Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections are a serious challenge for the opposition where its ability to offer an alternative to those in power and to build electoral coalitions that correspond to the questions occupying the Egyptian public will be tested.
Pertinent issues are imposing themselves on the political arena, most notably the economy, which is in dire straits including a large budget deficit, depleting foreign reserves, and rising inflation that directly affects the ability of a wide sector in society to pay for basic necessities. This is accompanied by recession that spikes unemployment rates and compounds existing inability to create jobs to employ hundreds of thousands of graduates every year.
Along with this economic crisis, Egypt is witnessing the widest wave of social protest in its modern history, such as work-related strikes (relating to the ability of certain professionals to perform their jobs, such as doctors’ demands to protect hospitals and increase spending in the health sector) or sector-related ones (relating to pressing economic and social rights of those in a profession, such as raising wages, social security and reducing work hours, etc).
The issue of the economy branches out into many other matters that are just as important, because economic pressure requires finding more resources. Some seek out loans and foreign investment, but there is a price for this that must be highlighted and opposed.
Other consequences relate to Egypt’s foreign policy, especially towards Gulf States and powerful players in international economic institutions, and thus Egypt’s international alliances and regional role.
Further impacts are related to the domestic scene in Egypt, whether in terms of ties to the former regime (of which some regional powers still defend some of its members), or the format of the political system and “red lines” that impinge the sovereignty of the Egyptian people.
The economic condition is linked to the security situation, since restructuring security institutions in Egypt remains a major obstacle on the path to change. The noticeable absence of day to day security negatively influences economic growth, while restoring security via returning to abuses or interference in political affairs will not be acceptable to the majority of citizens. This means that security institutions, as Tarek Al-Bishri stated, will be similar to a body undergoing a heart transplant, meaning that circulation must continue so that the body does not die as the heart is replaced. Meeting both requisites needs political vision along with a strategy for implementation.
As well as these vital questions, there are other matters related to repairing what the constitution corrupted or failed to repair regarding expanding democratic participation, restructuring local government and boosting its role in planning and oversight. Also, expanding civil sovereignty over the military through constitutional amendments or fine tuning laws supplementing the constitution.
These questions must be addressed in electoral platforms and alliances; programmes should focus on ideas to deal with problems of the economy and security (which are two top priorities according several opinion polls). They should be addressed seriously with more than just slogans in efforts to get to the heart of the matter.
The economic crisis, for example, is not only related to the state’s economic biases but goes beyond that into the foundations of the national economy in terms of key activities, the main engines of development, geographic distribution, compatibility with social character, and other such questions that require more complex answers and far-sightedness. These should be addressed side-by-side with current issues and immediate measures to deal with the crisis.
There will be differences among the various parties when dealing with these issues, as well as disparity in efficiency, and social and economic bias among these parties. This must be reflected in electoral alliances built on positions regarding issues that occupy the concerns of the general public.
But instead of focusing on these issues, the main parties seem only interested in remanufacturing the battle of identity between “civil” forces and “Islamists” and their fight over the identity of the state (without an exact definition and only using very general and vague terms). This pushes aside abovementioned issues and fails to offer an alternative to the ideas of those in power, or to base alliances on these positions.
If this is clear to the “Islamists” and “civil” forces, it is denied more by the latter. It is natural for Islamists — or anyone in power — to hide behind slogans of identity and try to remanufacture “the threat to Egypt’s Islamic identity” to cover up their failure in achieving any progress on the abovementioned issues.
What is objectionable is the position of the opposition that is participating in labelling the electoral battle in a way that is certain to cause their failure, namely by trying to build broad alliances that bring together parties with contrasting views on these issues. Contesting the elections — despite diverging economic and social views — on one list implies that their agenda will be limited to rejecting Islamists without being able to offer an alternative.
This would primarily mean an inability to connect with the people and achieve any electoral gains, beyond limited circles whose dispute with Islamists pertains to identity. Second, they are assisting parties supporting the regime to remain cohesive, while postponing serious issues that need to be discussed. Third, in the final analysis, failure to produce a genuine political project to counter the Islamists means their mindset remains in the opposition, rather than having a plan to reach power. This is similar to all opposition projects under the Mubarak regime, including Egypt’s current leaders.
Unity is not necessarily a source of strength but could in fact be a source of weakness if it is between two opposites that subtract from each other. If the commonalities are not enough to construct a joint agenda, there are other forms of electoral coordination — such as emptying constituencies — that can be used instead of attempting to combine two opposites in one list.