourse,” she says.
“But what people want to see is some sort of accountability for the violence of the Brotherhood. That’s part of being able to reconcile. That you’re able to say, ‘This violent path is not the path that should be taken.’ We’ll take accountability for that and we’ll cease to use hate discourse, calling everyone a heretic that disagrees with you.
This awareness needs to be there, but of course it’s not being helped by the way the whole fight against them is being led. It’s increasing hate on their part, it’s bringing in more people [to the fight], and it’s not only being directed against the violent factions.”
Being a female party leader
Shukrallah’s victory was mostly celebrated in the media in relation to her election as a woman, which she reflects on as both an index of change but also as not that relevant in the course of leading a party. “What you definitely see after the last three years [is that] women are more visible, more vocal. Many of the different informal movements and activism have been led by women … the whole fight for releasing people from prison was led by women. That visibility has translated into the consciousness, into the ability to see women as leaders, as capable. [In the party election] the issue of whether I’m a woman or not was never the core issue. It was rather, can you do something or not? That was very significant. You had two women running [the runner up was activist Gameela Ismail] and one man; it’s never happened before.
The two women were the ones that got the most votes. The man got the least votes. I think it’s reflective of all the change that’s happened,” she says.
“It’s all about whether you’re actually reaping the rewards of your fight or not, and I don’t think we are, as yet. What you do have is a very strong movement on the ground, albeit very tired right now, and disheartened in a way. You still have a society on the move but you have the resistance that comes from official bodies to any change. All the governments that we’ve had have been coming to maintain the status quo and resist change.”
“Very much behind that has been the pushing of people with very large vested interests in the economy; big businessmen. This segment of society has been extremely threatened because they were really the ones benefiting from the Mubarak era. They were ruling and all the policies were geared towards their interests and it was an extremely corrupt government and so it catered only to them, funneling public funds and lands to them. They are threatened, not only by the possibility of laws that actually tax them, but also by being held accountable for corruption. They’re meshed within the government and are the ones that have the decision-making in their hands. It’s been one government after another coming to terms with them; they’ve been some of the prime negotiators.”