Progressive opposition to the Brotherhood: A short manual

Samer Soliman , Monday 20 Aug 2012

Progressive opposition groups should launch a serious debate about their role in a democratic Egypt, consider a change in method and strategy to confront the Muslim Brotherhood

After the January 2011 uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to establish a political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and nominate its members to senior posts – including presidency. It won the elections and now rules the country, especially after it eliminated Mubarak’s men from the military.  This historic transformation of power must be followed by an equal transformation in the opposition.

Without prudent and progressive opposition to the Brotherhood Egypt will not advance far. A progressive opposition adopts better positions than those in power, and thus either propels the rulers forward or defeats and replaces them. A backward opposition disagrees with those in power and drags the rulers back, or does nothing more than criticise without providing an alternative.

The following are three ideas to begin debating the role of a progressive opposition.

First task: Embedding the right to oppose the government 

Egypt has a long history of distrust of opposition groups by the authorities, which at times included accusing it of disloyalty and working on behalf of foreign powers such as the US and Israel. And the opposition would respond with the same.

This miserable heritage of dictatorship must be cast aside immediately. The Brotherhood must understand that opposition to them is not caused by a “disease in the heart” but because others have differing views about how to run public affairs. The Islamist current should accept that diversity is a source of wealth and strength, not weakness. Meanwhile, the opposition should stop distrusting the regime and distance itself from nonsense talk about the Brotherhood ruling via a deal with the US.

While it is true that the Brotherhood has alliances abroad and in recent times succeeded in neutralising the US regarding the political conflict in Egypt, it is pathetic to claim the US put them in power. The opposition has every right to disagree with those in power and strive to reach power – this is a right that must be guaranteed by the constitution, law and action, giving the opposition freedom of movement.

The opposition is currently confused because the rules of the new political game are not yet settled.  For decades it fought a regime that rigged elections, so is the era vote fixing over? I believe the flagrant form of counterfeiting ballots is certainly over, but will the authorities invent new methods of administrative interference in elections? The jury is still out on this one, depending on the commitment of the Brotherhood to democracy and the ability of the opposition to fight for guarantees that state agencies will remain impartial in coming elections.

Second task: Resisting manoeuvres by those in power and their evasion of responsibility

Egyptian regimes have a long history of avoiding accountability, with the president blaming the government for problems and crises. Thus, his supporters always said the president was great but his aides were not, or that the president was a man of honour but those around him were corrupt. Meanwhile, some officials would evade responsibility by claiming that they are nothing more than secretaries for the president – as former deputy prime minister Yousef Wali used to say.

Some ministers would refer to the state in the third person and attack it, and thus place themselves outside its structure – as if the state were a machine that operates without human interference.

The new powers have started to practice evasion by claiming that there are hidden forces ruling Egypt, or a “deep state.” Although there is resistance by some state employees or bureaucratic circles, this does not mean the Brotherhood does not hold the reins of power. In fact, all of Egypt’s rulers who exercised absolute power were faced with opposition, whether covert or indirect, within the bureaucracy that hides behind the guise of submission and humiliation.

Thus, the sagging of the bureaucracy and its occasional non-compliance with President Morsi’s decisions or non-enthusiasm in carrying out its directives, in no way means that there is a “deep state” ruling Egypt, as some claim. It is normal that many government employees resist change that could threaten their stable situation. It is unreasonable to judge someone who throws garbage on the street as being part of the plot to make the president fail. The strong influence of the military, which will stay with us for some time, does not mean the Brotherhood is not in control of the country.

Egypt’s rulers who exercised absolute power were not able to control the army with ease. Abdel-Nasser, for example, wanted to remove Field Marshal Amer from the helm of the army for a decade, but was unable to do so until Egypt’s terrible defeat in 1967. Mubarak too waited a long time before removing Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala in 1989. But the relative ease by which Morsi was able to retire Field Marshal Tantawi indicates that a president who has the support of a large and organised political group such as the Brotherhood will be stronger in confronting the military than previous presidents have. The president is in power and the ruling party supports him, and they are directly responsible for managing the state. This truth must be understood well.

Task three: Criticising the Brotherhood and proposing economic and social alternatives

Any opposition must have two messages to the people: first, that those in power are incompetent and make many mistakes; second, that the opposition has the platform and calibre to be a better ruler. The focus of the first message is boring and depressing for most people, because highlighting the inadequacy and failure of the new government could make the people lose all hope in reform if it is not accompanied by alternatives. The opposition must also focus on highlighting its strength rather than spotlighting the weakness of the regime.

It is also very important not to limit criticism of the new powers to undermining a civil state, but also criticising the weaknesses of the new powers’ economic and social platform and conservative economic tendencies – that are no less conservative than the policies of Mubarak’s regime.

I am proposing these ideas in the hope that the opposition would launch a serious debate about its role in the coming phase, and how to adapt to the fact that confronting the new powers requires a change in method and strategy. The starting point is to accept the fact that a political and social current was able to reach power thanks to a long history of action and organisation, and that the only way to replace it is with similar action and power.

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