Egypt's National Salvation Front faces existential challenges

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Monday 25 Feb 2013

Will Egypt's highest-profile opposition umbrella group be able to survive fundamental differences between its ideologically diverse membership?

National Salvation Front
Former Egyptian presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, center left, speaks during a press conference following the meeting of the National Salvation Front as former director of the U.N.'s nuclear agency and Nobel peace laureate, Mohamed El Baradei, center, and former Egyptian Foreign Minister and presidential candidate, Amr Moussa, center right (Photo: AP)

Egypt's main non-Islamist umbrella coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), has been facing increasing criticism lately over its responses to political developments, but the main challenge to its sustainability appears to run deeper.

The NSF, which brings together liberals, leftists and even Nasserists, was established in the wake of the abrupt issuance of President Mohamed Morsi's constitutional declaration on 22 November. These forces came together to resist what they viewed as a flagrant power grab.

The establishment of the front appeared just as abrupt as the declaration it was born to counter. With parliamentary elections on the horizon, questions arise about the NSF's ability to establish a solid foundation in Egypt's political life.

Dilemma with young cadres

The NSF's response to the wave of deadly violence that swept the country in the wake of the uprising's second anniversary on 25 January appears to have deepened an already existing gap between the NSF and the younger ranks of its sub-groups.

Khaled El-Sayed, member of the executive office in the Popular Current led by Nasserist former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, was at the presidential palace protests that escalated into clashes when he heard that the NSF declared it had withdrawn all its members from the presidential palace perimeter.

"The Front lost major points [with protesters] when it declared its withdrawal from the protests when clashes started, because it gave police forces legitimacy to use excessive violence," El-Sayed told Ahram Online.

Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested during the latest host of clashes. Some of those were members of the NSF's leftist sub-groups, the Popular Current and the Socialist Popular Alliance party.

Many other young party members echoed El-Sayed's sentiments. One day after a document denouncing violence sponsored by the Azhar religious authority on 31 January as an initiative to end the political impasse between protesters and the government, NSF leaders and - notably among them - a strong showing of leading young activists and party members signed a statement criticising the Azhar document. 

El-Sayed, who says the Azhar document failed to condemn the violence used against protesters, considers that retribution for the afflicted protesters should be the utmost priority – not replacing the cabinet.

Al Azhar document might be elapsed after all, as the NSF tries to find a way of doing some damage control to appease its younger members who see their overall response to the violence as inadequate.

Last week, the Front set investigation into the violence as the first pre-condition among others for entering into dialogue with the government.

In addition, Sabbahi announced in the same week that his leftist Popular Current will boycott the looming parliamentary elections.

"The Popular Current is not a party. The decision to announce the boycott was merely an effort to appease the youth of the movement who see that holding elections without prosecuting those responsible for killing protesters gives the government legitimacy to repress," said Ahmed Fawzi, member of the political office of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

Fawzi, who belongs to the rather liberal camp in the Front, however, sees elections as a necessary step forward, disagreeing with the boycott of the Popular Current's youth.

Ideological difference between the youth on either side of the political spectrum within the NSF's umbrella is another source for rifts in the NSF.

In addition to differences on what elections represent, some members of the Popular Current and the Socialist Popular Alliance parties and their counterparts from the liberal Conference Party, led by former foreign minister Amr Moussa, have been criticising each other over the past weeks.

Some argue the Conference Party should not be part of the NSF, since some consider Moussa a symbol of the Mubarak regime, where he served as foreign minister for ten years.

"Most of the members of the Popular Current rejected the idea of forming a coalition with organisations led by Mubarak-regime figures. It was against what the revolution stood for," El-Sayed emphasised.

Prominent trade unionist and former leftist PM Kamal Abu Eita warned in a statement last week that the NSF could very well collapse under the "anger" the Front's youth are developing towards its leaders.

This concern was, however, downplayed by Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr head of NSF member, the Socialist Popular Alliance: "All [opposition] parties have generational conflicts," Shokr reasoned to Ahram Online last week.

"The more revolutionary youth might be unsatisfied with the leaders' more conservative approach. This type of pressure could be healthy if it prompts the leaders to respond faster to developments so that they do not lose popular support."

The NSF media wing has repeatedly dismissed such claims and insists that all members of the Front agree on the revolution's demands of freedom and social justice. However, it remains unclear whether the Front will find a way to work around the ideological dilemma it faces with its younger tier.

Too politically diverse?

Some critics of the NSF see the group as stillborn, since it includes parties that are too politically different to achieve consensus on any action.

Two weeks ago, reports circulated that there was a closed-door meeting between the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and NSF figures Mohamed ElBaradei and El-Sayed El-Badawi.

According to NSF sources, the decision to meet with El-Katatni was made without the agreement of the NSF's leading members. Doubts about this meeting reflecting rifts in the NSF were deepened when the Front's meeting, scheduled for Sunday, was abruptly called off.

In a similar incident, spokesman for the NSF Ahmed El-Borai released a statement distancing the NSF from Amr Moussa's call made on a television programme on Wednesday for a coalition government headed by President Morsi himself – who was fielded by the Brotherhood's political party.

Another sign of rifts was seen in the same week when Sabbahi made the announcement that the Popular Current would boycott the upcoming elections, even though the NSF, of which Sabbahi is part, has not decided to boycott.

The confusion caused by statements and actions by the NSF leaders individually raised doubts about the workability of the NSF's internal dynamics.

"What appeared to the public after El-Katatni's meeting, for example, was that the FJP was communicating with El-Baradei and not the NSF, indicating a lack of coherence in decision-making," Tarek Fahmy, professor of political science in Cairo University, commented.

Ahmed Fawzi, however, downplayed the notion that such actions weaken the NSF's coherence, as he maintains that the Front's main framework is beyond the individual orientations of its sub-groups.

"The NSF is a broad coalition that was formed for the main aim of confronting the Muslim Brotherhood's domination of power. With this aim in mind there is an established level of consensus between the NSF sub-groups that will not be affected by differences in stances related to dialogue or elections," Fawzi justified.

He continues: some members of [hardline] Islamist parties believe elections are against religion, should that be a reason to view them as inconsistent?

Fahmy, though, still begs to differ.

"The leaders of the NSF each have their own stance on how to approach the government, to the extent that these stances even contradict each other. They also hold different stances from the elections and have different drafts on how the disputed constitutional articles should be amended. Differences in these key issues make it difficult for the Front to retain consistency," Fahmy explained.

Fahmy reckons that the NSF is destined to remain a simply a figurative entity, with no tangible presence on the ground.

"The horizon for the NSF is narrow. It is too politically diverse to have a substantial alternative to offer the public," he said.

What's ahead?

Many observers see that it is not the loose strings on the near future regarding the elections, dialogue, as well as fate of the Cabinet that will affect the NSF's position in the upcoming phase, but rather their own existential conflicts.

"The demands are known, dialogue will probably not bring anything new to the table. The presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood view that the front is too diverse to function. For that, they are probably betting the NSF will self-disintegrate with time," Tarek Fahmi posits.

Political analyst Sameh Fawzi, however, believes that it will not be that easy for the NSF to fade away.

"The NSF has no clear agenda and existing personal rivalry between its leaders cannot be denied but it is still an important actor in Egypt's political equation since it is the only entity that encompasses the anti-Islamist voting power," Fawzi said.

He continues: However, the real dilemma the Front faces is whether it wants to change the regime or only oppose it; whether it should act as a legitimate opposition to a legitimately-elected president, or whether to act against a president who has lost his legitimacy. You cannot have both points of view under one roof."

Fawzi believes that choosing a direction, rather than being merely responsive to the developments on the street, will be the defining element of their position to the public.

"By making that choice they will either press for a change in the political game, or play by the existing rules by contesting the elections and competing with Islamists at the ballot box. The real dilemma is that they might not be able to make that choice" he concludes.

Short link: