INSIGHT: Egypt opposition can't harvest Brotherhood unpopularity

Reuters, Sunday 5 May 2013

It's harvest time in Egypt but the secular opposition is reaping scant benefit from the Muslim Brotherhood's difficulties in government

NSF leaders - L to R - Sabbahi, Baradei, Moussa

Two years after an Arab Spring uprising swept away President Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians are looking to the army, or to more radical Salafi Muslim groups, rather than to liberal or leftist parties as Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his cabinet struggle to revive a sick economy, restore security and build institutions.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Egypt's faltering transition to democracy may come not from what the Brotherhood's critics regard as its attempts to grab as many powers as possible, but from the inability of a weak and fragmented secular opposition to offer a coherent alternative.

"I recognise that the opposition has not lived up to the expectation of the people," said Amr Moussa, 76, a former Arab League secretary-general, who is one of the leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF).

"But I also recognise that there are lots of possibilities for the opposition to rise to the challenge, especially as the government is not really offering much," the conservative told Reuters in an interview.

Six secular parties and a cluster of democracy activists and intellectuals are loosely allied in the Front, created last November to resist a decree issued by Morsi under which he temporarily took sweeping powers to push through an Islamist-tinged constitution.

Like the battered vehicles on Egypt's roads, the NSF often seems held together by desperation alone. "What keeps us together is the dire situation of Egypt," said Moussa, a foreign minister under Mubarak for 10 years.

Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the liberal Constitution party, said the Front "doesn't really have the luxury right now to say 'this is the left, and this is the centre-left or centre-right' because what we are opposing is... almost a fascist system".

He sees the NSF as representing a silent majority of 60 to 70 percent of Egyptians who reject Brotherhood rule and are in "a national state of depression".


Yet the opposition alliance is hobbled by what one NSF aide calls a "battle of the egos" among its leaders, and its component parties agree on few policies.

Should the opposition engage and compromise with Mursi for the sake of national unity, or boycott and try to weaken him to make it harder for the Brotherhood to control the country?

Should they participate in parliamentary elections that many believe will be skewed towards the Brotherhood, as they say all post-revolution votes have been, or stay away at the risk of being marginalised and looking like bad losers?

And should they back a proposed loan from the International Monetary Fund as essential to pull the economy out of crisis despite the tough terms that would be attached, or oppose it on grounds of national sovereignty and social justice - or just sit on the fence?

Each time it looks as if the Front is about to break up over one of these issues, the Brotherhood makes another move that reunites the opposition in shared indignation.

The latest was a clumsy attempt in April to purge the judiciary, which Islamists believe is riddled with corrupt former Mubarak loyalists bent on obstructing elections and laws put forward by elected bodies that the Brotherhood dominates.

By trying to force more than 3,000 judges into retirement at a stroke, the Brotherhood galvanised the judiciary, the NSF, the Salafis and most of the media against itself, prompting Mursi to beat a tactical retreat and seek a compromise.

Political analysts say the president could pick the secular opposition apart if only he accepted some of its demands to appoint a national unity government, replace a widely reviled prosecutor general and pass a more even-handed election law.

"That would pose a real dilemma for the opposition. But mutual suspicion and the Brotherhood's feeling of being under siege are so strong that I don't expect Morsi will do that," a senior European diplomat said.


Many opposition activists feel they gave Morsi decisive help to win the presidency by backing him in a run-off against former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik last June, only to be shut out of influence by the Brotherhood.

They feel betrayed on issues such as the constitution, the rights of women and religious minorities, judicial independence, and laws regulating elections, demonstrations and non-government organisations.

"We were betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood, we were cheated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Now they make the same propaganda against us as the old regime did," said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the NSF and ElBaradei's Constitution Party.

Aside from the NSF, the opposition also features a range of Islamist parties of different shades, including two ultra-conservative Salafi groups, as well as rebranded survivors of Mubarak's outlawed former National Democratic Party (NDP).

The Salafi Nour Party appears to be the fastest growing, although its claim to 800,000 members - more than the entire membership of all political parties in Britain or France - sounds optimistic. Nour led an alliance of Islamic purists that won 27.3 percent of the vote in 2011-12 parliamentary elections and has the second largest bloc of lawmakers.

Nader Bakkar, 29, the party's spokesman who has an MBA degree from Alexandria University, says Egyptians are flocking to Nour because, while it has strict Islamic principles, it does not seek to monopolise power or behave like a closed family.

It is also untainted by the burdens of trying to make government work in a chaotic post-revolutionary environment.

Like the Brotherhood, Nour activists run social and medical services for the poor, distributing free or cheap food. That could pay off at election time in a nation where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

But unlike the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which propelled Mursi to power, Nour supports a national unity government that would include liberal opposition figures.

The party has its headquarters in a refurbished Nile-side apartment that could be home to an advertising agency but for the Koranic chanting coming from a TV screen on a wall in the soft pink spotlit reception area.

"The most likely probability is that we will run in the elections alone. It is almost decided that we will not ally with the Freedom and Justice Party," Bakkar said in an interview.

He said Nour wanted to avoid a dangerous polarisation on Egyptian streets into Islamists and non-Islamists, and left the door slightly ajar to a pact with some secular parties, although such a marriage of convenience looks improbable.

While the Nour party eschews strict public enforcement of Islamic behaviour as contrary to Egyptian tradition, Bakkar drew the line at wishing Coptic Christians a happy Easter. The Copts, who comprise up to 15 percent of the 84 million population, celebrate the most important festival of the Christian calendar on May 5 this year.


The NSF's leaders meet weekly on Wednesdays to try to thrash out their many differences and take joint positions that are sometimes a tortured lowest common denominator.

On April 18, the Front said in a statement it was getting ready to take part in parliamentary elections while pursuing "the struggle" to create the right atmosphere.

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