KAFR EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Bassem Kamel was running late for the official launch of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in this provincial capital at the marshy edge of the Nile Delta.
Kamel is a busy man. He sits on the executive committee of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the most important forum representing the organizations that sparked Egypt’s January 25 uprising. He’s a key organizer of Mohammed El-Baradei’s presidential campaign. And he’s a founder, and likely parliamentary candidate, for the Social Democratic Party, one of the most compelling of the new parties that can credibly lay claim to the liberal Revolutionary political center.
On this summer night, however, Kamel’s top priority was this remote farming entrepôt near the Mediterranean coast, where his party hopes to challenge the better-established Islamist parties in the upcoming elections with a message of equality, social justice, and prosperity delivered by a transparent, liberal, civilian-controlled, secular state.
If liberals are to have any traction in Egypt after Mubarak, they’re going to have to win a following in neglected but not forgotten towns like this one. They’re not shirking from the challenge, and contrary to some caricatures of the revolutionaries here, they haven’t obsessed with the politics of protest and they symbolism of Tahrir Square to the exclusion of other political avenues. How well they’re doing is another matter, and a crucial one for judging the chances of liberalism in Egypt’s next stage.
Islamists always seem to outgun liberals in the contest for mass support, routinely drawing thousands to their rallies, and relying on existing networks of mosques and charities that long pre-date Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.
The Social Democrats, by contrast, operate on a shoestring and are starting from zero. Kamel and the other founders have drafted a careful platform that adapts the vision of Europe’s social democrats to Egypt’s vast population, endemic poverty, and state-dominated economy. Put simply, the Social Democrats want to help the poor without stifling the market; they want to create wealth as well as redistribute it. Add to the mix a deep respect for pluralism, religious freedom and individual liberties, and you’ve got a potent – if not yet popular – liberal brew.
… Egypt’s secular liberals are in trouble. I have a lot of reporting on the subject to sift through, but a few weeks of immersion in the burgeoning political party scene here suggest that the new liberal parties have a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps a prohibitive amount.
Above is the crowd at the founding meeting of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in Kafr El Sheikh, a provincial city in the Nile Delta, earlier this month. It numbered fewer than 200, probably closer to 100 by the end.
Below is a rally last night organized in another Delta city, Shibin El Kom, by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The crowd numbered about 2,000, all of whom listened rapt until the end of the three-hour event, replete with detailed policy plans and instructions for cadres. If these number are any indication (and some smart people say they’re not), the Brotherhood is running far stronger than anyone else.