Many questions remain unanswered in Egypt

In an article named “The sad state of Egypt’s liberals - Who is left to fight for democracy?” the Economist is asking the relevant questions before the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt.

“IF YOU believe Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, his country will take a final step towards democracy later this month, when voters start the process of choosing a new parliament. The previous one, freely elected and dominated by Islamists, was dissolved by the supreme court in 2012. The intervening period has seen Mr Sisi, then a general, oust an elected president, win an election himself and crush his opponents with violence and draconian laws passed by decree.

Contrary to his rhetoric, Mr Sisi has set Egyptian democracy back. Yet the forces behind Egypt’s revolution in 2011—when the previous strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown in a popular revolt—have shown scant ability and often little inclination to keep the country on a more democratic path. Most of Egypt’s so-called liberals supported the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, the former president, in 2013 on the grounds that his Muslim Brotherhood was itself undermining democracy. Many then stayed mum as Mr Sisi’s troops slaughtered protesting Islamists. Tarnished by this history, riven by infighting and lacking broad appeal, the liberals now appear helpless to check Egypt’s slide back to authoritarianism.

A common lament of liberals is that, having preserved democracy with his coup, Mr Sisi then stifled their voices. Indeed, liberal activists and politicians have been hounded by the security services, pilloried in the media and constrained by government restrictions on protests and NGOs. The regime often justifies the oppression on security grounds, while making the occasional cosmetic gesture, such as releasing 100 political prisoners last month. Thousands more languish in jail.

Most political inmates are members of the Brotherhood, which Mr Sisi banned. But that has not helped the liberals, who are expected to do poorly in the election, in part owing to the law governing the vote. Three-quarters of the seats will be elected in single-member constituencies, which favour wealthy and well-connected candidates—often regime loyalists who buy votes. Another 20% will come from party lists, which is how most of the previous parliament was chosen. Mr Sisi himself will select 5% of the members. A rubber-stamp chamber, similar to those under Mr Mubarak, is the expected outcome.

Not just Sisi’s fault

But even under the more favourable rules of the previous parliamentary elections in 2011-12, secular pro-democracy parties won less than a third of the vote. Young and inexperienced, they were clobbered by the Brotherhood, which had a long history of providing services and mobilising voters. “This is a country that didn’t have real political parties for 60 years, so we’re still learning how to build them,” says Khaled Dawoud of the liberal Constitution Party.

While good at opposition, Egypt’s liberals have failed to unite behind a platform or leader. In the election that brought Mr Morsi to power, they split their vote between a clutch of candidates of varying political stripes, none of whom made it to the second round of voting. The result reflected larger divisions within the revolutionary movement.

Among those who went to the barricades to topple Mr Mubarak were students, union members and Islamists, all with their own agendas. The parties that sprang up afterwards differed not only in their religious fervour, but also in their economic outlook and enthusiasm for democracy. The word liberal is often used to describe the secular opposition, but the parties run the gamut from socialist to free-market. There has been little effort to bridge these gaps. Hopes that the revolutionary forces would unite under one electoral coalition for the coming poll have come to nothing.

Individual liberal parties are having enough trouble holding themselves together. Several are riven by internal quarrels. In August Hala Shukrallah, then head of the Constitution Party, resigned, citing a “vicious circle of differences and complexities”. The party, founded by Mohamed ElBaradei in 2012, has argued over the timing and structure of internal elections, whether to participate in the coming poll (it will) and its stand on Mr Sisi.

More recently, Muhammad Abu al-Ghar tried to resign as head of the Socialist Democratic Party owing to “polarisation and a lot of other problems” (he was convinced to stay on), while leading members of the Wafd Party, Egypt’s oldest party and the third-place finisher in the 2011-12 election, have accused its leader, El-Sayyid el-Badawi, of abusing his power. “The liberals have been bedevilled by their own egos,” says David Ottaway of the Wilson Center, an American think-tank.

The parties have something else in common: financial trouble. A leader of the Constitution Party admits that it cannot balance its books. Mr Ghar hints at similar difficulties. While some businessmen swung their wealth behind the new parties after the revolution, they have lately kept their distance for fear of angering the regime. Two parties expected to win seats in the election were founded by tycoons.

But money alone does not explain why the liberal message has failed to resonate. Many of the liberal elite, who tend to be urban and educated, speak a different language, in terms of politics and economics, from most voters. The state has long dominated Egypt’s economy, so those espousing free enterprise are often criticised. Politically, limited government is a foreign idea. The parties have made little effort to connect with rural voters or address the economic and social concerns that brought people into the streets in 2011.

Liberal appeals for democracy now feel stale, as most Egyptians seem comfortable with Mr Sisi, who has brought a sense of stability after years of upheaval. Having quashed dissent, he is now being urged by supporters to amend the constitution to reduce the powers of parliament. The liberals are in no position to stop him. “[We are] fighting for our survival,” says Mr Dawoud. “If we manage to stay together, that would be an achievement in itself.””