CAIRO (Reuters) - A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.
The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.
Mohamed Abul Ghar, a physician who heads the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, is close to the army-backed interim prime minister and his deputy, who belong to the same party.
Abul Ghar, 73, had hoped newly-formed liberal and leftist parties would set the most populous Arab state on a democratic, non-Islamist path after 30 years of Mubarak’s one-man rule.
Instead, they were trounced at the polls by the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood, which eventually propelled one of its leaders, Mohamed Mursi, to the presidency in June 2012.
A year later, the army ousted Mursi after mass protests against his rule, installed a government and set a political roadmap it said would lead to free and fair elections.
Abul Ghar, whose party won 23 of parliament’s 508 seats in a poll conducted in late 2011 and early 2012, said Mubarak loyalists could return if a new constitution he is helping to draft stipulates that future elections be based on an individual candidacy system, not party lists or a hybrid of the two.
“There is a push and direction to make it individual seats not proportional seats,” said Abul Ghar, who was picked by the interim presidency to join a 50-member committee amending the Islamist-tinged constitution driven through under Mursi.
In the 2011-2012 parliamentary vote, two-thirds of seats were elected by proportional representation, via party lists, while the remaining third went to individual candidates.
“With individual seats, the people who will win probably will be Mubarak people in small areas, villages and certain districts. Very, very rich people will spend a lot money...so our chances will not be good,” Abul Ghar said.
A proportional list system would make it easier for small moderate parties to unite against Mubarak loyalists and for voters to base decisions “on an idea or opinion, not a person”.
Abul Ghar supported Mursi’s removal by the army, but now worries about a return to the old political order.
Sitting in his living room in the Cairo district of Dokki, Abul Ghar complains that Egyptians will have few options when they vote in presidential elections.
Many want army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose popularity swelled after he ousted Mursi, to run for president - even if that returns Egypt to the army-backed rule of the past.
“If Sisi runs, probably I’m going to vote for him,” Abul Ghar acknowledged, saying he would choose a military man over an Islamist after Mursi’s rule in which he was accused of trying to usurp power and impose the Brotherhood’s views on Egypt.
Most demoralising for Abul Ghar is what he calls a campaign by all sides, including the military and the Brotherhood, to squeeze out anyone seeking the political middle ground.
“The moderates are being isolated more and more,” said Abul Ghar, who was once among the throngs in Tahrir Square who helped topple Mubarak. “We want real democracy and this is not good for any of those people - the Islamists and the Mubarak people.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.
But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organisation - and lionise the police and military.
Mursi and other Brotherhood leaders are now on trial. Thousands of Islamists are behind bars as the movement endures one of the toughest crackdowns in its 85-year history.
Yet liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.
Although Mubarak is being retried for involvement in the deaths of protesters during the 2011 uprising, liberals like Abul Ghar worry that entrenched business and security interests that were so powerful during his rule are regaining influence.
Islamists, and some liberals, argue that they never really went away - Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, often complained of the “deep state” embedded in the police, army and judiciary that he said obstructed his government at every turn.
But Islamists and liberals, briefly united against Mubarak in Tahrir, are deeply divided again. Months of bloodshed after Mursi’s fall have crippled chances for reconciliation between backers of the army takeover and Islamists who call it a coup.
Many liberals applauded the military’s action and those with misgivings have mostly been side-lined.
The political climate has been further aggravated by Islamist militant attacks that have multiplied in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere since Mursi’s removal on July 3.
“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.
The government makes no distinction between the Brotherhood, which formally renounced violence in the 1970s, and militants, routinely referring to all of them as “terrorists”.
Abul Ghar, who went to university with some Islamists who later became senior Brotherhood members, says reconciliation is not possible unless the Brotherhood turns more moderate.
He bemoans the failure of liberals and leftists to take the lead during the rocky transition after Mubarak’s fall, when the army first broadly cooperated with the Brotherhood and then turned against it in a shift hailed by its non-Islamist foes.
“We thought we were representing the future, a better future for the country,” Abul Ghar said. “It will take time.”
Editing by Alistair Lyon