A wave of internal disputes is rocking the boat of the Free Egyptian Party, one of Egypt’s most active political parties since the January 25 revolution.
In a contested general assembly on December 30, party members voted to dissolve the party’s board of trustees including the party’s founder and primary financial backer telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
This is the most severe dispute to wrack the party that holds the highest number of seats in the current Parliament, since it emerged as a leading political entity after the 2011 revolution. Since 2013, with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, the Free Egyptians, like other liberal parties, chose to align itself with the ruling authorities.
With time, political differences have emerged. Some disapprove that the party has been steering away from its original path by aligning itself too closely with the ruling authorities — and involving figures close to the Hosni Mubarak regime — while others deem Sawiris to be too critical of the government.
The current showdown started when the party’s president Essam Khalil called for a general assembly on December 28 to vote on amendments to the party’s bylaws. The party’s board of trustees rejected the call in a statement, requesting that it be postponed until the board revises the amendments before they are put to a vote.
Nasr al-Qaffas, member of the party’s political bureau, responded with a strongly-worded statement accusing the board of “imposing guardianship” over the party. “It seems that the board of trustees thinks of itself as a guardian over the party and thinks that it’s above the party, its institutions and its bylaws… We assert that the general assembly which will be held on time will have the final say,” Qaffas asserted.
The general assembly was held on December 30 and in an abrupt deviation from the agenda, it voted and passed a motion to dismantle the party’s board of trustees. After announcing the results, Khalil chanted “long live Egypt.”
The board of trustees rejected the results of the meeting, describing it as “a coup,” and accusing the political bureau of “hijacking the party from its founders and intellectuals who lay the foundation of its platform and liberal philosophy.”
The board added in its statement that it would resort to the courts to correct what they called “the institutional defect” that came out of the meeting.
Meanwhile, sources at the political bureau told media that they would move the party to a new headquarters after Sawiris withdrew the current one.
Ahmed Samer, a leading member of the party associated with the camp of Sawiris, said in an appearance on CBC channel with talk show host Lamees al-Hadidy, that since he became party president in 2014, Khalil stopped accepting new members and refused to renew the membership of those not loyal to him, shrinking the party from 3000 members to 400. Samer and other members of the party also accused the party’s political bureau of allowing new members to vote in recent meetings in violation of party bylaws, which stipulate that members can vote only after six months.
Parliamentarian Emad Gad said in a phone interview with Hadidy that he had seen the current crisis coming and warned Sawiris. Gad said that after Sawiris had passed over all powers to Khalil, the new president was determined to establish and maintain total control of the party, only keeping people loyal to him and excluding those with an independent voice.
Gad himself had resigned from the party in February 2016 protesting the party’s refusal to back him as deputy to the parliamentary speaker.
The formation of the party’s parliamentary bloc was a site of contestation highlighting its rising internal feuds. Several of its candidates were former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and former military generals. This was a source of discomfort for many within the party who found this to contradict the party’s liberal platform.
Samer said during his television appearance with Hadidy said that the parliamentary elections were managed in a corrupt way within the party and that this sped up the internal fragmentation.
“There are members who went into the parliament only because of the funding that Sawiris offered,” he said. “They don’t care about the party, are not related to liberalism and haven’t even read its political platform.”
“We are trying to regain the liberal rhetoric of the party. There’s no liberalism within the party now,” he lamented.
In several instances, the performance of the party’s parliamentary members was not as expected of a liberal party, and there were reports of Sawiris wanting them to be more critical of the government. For example, some of the party’s representatives objected to an amendment to rescind the crime of insulting religions, which was ultimately rejected by Parliament’s legislative committee, while another submitted a motion to interrogate President of Cairo University Gaber Nassar after his decision to cancel religion from university papers. Two of the party’s most vocal opposition parliamentarians Nadia Henry and Mai Mahmoud were recently expelled after abandoning the party’s parliamentary bloc and joining another following tensions around their stances.
Henry said in a statement in August 2016 that the 25-30 Alliance was more compatible with her legislative platform and champions a modern civil state. The Free Egyptians Party’s parliamentary bloc had clashed with Henry over several of her positions, removing her from the position of deputy of the parliamentary bloc in June 2016 shortly after she submitted a request to interrogate the Interior Minister following sectarian violence in Minya.
Mohamed al-Agaty, executive director of the Cairo-based Arab Forum for Alternatives, is not alone in suspecting security intervention in the party’s divisions to target Sawiris. The use of infiltrators to create internal schisms in political groups and rendering them dysfunctional is a well-known Mubarak era tactic. Agaty says, however, that targeting the “partners of the regime” with this tactic shows the extent to which the regime accepts nothing short of “blind obedience” from them.
Sawiris is perceived to have fallen from grace with the regime after voicing critical opinions throughout the last year and handing over his political empire ONtv to regime-loyalist businessman Ahmed Abu Hashima.
But there are also broader circumstances leading to a weak party life in Egypt today.
Agaty says that the Free Egyptians’ disintegration into internal turmoil is a result of the same political atmosphere and party dynamics that have brought down other similar parties in the past years.
“From 2011 to 2014, there was very strong street action and parties had to be involved with it so they had no chance to build their interior structures. Then, since 2014, the complete opposite happened and parties had no chance to have any presence in the street due to a complete stifling of the political atmosphere,” he says.
“At first there was no stability, and then there was a closed atmosphere.”
Al-Dostour Party went through similar internal conflicts that culminated in the resignation of its president in 2015, after which the role of the party, once a leading opposition party founded by political figure Mohamed ElBaradei, was significantly diminished. Similarly, the Social Democratic Party was torn by mass resignations in 2016 that cost it several of its influential leading members.