Dr Hala Shukrallah was elected president of Al-Dostour Party in February 2014. The party fractured after its founder Mohamed El-Baradei left it. In recent years, the party has rejected practices against freedom of expression and united with a bloc of parties that generally represent opposition, inclined towards leftist views. Daily News Egypt spoke to Shukrallah about the future of politics in Egypt, and whether the rule of the military is serving democracy.
Let’s begin with freedoms and rights. First, how many party members are detained?
I think the final count is 14, and two of them were released.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi made many promises to release political detainees, especially the young. Those promises went unfulfilled. How does that feel? How do you see the future of those promises?
It is disappointing, and I am afraid that the future carries more disappointments. As you stated, the promises have been made more than once. Every time, we think the government will implement logic. The government was afraid that there would be incitements to the Muslim Brotherhood to take the streets. But we have seen that this is not happening as much as before. The political unrest has eased. Keeping the youth inside prisons is just inflaming the situation. It is stupidity, and its goal is to keep the society in a cycle of desperation.
Many political parties and human rights organisations, including the state’s National Council for Human Rights, debated the Protest Law and presented amendment suggestions, yet nothing has been done. Is there a new approach that can be more effective?
Indeed, many alternatives have been suggested and we did not even propose a different law, just some amendments. We did ask for the suspension of the law until the issue is resolved, and yet nothing has been adopted by the government. Again, we are in front of an inexplicable situation. We continue to present alternatives and that’s all we can do, keep fighting.
What about the security crackdown and pursuit of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, to which Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh belonged? Should concerns be raised over such practices against a legitimate entity?
It definitely is alarming. Regarding the latest incident, arguments in the security’s defence stated their office was not raided but that it was a ‘mistake’. It was not, and it poses serious concerns. When a legitimate party takes the street in a very limited rally, that poses no threats whatsoever, yet they are killed and arrested, this tells us that the future of political parties in Egypt is in danger.
What is your opinion on the situation of local residents of North Sinai, between the narratives of the state and those of the militants?
We don’t know and that’s the problem. Information on what happens there is filtered by officials’ statements, and we have very little access to the citizens there. We can’t hear the collective voice of the people, all we know is that the situation is dangerous, there are militant groups of course but the impact of their presence on the rights of regular citizens is alarming. People’s livelihoods, such as curfew hours which have been there for so long, are supposed to be debated and discussed socially for attempts and solutions, taking into consideration how to address people’s rights. Unfortunately, this is not a part of the state’s strategy: security solutions are isolated from people’s rights.
We heard a ‘collective voice’ during the border evacuation?
Again the priority is always security. During the evacuation, we heard that government assistance to the ‘displaced’ was limited, that the residential camps were not well equipped and that people were not comfortable. The voices we heard did not present any rosy pictures of what happened, they were complaints. The problem is that this approach is a pattern even outside Sinai. Crisis management does not take into consideration inhabitants’ rights, it’s not an integral part of problem solving. The political current believes that the military intervention is the only security solution available.
You had expected before the presidential elections that military control of the country halts the democratic process?
Yes, this was our critique.
Freedom of speech, freedom of expression: has it become more or less oppressive? Some, such as Mohamed Aboul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, seem to have the liberty of writing what they want, to which the presidency has even responded?
Only certain people enjoy this kind of space. Our media does not have absolute freedom and actually means of oppression are getting worse. This is obvious in TV shows, where the agenda of topics is clearly defined. Again, this reflects the government’s non-readiness to accept any form of serious and sustained criticism which would force them into a real social dialogue.
In the last uncompleted parliamentary elections you decided to boycott the elections. First, why did the decision come so late after some back and forth among party members?
Our party composition is complicated, it contains different factions. Some of our members were already mobilising to run for the elections, while on the other hand a group advocated boycotting. We were trying to assess both opinions in order to have a true representation on a final decision. I was unable to make any announcements in the name of the party, but was stating my own opinion: I saw that we should participate, believing it was the way to fight for people’s interests. Then, on the day we were voting on the matter inside the party, with a majority inclined to go through with the elections, we heard of Al-Sabbagh’s killing and this was a turning point: you cannot consider the elections a tool of democracy, while at the same time you are using guns.
What sort of influence was the party hoping to achieve from boycotting the elections?
Actually, we did not boycott. We stated that we were not going to participate. The difference is boycotting calls on others to do so. We just thought that in such times, our participation or absence did not make any difference, neither did the political atmosphere allow real competition. Besides, in such a violent environment, how can we deal with the elections seriously? Our rejection of the elections was accompanied by requests, on top of which bringing the perpetuators of Al-Sabbagh’s death to justice and amending the Protest Law. Now the constitutional court settled the issue. I hate to say we ‘told you so’ but we did and here is the result: Egypt will remain without a parliament for a while, laws issued, no monitoring.
Would you reconsider participation after parliamentary laws are changed?
Yes, if the amendments are suitable.
Since you took the leadership of Al-Dostour Party, you knew there were challenges in the structure of the party, which was mainly about members not getting along, and it is still happening. Why is that?
It was a real challenge. My vision was that people could unite around one political stance when they exclude personal issues. The party did not bring people together into a common ideology, which led to the failure of uniting the group from different backgrounds and ideological frameworks. Although to some extent some groups merged with others, the majority did not, especially that the party is extended to other governorates.
But you seem to know where the problem is. Can the party be without a specific ideology?
It was founded on that concept. I think it does not necessarily need to be based on an ideology, but rather on a framework of common beliefs and goals to have an identity. Lack of financial resources prevents us from hosting regular events that bring people together. Challenges were a lot. Another obstacle is also the pressure put on the youth who represent the majority of the country.
What about the founder, Mohamed El-Baradei, is he in contact with the party?
No, not since he was offered a position in the government. Except for some messages of greeting at the beginning, he stopped having ties with the party.
Political parties are blamed for ‘not interacting enough’ with the people and accused of not working on real grounds. Where are you in the media?
I speak a lot in the media, but the media does not care about interviewing the youth, despite my having asked TV channels many times to shed light on young people’s activities. Our media officer is also actively trying, but they are not enthusiastic. I think it is not on their agenda. Media focuses on party heads or topics such as elections.
Alright, so where are you on the streets?
The role of any party is to be present among the people, but I think that two things that challenge us include the Protest Law, which scares the young from presence in the streets and interaction with people. The fear goes the other way around; people are exposed to media campaigns against political parties, which weaken their presence in the streets. However, the party is very active in small local centres in other governorates, working on identifying people’s needs. Overall, there is an accumulation of experience taking place, which is very valuable but receives little exposure, although it is in an important part of empowering people and transferring their voices to the government.
When we speak of the political crisis, you previously stated that “political parties are too slow to respond and do not take quick action to respond”. Is this still your opinion?
I think that this is one of the chronic problems that we are trying to fix, by pushing for more coordination with each other. This is why we established the Democratic Current to act together as a group. The statement in general is true but there are efforts to address the problem. I believe that if we are going to be allowed to continue to work, we will achieve something. We are speaking of parties that were never allowed a real experience, always under the government’s wing. Are we going to be able to evolve?
What do you think?
[Laughing] This is one of my questions also!
Previous presidents gave importance to political stability. Hosni Mubarak even said that political stability leads to economic growth and brings in investors. Have priorities changed? The narrative we are given seems to be the other way around. Is this true? Is this a good way?
I think that this is the current assumption. You are right; there is a shift in priorities, but also because the context has changed. This government was facing war from the very beginning. That’s why it’s dealing as if there isn’t political stability and there’s not going to be for some time. They are more focused on establishing the country’s regional strength and this how they believe they will be able to gain upper hand in international relations, this will bring investments.
What did you think of the Economic Summit?
The summit proved to a certain extent [the government was] able to achieve gains. However, I think they were limited to specific types of investment projects such as construction rather than production, which does not lead to real development. Even during Mubarak’s era, lands were for big investors, big construction and real estate projects. There is no radical change in the economic situation. We have a problem that our middle class is falling, while the government is supposed to encourage the middle classes to invest through young entrepreneurs and innovative projects. But we are still in a monopoly, where only a very small crust of the society keeps getting richer.
Are you saying we are taking a path that has no bread, no freedom and no social justice?
I am saying we definitely need a different approach.
How do you see the progress of women empowerment and women’s causes?
Like all rights issues, the cause does not get what it deserves. All human rights issues are going downwards. The constitution supposedly achieved some balance for marginalised communities. However this was not translated into laws and real action. We are still seeing no women in the government’s decision-making division, or in any other entity. We are still demanding laws fighting sexual violence and domestic violence against women. The potential of laws and increased awareness are faced by the government’s absence of any political will.
What does the party plan to do in order to move beyond the reactive role?
All you can do is build up your own strength and continue to speak up. We are doing this with all we have. We just had a conference with two proposals to the electoral law; a delegation plans to ask to meet the Prime Minister to ask for a social dialogue. Some are going for historical record and say: “Nobody will care.” Others say it is a fight they will continue. This is something that you and coming generations must keep doing. Power balances eventually change. A butterfly effect could turn things upside down.
Do the political parties that could be able to carry on represent the 25 January Revolution? If given a chance, will they commit to doing so or seek personal interests?
The more the actions of the government do not make sense, the more people’s voices rise and come together. These are all things that can change thing and start to have a ripple effect, increase pressure and so change the political will. These are all assumptions, but that is how it happens. With Mubarak, it didn’t happen overnight, but at the end he found himself isolated, and as a result found he no longer made sense to the people. The more the situation we are currently in cannot be justified, the more people are going to speak out.