As soon as Gehad al-Sayed, 20, heard about the Adl Party’s “medical caravan” coming to her neighborhood of Zahereya in Alexandria last weekend, she grabbed her sick three-year-old daughter and ran to take her turn for examination, hoping for the free medication that the flyer advertised.
She was satisfied with the care her daughter received. “They are very good people and the doctors treat us better than paid ones,” she said.
She was also satisfied with the Adl Party. “I feel that [Adl party members] are part of us. They talk as if they are living among us and care about our affairs,” said Sayed. “This is the first time that I hear about Adl but I would definitely join it.”
The party, which was launched in May amid high expectations, has an ambiguous ideology, but, it appears, an effective recruitment strategy. Taking a cue from the Muslim Brotherhood, widely considered Egypt’s best-organized political force, Adl is offering social services like healthcare and discount food markets as a way to court votes and pick up supporters. These events typically attract about 400 people each time, Adl Party organizers say.
Adl presents itself as a centrist party between the liberal and Islamist forces, and says it rejects ideological categorization in an attempt to appeal to the mainstream of Egyptians. It believes in a free market economy and calls for a civil state with respect for the important role religion plays in the Egyptian society. Adl is funded by a number of businessmen, the most prominent of which is Hisham al-Khazindar, the managing director and co-founder of Citadel Capital, the leading private equity firm in the Middle East and Africa.
Although the caravan’s venue has a sign with Adl’s name and logo, party members claim the goal is not simply a political one.
“Through the caravan, we are not aiming to publicize the party,” says Dina Taher, the head of the party’s social development committee in Alexandria. “Rather we want to communicate with people first.”
“We don’t talk about the party when we are doing any social service, we don’t take people’s contacts or information and we don’t even bring membership applications because we want them to believe we are here to do something good,” Taher said.
With nearly 40 percent of Egypt’s population living below the international poverty line, charity or some form of patronage has long been a favorite tactic of political mobilization. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) relied on people’s poverty to buy votes.
Some say that the Adl Party’s strategy is not that different.
“Transforming the party into a charity organization and exploiting poverty to get political gain destroys political life,” says Ammar Ali Hassan, a researcher in political sociology.
Hassan rejected that post-revolution political parties continue with the “old way” of practicing politics, saying that “people are not waiting for a hand out; they are waiting for their rights. They want to see political parties produce draft laws on social rights such as progressive taxation and health care.”
Mostafa Nassar, a member of the social development committee in Adl’s Cairo headquarters, explains that after they provide a social service to a certain area, the membership campaigning team then visits the same place again once or twice in order to inform the people about the party and sign up new members.
“We aim at development first because I can’t talk with people about democracy, political parties and ideologies before they can meet their basic needs,” said Nassar.
“Our goal is to practically set an example of what clean politics is like. We want to offer people a service because we believe this is our role and not because we are emulating the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy of gaining constituency support.”
Adl previously announced that it will compete 10 to 15 percent of seats in parliament during the elections expected for November.
Nassar added that providing social services to people is the way to push for bills in the parliament.
“It is politics at the end of the day and the benefit of having social services in addition to a political role makes the party familiar with the people’s needs and problems, which can then be translated into draft laws to be lobbied by our parliament members,” said Nassar.
For Hassan, however, the best way forward for Egypt’s new electoral democracy is clear and it doesn’t require doling out social services. “In order for political parties to regain trust in themselves, they have to develop strong platforms that express their awareness of the people’s real problems, expand their social network throughout Egypt, practice inner democracy and to form a politically active bloc that drafts laws and monitors the executive,” he said.
Adl Party’s members are also taking on other recruitment strategies. Adl’s campaigners receive training on communication techniques, and then make neighborhood appearances to talk with people about the party’s goals and principles with the aim of recruiting.
“Groups of ten wait outside mosques and churches to talk with people. They also go inside coffee shops and malls without differentiating between people whether poor, rich, Christian or a Muslim,” said Hesham al-Bastawisy, responsible for membership development in Greater Cairo. (Bastawisy bears no relation to the presidential candidate of the same name.)
“By talking with people in the streets, we send people a message that Adl is not an elite party and that it conveys the people’s problems from the streets.”
But the medical caravan wasn’t purely apolitical. While patients waited for examinations, party members formed discussion circles to talk with people about the current political situation and teach them about general political terms, ideologies and the importance of voting in elections.
Mohamed Samy, the party’s general coordinator for Alexandria, was there, taking part in the discussions. “We are not here to tell you to vote for a particular person,” he told a group waiting for a free checkup. “We are here to tell you vote for what’s best for Egypt.”