Egypt’s opposition leader in for long haul towards democracy

Progress since the uprising is slow, with parties ‘divided, split down the middle’

Hala Shukrallah, the first woman to head an Egyptian political party,  says: “This is going to be a constant struggle between forces of progress and forces that seek to safeguard their interests.” Photograph: Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

Hala Shukrallah, the first woman to head an Egyptian political party, says: “This is going to be a constant struggle between forces of progress and forces that seek to safeguard their interests.” Photograph: Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

Among the leaders of the post-election opposition to Egypt’s newly elected president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a former army chief, is Hala Shukrallah, who argues the next step will be to do battle over the coming parliamentary election.

Shukrallah tells The Irish Times that the liberal Destour (Constitution) Party, which she heads, and its allies “view what is happening as a continuous struggle to reclaim the ground that has been lost” to anti-democratic forces since the 2011 uprising which toppled president Hosni Mubarak.

A Coptic Christian married to a Muslim and the first woman to lead a major Egyptian political party, Shukrallah (60) is an activist and British-trained academic who succeeded Nobel laureate and Destour founder Mohamed el-Baradei. The party has 18,000 members, 8,000 active, 80 per cent of them young. Her nearest rival for the presidency, Gameela Ismail, is also a woman who had served as secretary general.

“The perception [during the first year after the uprising] that all of a sudden we were going to achieve a democratic society . . . was a bit of wishful thinking,” Shukrallah says. “This is going to be a constant struggle between forces of progress and forces that seek to safeguard their interests.”

The revolutionary parties that emerged after the uprising are “divided, split down the middle”. The broad secular opposition against the Muslim Brotherhood is gone. Some parties have “coalesced around Sisi, others are now working to find a consensus based on principles for which they will fight”, hopefully alongside civil society organisations, trade unions and syndicates.

Internecine groups

She believes the progressive forces will unite but they will also squabble. “There have already been meetings and there will be other meetings on the formation of a new coalition and how to deal with the new challenges we face.”

The first skirmish will be over the draft law dealing with the composition of the new 600-member parliament which allocates 80 per cent of elected seats to individuals and 20 per cent to parties. The president appoints 30 members. There are “the same kind of dynamics that governed previous parliaments”. The law favours those with money and influence and perpetuates the status quo and the remnants of the ousted Mubarak regime.

“Why have they increased membership?” she asks. “To prevent any kind of [opposition] alliance from forming? It’s clear that it is meant to prevent the birth of a parliament that reflects the [country’s] political forces.

“The draft law has been issued but has not been finalised. If the law remains, the political parties will be outside political life. If it is not changed, there will be some kind of outrage but is it not clear what form it will take. Boycotting parliamentary elections? Holding elections regardless and making [opposition] voices heard?”

She says the parliaments elected in 2005 and 2010 “completely closed the channels between the society and the government and ultimately led to the explosion of the revolution”. This is a “very dangerous” route for the government.

“People are waiting to see what the government is going to do about social justice. We’ve seen what happens about democracy. Not very much.”

Popular impatience

If the situation does not improve, “there will be a lot of little explosions” over specific issues . “People are not going to be patient. Factory workers have not been paid for six months. They want owners to be held accountable to their workers . . .The government is supposed to raise the budget for health” but there is no money. “These are the issues that are going to be the points of contention.”

But she does not despair over the situation: “I do not think it is going backwards.”