Egyptian voters cast their ballots Tuesday for the Shura council, the country’s upper house of Parliament, amidst widespread allegations of vote-rigging and outright government violence and intimidation. Even by Egypt’s low standards, the polls marked a tightening of political space for the opposition. The regime’s ability to repress with impunity is, in part, the result of the still dismal state of the country’s many opposition groups, whose perpetual inability to get along continues to confound observers.
Given the seismic shifts in the Egyptian political arena during the past few months, the fractured nature of the opposition is particularly surprising. This is – as Islamist writer Ibrahim al-Houdaiby put it to me – a “moment of real change.” The health of President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, has deteriorated. During a prolonged absence in a German hospital, Egyptians were able to not just contemplate, but visualize, an Egypt without Mubarak.
The succession of his son, Gamal, is no longer certain. Even within the ruling National Democratic Party, there are reports of maneuvering around and against him. “There is no such thing as ‘the regime’ [anymore],” argues Houdaiby, “No one knows the next step so everybody wants to keep all the doors open.” The regime – consisting of the traditional bureaucracy, neo-liberal technocratic ministers, state security, business cronies loyal to Gamal, and a military less loyal to him – has become too large to function as a unitary actor. The one thing keeping the lid on is Hosni Mubarak.
The sudden emergence of former IAEA chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as a possible presidential contender suggested, if only for a brief moment, the promise of an emboldened Egyptian opposition. ElBaradei provided impeccable credentials – and, perhaps more importantly, a blank slate – upon which Egyptians could project their hopes. He appeared to be an Obama-like figure: a brilliant intellectual who spoke with the courage of conviction while, at the same time, non-ideological enough to unite Egypt’s notoriously fractious opposition.
The optimism around ElBaradei and his potentially unifying pull, however, has dissipated. The opposition — composed of leftists, liberals, nationalists, secularists, socialists, and Islamists — has failed to close ranks in any real way.
To be sure, the signs of cooperation are, or seem, abundant. There has been a steady succession of well-meaning rainbow “coalitions” – Kifaya, the National Coalition for Reform, the United National Front for Change, the April 6 movement, the Egyptian Campaign Against Inheritance, and, now, the ElBaradei-led National Association for Change. Everyone, says the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, agrees on the “principles” of reform. Shadi Taha, a leading member of the liberal al-Ghad party, affirms that there has been “strong cooperation” between the opposition parties.
But such cooperation sometimes expresses itself in odd ways. At the May 3 protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, each group – April 6, ElBaradei’s people, the Brotherhood – huddled in its own area, separated from the others. When I got past the mini-army of policemen, I asked protestors whose protest it was. I didn’t know for sure. And neither, it seemed, did anyone else. It was supposed to be a march, but the authorities made clear his would bring severe consequences. Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians, who were among the lead organizers, backed down and decided to call off the march, fearful they would be held responsible for any subsequent clashes. April 6 and the National Association for Change wanted to proceed with the original plan but were apparently overruled.
No group really trusts the other. Some of this has to do with ideology – liberals and Islamists have rather different views of what Egypt should look like. But much of it has to do with the lopsided power balance; The Brotherhood is a massive organization, boasting up to 300,000 members, while its liberal counterparts are elite outfits with little grassroots support. One might expect, then, that Islamists would play a leading role in any opposition coalition. Liberals, however, have different ideas. “We are very protective of the idea of liberals in the position of leadership because we don’t want to work for the Brotherhood’s agenda,” explained Taha. Echoing similar concerns, former presidential candidate Ayman Nour told me that “we have to work together but we can’t afford to be swallowed [by them].”
For the Brotherhood, these arguments hold little water. According to Mohammed Morsi, the liberals want to have it both ways – benefiting from the Brotherhood’s numbers but leaving its agenda by the wayside. “The ideological direction [of their preferred coalition] would be liberal-secular but the popular support would come from the ranks of the Brotherhood; this doesn’t make any rational sense… [the liberals] want us but without our ideas,” he said.
ElBaradei has made some tentative efforts to reach out to the Brotherhood, suggesting the potential for what would undoubtedly be a powerful alliance. But, if ElBaradei is flirting with Islamists, Islamists feel he is not flirting enough. One Brotherhood leader I spoke to complained that Saad al-Katatni, who represents the Brotherhood in ElBaradei’s National Association for Change, has not been included in top-level discussions. “The founders [of NAC] informed [us] about the coalition only after the fact,” complained Morsi. “Then they asked us to join without asking for our substantive input.”
The Brotherhood, of course, is not blameless. Despite its post-9/11 political maturation, the organization continues to find new ways to make liberals nervous. In April, Ali Abdel Fattah, the Brotherhood’s liaison to Egypt’s moribund political parties, launched a broadside against the country’s liberals, writing: “Liberalism is about absolute freedom for the individual without boundaries and without either a religious or moral reference.” He accused liberals of being in bed with the United States – a charge, perhaps not coincidentally, that some liberals have also leveled against the Brotherhood.
The problem of opposition unity continues to hamper prospects for democracy in the Arab world. Strong cross-ideological coalitions have been crucial to the success of democratic transitions elsewhere, including in Latin America and Eastern Europe. They have, however, been hard to come by in the Arab world.
Egypt will need more than ElBaradei – increasingly seen within the country as “soft,” “dreamy” and “aloof” – to heal the fractious divide. If the power imbalance between liberals and Islamists is the problem, the most promising solution may be a “transitional period” to give weaker parties a chance to introduce themselves to Egyptians and freely make the case for what they believe. Ayman Nour – who, like nearly everyone else in the non-Brotherhood opposition, is suspicious of the Brotherhood – explained his proposal for a 24-month transitional period with the Brotherhood and others, “during which we can establish the foundations for a civil state, a new constitution, and open the door to all political groups.” Free elections would be held after the two-year period, giving Egyptians the chance to elect whoever they wish. “I will not concede to the Brotherhood the right to govern Egypt, and they won’t concede it to us either — unless there’s an agreement to level the playing field,” Nour added.
Ayman Nour and his supporters are optimistic that, under the right circumstances, they can compete with Islamists for the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. “The future we believe is for liberals,” Hossam El Din Ali, member of al-Ghad’s high council, insisted to me. Most in Egypt would likely disagree. But there’s only one way to find out.