The Egyptian Revolution has completed its first decade, while it remains in a liquid status. At the same time, the counter-revolution hasn’t consolidated a sustainable regime, as the existing regime still lacks the basic components it needs to reproduce itself. Instead, it’s sufficient with stretching its age using fabricated devices to perform its vital function.
After five years of implementing the economic reform programmes, the solid situation that resulted in the military coup, as in the Chilean case, has disintegrated. An elite from the regime right-wing that possesses wealth wanted to be active in society in order to preserve its gains instead of threatening them. In parallel with tangible economic decline at the individual level in the country, which negatively puts pressure on the regime, this was evident in the events of September 2020, with disagreement about its effectiveness.
Political figures have emerged on the scene who are working from inside Egypt, using the regime’s tools and on its political and geographical arena. The most prominent of such figures was the journalist and former parliamentarian Ahmed Tantawi, who belongs to the centre-left current.
Tantawi was dismissed through a process of fraud, as he accused the candidates of the Future Nation Party, which is the semi-ruling party, of falsification of the elections against him in the second round last December, after the sub-committees announced his victory, while the result changed in the General Committee. Tantawi introduced himself during the five years, the age of the first parliament under Al-Sisi’s mandate, as an opponent to the economic reform policies, and against the absence of freedom of expression. He also opposed handing over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Until the constitutional amendments that extended Al-Sisi’s possibility of ruling until 2030, where Tantawi explicitly called for a “no” vote, his quarrelsome statements in parliament spread on social media and his popularity rose in the country. His Facebook page reached more than a million followers, and on YouTube more than 100,000.
Realising the danger of its presence in the Egyptian parliament, the regime first tried to change his electoral district from the district of Desouk-Qaleen – which he won in 2015 – by attaching it to a larger electoral district combining the cities of Kafr El-Sheikh and Qaleen. The district was considered a centre for major merchants and the most influential businessmen in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate. According to Tantawi’s statements, the second round was rigged after he won first place in the first round.
The regime is aware of the danger of an opposition figure that may gain pressure over time by forming communication channels with the ruling coalition, which is vulnerable to splitting due to structural problems in the system formed after 2013, in addition to economic problems resulting from the process of economic reform and monopolistic neoliberalism, which he pursues as a kind of practice of subordination and control, up to the water problem due to the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Has the regime’s policies succeeded in excluding Tantawi from the Egyptian political arena? What are the tools Tantawi uses for survival? Is it possible for Tantawi to form a case for the alternate political elite when the regime is in a crisis and losing its political capital of popularity and legitimacy? Could he later be part of a national democratic alliance?
Charismatic personalities work from inside the regime
Tantawi possesses a charismatic personality through his participation against the Egyptian government’s policies under the dome of parliament. He gained huge popularity when he announced his rejection to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands, followed by his definite rejection of the amendments to the Judicial Law that would enable the political system to fully control the Egyptian judiciary in 2017.
In the context of the constitutional amendments in April 2019, Tantawi stated that he neither liked the president nor trusted his decisions. About a month later, Tantawi participated in what is known as the Al-Amal (Hope) coalition, which included a variety of Egyptian politicians. Most of its members were arrested on June 25, 2019, under Case No. 930. The coalition aimed to restore political life after its seizure by the regime, also the majority of these figures participated in supporting the military regime and its coup against the late president Mohamed Morsi.
Then he presented to the speaker of parliament a draft of what is known as a comprehensive reform initiative on November 4, 2019, which proposed the idea ofcreating more than 22 committees within parliament that would open a comprehensive national dialogue and arrange the departure of Al-Sisi by 2022 instead of being elected again in 2024 according to constitutional amendments.
His campaign and office manager were arrested as a result of the initiative, while he was referred to a parliamentary trial. This initiative was considered the most sensitive in terms of its timing after the events of September 20, 2019, in addition to the fact that it began to raise the issue of a comprehensive national reconciliation, which coincides with the amendment of economic programmes to consider the poor and marginalised who reached 32 per cent of the Egyptian people, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, and more than 60 per cent, according to the World Bank.
On March 23, 2021, he officially announced his third initiative, the Third Way, which he has been talking about since his loss in the elections. The initiative has no major points because he indicated that it is a developing formation, but it will work through the constitution of 2014, which was amended in 2019, and within the current democracy following a peaceful political framework, a middle way between tyranny and chaos.
In this description, we can see a revolutionary discourse concerning economics, with conciliatory character in talking about political freedom and up to democracy. It also admits that this semi-revolutionary discourse will work from the ground of the regime itself and its rules, and it can be summarised as a revolutionary discourse with a reform characteristic.
Tantawi may aim to attract the right-wing of the dominant coalition elite to open channels, as well as send a message to the international community to present himself and his political position as a political alternative to the right-wing military rule.
Ideology and democracy
Two weeks after his loss last December in the parliamentary elections, Tantawi presented a long speech about how he understands his political position without parliamentary immunity which allowed him to be in the opposition without being arrested. However, he indicated his rejection to leave the country as advised by his friends, and he preferred to stay and work through a partisan platform through which the populist state of the organisation may be transformed into a political state. In this context, he chose an existing political party, with his assertion that he would have preferred to establish a new political party, but that it’s a difficult task under the current system.
He provided a briefed vision of working through the constitution and the regime without rejecting or boycotting it. He presents himself and his party through a comprehensive vision of a national opposition that refuses the consolidation of military rule, and at the same time with a break with “the chaotic situation” that was presented through the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In this regard, he talked first about political freedom and democracy as an essential component of this vision and said that a national dialogue is being conducted even if it is restricted to social media sites, or it can be called an informal national dialogue.
He took steps in what seemed to be political speeches rather than a broad dialogue, through presenting two programmes on YouTube after being banned from appearing on the Egyptian channels since 2017. His first programme is called the Bridge of Hope; a weekly meeting on Friday in which he provides comments on political issues for the government and the state in foreign policy and economic projects.
He began with an episode about the Suez Canal after the current crisis and he asked questions about the development of its axis. This is closer to the briefings of MPs under the dome of parliament. Next Friday, an episode is expected about the Renaissance Dam and the state’s behaviour in dealing with it. The other programme called The people in my country is to address his popular base, strengthen and expand relations with it.
Tantawi exercises his role as a public figure, as he tells popular stories about democracy, power, truth, and poverty. He indicated his task by saying, “Please do not be hard on ourselves and those around us. Those who have put us in difficult circumstances are more deserving of cruelty.”
Through popular language and the use of social media platforms, Tantawi confirmed his presence in the political scene, and used it in building a democratic dialogue language while maintaining a populist character rather than an elitist one.
Towards Organisational Work
The Dignity Party was established in 1997 as a development of the Nasserite Thought Club in Helwan in the 1970s. The party adopts the ideology of the Nasserist left, which circulates around four pillars: social justice – freedom – national independence – Arab nationalism. The party obtained legal recognition after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. The party participated in the National Assembly for Change, also participated with the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
In the 2012 elections, Hamdeen Sabahi, the party’s leader, won third place in the presidential elections, and the party participated in the June 30 protests against the late President Mohamed Morsi, then Sabahi ran in the presidential elections against Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2014. At that time Ahmed Tantawi resigned from the party as a member of the party’s secretariat, because he rejected Sabahi’s participation in consolidating military rule through an electoral play according to the Ida’at website.
The party drowned in the crisis, and in 2017 the Egyptian Popular Current Party joined him and elected Muhammad Sami as its president. Two days before the demonstrations of September 20, 2019, the Dignity Party announced the suspension of its activities due to the bad political climate, until it was activated again with the return of Tantawi as its president by acclamation in December 2020.
Political freedom became the default slogan of the party after Tantawi took over the presidency, and the party began its first steps in expanding its populist base, using the unique and popular status of Tantawi, and included trade unionists headed by Jamal Othman, leader of the workers’ strike of the Tanta Flax and Oil, which won after they refused to sell the company to a Saudi investor.
The party was restructured, with a board of trustees including the historical leaders of the party, general secretary, and changes in regional sectors. The party seeks to be the biggest opposition party in the country using the populist momentum of its head to expand the populist base after it shrunk over the last years.
Although the Nasserite Thought Clubs were the most democratic in this current, the party and its historical leadership were not democratic enough in the real test of 2012-2013 and fell into this trap as it devoted itself to military rule, but otherwise, Tantawi seeks through a change in the structure of the party to transform democracy into the goal of those aspiring to replace the old generation with the new, the same as Tantawi was an alternative to the previous leaders of the party.
He will try to push youth allied with him into the corridors of the party, trying to transform into a semi-solid force by developing the ideology of the party, and changing its priorities according to the current moment. However, the basic idea of the party is to expand its popular base at the expense of its elitism, and this is one of the reasons that may lead to its failure.
We respond yes to the question of whether or not Tantawi will succeed in remaining in the political arena after his exclusion from parliament. Tantawi represents a unique political case of the centre-left, which may have mutual understanding with the arms of the regime in case a crisis occurs within the dominant coalition.
But will Tantawi’s project succeed in being one of the cogs of a comprehensive democratic national alliance that forms a middle current that can negotiate with the right-wing party that would wish to reconcile? Absolutely we do not think so, because the existence of one party representing the Egyptian opposition and democracy as an ideology will fail because the reality of democratic work is diversity and difference.
The modern party or prince can pass an ideology, but it is impossible to pass a tool and impose it on the community level. Only a crack in the ruling elite and its desire to negotiate with the centrist current, such as Tantawi’s current, may be the best solution that may crown Tantawi’s experiment with success.
The important question now is to what extent will the patience of the political system last for Ahmad Tantawi? Especially with his popularity expansions, or at least his pursuit to maintain it.