Egypt’s Old and New Opposition – And Why They Need Each Other

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Arab world has proven stubbornly resistant to democratic change. Everything, it seems, has been attempted. Islamist parties, the largest opposition forces in their respective countries, have tried participating elections as well as boycotting them. They have tried running fewer candidates, and running more. They have aggressively confronted regimes. More often, though, they opted for caution. Whatever it may be, it does not appear to have worked particularly well. This has led to a crisis of confidence in the ability of mainstream Islamist groups – those that renounce violence and participate in the democratic process – to bring about substantive change.

On the other side of the spectrum, liberal and leftist groups appear just as ineffectual as ever, unable to develop even the mildest grassroots followings. Meanwhile, discontent and anger at regimes has risen to unprecedented levels. In short, the demand for democratic change has grown at the same time that the mechanisms for that change have become less obvious. Not surprisingly, then, attention has shifted to less organized forms of protest. This is particularly the case in Egypt, where legal political parties are largely viewed as failures. The Muslim Brotherhood remains powerful throughout the country, yet it has come under attack in recent years for lacking a clear political vision. 

The journalist Issandr El Amrani writes: “The difficult but important story to tell about Egypt in the last decade are not the travails of Ayman Nour and [traditional] opposition groups, but the renewal of the labor movement… and the increasing vibrancy of Egypt’s civil society — its increasingly professional NGOs, its once-again-combative professional syndicates, and clever lawyers taking the regime to task on its legal subterfuges.” Indeed, this is the face of a different sort of opposition. It is not bound by the caution and studied gradualism of Egypt’s present giants – the Brotherhood – or its old – the liberal Wafd party. 

The professional associations have been a focal point of activism. It is not an accident that so much anti-government agitation, whether through protests, meetings, and conferences, has taken place at the Doctors and Lawyers syndicates. Perhaps more interesting is Egypt’s labor movement, which has, up until now, not received the attention it deserves. According to a report published earlier this year by the Solidarity Center, from 2004 to 2008, more than 1.7 million workers participated in over 1900 labor-related protests.

Though considerably smaller, amorphous movements like Kifaya and April 6 have also had a tremendous impact, infusing Egyptian politics with new life. These movements have a strong youth component and make effective use of internet and social networking tools. Their small numbers are belied by their impressive impact and media reach.

However, while the labor unions, syndicates, and new political groupings will no doubt be an important part of Egypt’s future, they are not necessarily the key to it. These are, after all, “unorganized organizations,” with no clear central leadership on either the national or regional level. With this in mind, it is worth revisiting a simple question: How does change occur? What are the mechanisms through which opposition groups realize fundamental change (i.e. constitutional change or alternation of power)? Considered this way, it is difficult to envision how labor unions or groups like April 6 can, on their own, effect the kind of structural change that so many Egyptians are demanding.

The proliferation of new forms of organizing has given the Egyptian opposition an unprecedented vitality and diversity. But it has also led to political oversaturation; there are simply too many groups doing too many things, and doing it, more often than not, with too few people. These groups were created in reaction to specific grievances, whether declining working standards, the likelihood of inheritance (taureeth), or the continuation of the emergency law. They have not, however, managed to translate anger and enthusiasm into a long-term, sustained vision for change. 

As important as spontaneous organizing and street protest are, they are no substitute for the slow, difficult work of building an opposition capable of commanding a regular cadre of supporters, contesting elections, articulating clear demands to the regime and international community, and, importantly, providing a plausible governing alternative. Youth movements and NGOs are, almost by definition, unable to meet these requirements. What they can do – and what they have done at critical moments – is pressure and galvanize the traditional opposition, which is often in need of galvanizing due either to its closeness or deference to the government. Political parties such as the liberal Wafd and leftist Tagammu are legal and depend on the regime for their continuing legality. If they are lucky, they are permitted a few seats in local councils and parliaments, more than their small membership would normally justify.

Then there are proto-parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, which are hierarchical mass organizations. Mass organizations, particularly those with upwards of 300,000 members, are often loathe to take risks; too much is at stake. The Brotherhood operates as a state-within-a-state with its own set of parallel institutions, including hospitals, schools, banks, businesses, foundations, day care centers, thrift shops, social clubs, facilities for the disabled, and even boy scout troops. Millions depend on this vast social infrastructure for anything from access to jobs to affordable healthcare. In turn, the Brotherhood depends on the government – its purported enemy – to allow it to continue social and charity work with relative freedom of movement. For this reason, the Brotherhood has studiously avoided all-out confrontation with the Egyptian regime.

Robert Michels, in his classic work A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, writes: “[Revolutionary action] is opposed by the artist’s love of the work he has created with so much labor, and also by the personal interest of thousands of honest breadwinners whose economic life is so intimately associated with the life of the party and who tremble at the thought of losing their employment and the consequences they would have to endure if the government should proceed to dissolve the party.” Michels is writing, here, about European Socialists but the description could easily apply to Islamist organizations like the Brotherhood.

This brings us back to the mutually beneficial relationship the traditional opposition can have – and, at times, has had – with new social movements and civil society actors less constrained by government quid pro quos. For decades, the Brotherhood had never organized a pro-democracy protest, part of its longstanding aversion to sending its members into harm’s way. But then, in December 2004, Kifaya staged the first explicitly anti-Mubarak demonstration Egypt had ever seen, protesting President Mubarak’s plans to extend his quarter-century rule six more years. Kifaya quickly became the center of attention, attracting unprecedented local and international media coverage. With its activists in the low hundreds, Kifaya had stolen the mantle of opposition from a 76-year old organization with a membership in the hundreds of thousands. Unauthorized street protest, while certainly with its own risks, was proving an effective way to do a lot with a little.

Political parties took note. Ayman Nour, founder of the liberal al-Ghad party, made street action a focal point of his political strategy during his campaign for president. Meanwhile, on March 27, 2005, the Brotherhood finally awoke from its slumber and staged its first ever pro-democracy protest. By May, it had staged 23 demonstrations – an average of one protest every three days – in fifteen governorates. And in the course of less than two months, the total participation of Brotherhood members neared 140,000, representing the largest mass mobilization Egypt had seen in decades. The Brotherhood had again established itself as the largest, most popular, and best organized opposition force in Egypt. But it would not have been able to do so without Kifaya’s spirited prodding.

The Egyptian opposition needed a newcomer like Kifaya to energize it, and give it a renewed sense of purpose. But it also needed a traditional giant like the Brotherhood to amplify this new voice and extend it throughout Egypt and among the mass of Egyptians. In this respect, the old opposition and the new one were not mutually exclusive. They were two sides of the same coin – both necessary but in different, complimentary ways.

Kifaya has since disintegrated, further proof that organization and institutionalization is a perquisite to longevity. In its place, a number of aspirants have appeared on the scene. The one with the most promise is a similar assortment of liberals, leftists, and Islamists under the banner of the National Association for Change (NAC), inspired and led by former IAEA chief and Nobel Prize winner Mohamed El Baradei. Like Kifaya, the NAC does not have a clear organizational structure nor clear lines of responsibility. This may allow it a degree of flexibility but it also limits the association’s ability to take decisive action.

In apparent recognition of the NAC’s limitations, Baradei has actively courted other political forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, in turn, launched a campaign to collect signatures for Baradei’s reform petition. In the span of just a couple months, the Brotherhood was able to collect more than 700,000 signatures, considerably more than the 113,000 NAC was able to manage on its own in a much longer period.[1] This re-confirms, in stark terms, that no opposition movement can hope to succeed without the support of the Brotherhood. Likewise, the Brotherhood needs national platforms, such as the NAC’s, to amplify its interests in a manner less threatening to liberals and secularists at home as well as Western audiences abroad. In short, the traditional and the nontraditional opposition, the old and the new, need each other now perhaps more than ever.

[1] As of September 27, 2010, the Brotherhood has collected 727,613, while the NAC has collected 113,415.