AP INTERVIEW: Female party head doubts Egypt path

AP News
Posted: Feb 24, 2014 2:18 PM

CAIRO (AP) — The first woman elected to head an Egyptian political party expressed doubt over the country's transition to democracy on Monday, criticizing the interim authorities' increasing intolerance of dissent.

Hala Shukrallah, a 59-year-old Coptic Christian, condemned the security crackdown that has resulted in mass detentions and trials in the months since the military overthrew the Islamist president last July.

"The road map to democracy is being compromised," Shukrallah told The Associated Press Monday in an interview at her Cairo home in the upscale district of Mohandessin.

Shukrallah was elected over the weekend to lead the liberal Constitution Party, succeeding Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former interim vice president who resigned in protest against last summer's deadly breakup of sit-in protests by supporters of the ousted President, Mohammed Morsi.

The country has been deeply polarized since then, with security forces waging a deadly crackdown on Morsi supporters, who refuse to acknowledge the interim authorities and hold near-daily demonstrations that often end violently.

Hundreds of Islamists have been killed and thousands detained. But by the end of last year and with the issuance of a draconian protest law, the appetite for dissent decreased and the clampdown widened to include some of the main figures who led the revolt against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Shukrallah viewed this as "threatening" to democracy.

"It is not only pulling us back to before Jan 25, (referring to the anti-Mubarak uprising) it also brings us back to Morsi's rule, when critics were described as infidels."

Shukrallah also said she would work to increase the party's popular outreach and try to repair the many rifts it developed upon the withdrawal of ElBaradei, who symbolized the party's declared values of freedom and social justice.

The British-trained sociologist who previously worked in development and civil rights organizations was detained twice by authorities in the 1970s. She co-founded the Constitution party in 2012.

"Our main battle is for the people's right to a dignified life, and a just division of resources," she said.

She also believes that a recent wave of nationwide strikes, including one by public transport workers and garbage collectors "will not stop until people get their rights."

Her party was a prominent member of the National Salvation Front, a coalition which led the opposition against Morsi but later disbanded amid growing divisions after his ouster.

It also approved the roadmap put through by interim authorities after Morsi's ouster which called for a new constitution as well as parliamentary and presidential elections by the summer. The new charter passed by referendum in January and the next step, presidential elections, is set to follow in April.

Though she said party members have yet to make a decision concerning which presidential candidate to support, Shukrallah criticized the current popular obsession with military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who has not announced his candidacy but has been endorsed by the army and is and is largely expected to win if he runs.

"A candidate affiliated with the military will weigh on democratic procedures, and with such a strong support, reduce fair opportunities for other candidates to take part."

Genuine independent political parties did not exist under Mubarak, whose National Democratic Party dominated a parliament with only a few, ineffective opposition members.

The so-called "deep state" of those days and men close to the old regime are now continuously attempting to return to power, Shukrallah said.