Wafd reinvented: Behind the face lift

El-Sayed el-Badawi was elected in May to lead the Wafd opposition party, one of the oldest political parties that Egypt has known, and both his leadership and the resurrection of the party have been questioned ever since.

El-Badawi has been credited with bringing the Wafd back under the spotlight, right back into the political and media circus, at the center of which is President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party and its new-found enemy–and possible presidential contender–Mohamed ElBaradei.

Amid weakened and waning opposition parties, even in coalition, enter the Wafd–again.

With a younger leader, re-polished slogans, a series of alliances with opposition forces and a heavy agenda that is more like a mash-up of the opposition’s demands during the past decades, it has claimed a resurgence that may change the face of politics. El-Badawi, during the party’s conference on Sunday night, claimed that the face-lift of the Wafd had begun with his election in a “fair democratic election process” that should serve as a model to the nation during such tough times.

“I promised you to bring back the party to the forefront within 18 months,” bellowed el-Badawi into the microphone with a confidence that opposition leaders have rarely sported in recent years, save for politician Ayman Nour, whose star faded when he was imprisoned in a fraud case for around three years.

“If I fail at this, if we fail together to make Wafd lead in the political arena, I will resign immediately. But I will tell you then: I wouldn’t have failed alone. We would have failed together, collectively,” he said, as cries of “el-Badawi is in the eyes of the people, and the Wafd is in its consciousness” broke out from supporters.

The message was clear: you’re looking at the new Wafd now. Forget the 2006 conflicts between Wafd partisans Mahmoud Abaza and Noaman Gomaa, and the firefights between their supporters that left tens wounded, the party’s heritage in shambles and its headquarters bullet-ridden. Forget how the publication of the party’s paper was frozen, and its reporters abandoned and left to protest for weeks at the press syndicate’s doors, asking for their jobs and their financial rights back.

Forget the party’s performance during 2005’s parliamentary elections, where they clinched six seats out of more than the 400 contested.

This is all in the past. During the conference, el-Badawi promised a new look for the Wafd newspaper, due to come out in its refurbished form this Wednesday, and said that he expected the return from paper sales to reach LE39 million–without specifying where this financial projection came from. He said that the newspaper profits would go into funding the development and charity projects that the party is embarking upon.

He mentioned what he referred to as the “Wafd Foundation," an in-house charity group that will “cover the basic needs of all Cairo’s provinces by the end of Ramadan” through humanitarian aid and charity convoys.

“You will wonder where the funding for this comes from,” el-Badawi asked the crowd. “And whether or not the resources of the party are being depleted. I tell you this: we’re a political party, not an economic party that is worried about making profits or capitalizing its assets. However, rest assured the foundation is currently being by financed from the personal pockets of two Wafd members,” he added.

El-Badawi’s speech was abundant with references to a glorious past, recycling statements by Saad Zaghloul and past Wafd icons, and brimmed with an un-calculated ambition in its desire to bring to life dead alliances, including the National Front for Change previously led by Aziz Sidky–something that Gameela Ismail, Ayman Nour’s wife and Ghad politician, called “a waste of time” in a statement to Al-Shorouq newspaper. In a response to el-Badawi, she said, “Leave us alone, and don’t waste our time in trying to resurrect old ideas.”

Even in addressing current issues, like sectarian violence, el-Badawi resorted to flag-waving slogans, reminding his supporters that in 1919 Coptic priests and Muslim clerics had resisted British hegemony hand in hand, under the flag of the Wafd, and that it was time that Egyptians re-embraced that spirit of tolerance and unity.

“Sectarian issues are a problem–that cannot be denied,” he said, without elaborating on solutions.

Questions about whether Wafd was learning from the NDP's experience in its quest for resurgence are looming.

But the link between the new Wafd and the new NDP is not just in how both parties recreated their image in a short span of time. For the past few weeks, reports about a secret “deal” between the NDP and the Wafd have been resurfacing, something that, in statements to Al-Masry Al-Youm, el-Badawi staunchly denied.

Some observers doubt that any party could create such a space in the public sphere in a short period without the NDP’s backing, perhaps as an indirect blow to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's biggest opposition bloc. But el-Badawi insisted to Al-Masry Al-Youm that the idea of an under-the-table deal between the two parties would always be suspected, no matter what the Wafd did.

Take the elections. “A decision like choosing to run for [parliamentary] elections or boycotting them is a dangerous and a very sensitive one. If we run, and our candidates take seats, people will say that there was a deal with the NDP to secure this,” he said.

Diaa Rashwan, political analyst, told Al-Masry Al-Youm seemingly in agreement that “the information and facts available do not indicate that the NDP is grooming the Wafd, as analysts have been claiming. There are a lot of statements regarding this, but no proof. There’s no place for the NDP in this.”

Rashwan added that, at this stage, observers might be reading too much into very little.

Only elections could discount or add worth to these claims, said the analyst. But it’s a catch 22, according to the Wafd leader. Because if the Wafd doesn’t win seats or decides to boycott to prove the pundits wrong, it will be considered a personal failure, he said.

El-Badawy appears tough in criticizing the government’s shortcomings, but he said, in what seemed like a defense of the current regime, that “every government in the world tries to hold on to power,” not just Egypt’s.

He was also very clear in his denial that the last presidential elections, in which Mubarak won and his contenders crushed, could ever be rigged.

 “No one can deny the legitimacy of the ruler,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm last Wednesday in reference to Mubarak.

These are the same elections, where Ayman Nour supporters were assaulted by plain-clothed pro-government thugs, and where eyewitnesses claimed that NDP party members paid citizens in kind and in money, right in front of ballot stations, to secure their votes. Judicial monitoring was blocked in some stations, and protests were throttled violently.

“No one dares to question the integrity of the presidential elections,” he said.

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