Egypt’s historic Wafd party eclipsed under Sisi’s rule

Cairo: A century after Egypt’s March 1919 revolution, the prominent Wafd party credited with leading popular demands to end the British occupation, has now been largely sidelined on the country’s political scene, analysts say.

A one-time liberal opposition force with a mass following, Wafd is considered Egypt’s oldest surviving party, having started its political life under the then monarchy during the early 20th century.

But in recent times critics say the party’s role has descended into irrelevance under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“The party has completely lost its lustre and no longer attracts liberals,” said political science professor at Cairo University Hassan Nafaa.

“Wafd still lives on the credit of its historic track record.”

Since its founding in the wake of the 1919 revolution, the party quickly rose through Egypt’s political echelons leading several governments which were largely at odds with the king.

It remained for years the face of Egyptian politics before being dismantled along with others amid the rise of the military rule in Egypt in 1952.

– Blurred values –
It was not until more than 20 years later that Wafd rose again from the ashes rebranding itself as the “New Wafd” under late president Anwar al-Sadat.

But Wafd MP Fouad Badrawi maintains his party still has “impact” on the ground despite the political blows it has received over the years. “It has been through multiple ups and down over the years, but it is still surviving,” he said.

The “New Wafd” claims to embrace the principles of the old party with civil rights and freedoms at its core.

Critics however argue that Wafd has lost its liberal essence by supporting Sisi.

“It is not possible for any party in connection with the current regime … to claim to be liberal,” Nafaa said.

Under Sisi, Egyptian authorities have curtailed freedoms and launched a crackdown on dissent. Tens of thousands of political opponents have been arrested and charged.

In January, Amnesty International said Egypt’s stepped up crackdown on dissent has made the country “more dangerous” than ever for peaceful critics.

Badrawi, who is also a senior Wafd member, however maintains that the party adheres to its liberal policies, dismissing rights group’s accusations as “baseless.”

“We (as the Wafd party) don’t object for the sake of objection. We only raise objections when the people or the nation are in danger,” Badrawi said.

Another core value of the old Wafd was its support for secular governance.

To this day, the party’s motto is still “religion is for God and the nation is for all.” Its emblem remains the cross interlinked with the crescent moon, symbolic of national unity.

This secular spirit was blurred after the party forged alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood group on several occasions since its resurrection.

“Its alliance with the Brotherhood damaged its image and reduced its popularity,” said Nafaa.

Wafd has also backed general-turned-president Sisi since his rise to power after the military ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

In the 2018 elections, the party threw its support behind Sisi who ran virtually uncontested winning 97 percent of the vote.

– Possible contender? –
Wafd currently holds 43 seats in the 596-seat parliament which convened in 2016, two years after Sisi took office.

As an established party, it counts prominent businessmen among its ranks and is considered to be well financed compared to others.

“Wafd has some 220 branches and more than 500,000 members nationwide,” said Wafd spokesman Yasser al-Hodeibi. Although it is not clear whether all the party’s members are active.

It also possesses the only partisan newspaper, according to Hodeibi.

Despite its ample financial capabilities, the party failed to field a candidate in the 2018 elections.

But it has nonetheless promised to run a candidate in the upcoming elections in 2022.

In recent weeks, the overwhelming majority in parliament including Wafd MPs approved in principle possible constitutional amendments that would extend Sisi’s rule beyond 2022.

“We are preparing three prominent figures so that one of them could potentially run the race,” said Hodeibi.

Nafaa believes a Wafd candidate will stand little to no chance if they are running against Sisi.

“It will be a candidate to justify the elections,” Nafaa said. “This will be another blow to the party’s image.”