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A little less than two years ago, the non-Islamist opposition in Egypt saw two momentous events. The first, of course, was the beginning of the 25th of January revolution. The second was the constitutional referendum in March 2011. Arguably, the latter event was more important than the former, although the opposition has yet to learn from it.
In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, the opposition did not really understand its base. At that point, opposition groups had few political parties to speak of, let alone political maturity. What they did have after the referendum, however, was an idea of who supported their message and, more importantly, who did not.
In the past 18 months, the Egyptian voter has gone to the ballot box for two constitutional referendums (approving amendments in March 2011 and a complete constitution last month), a presidential election in two phases, and a parliamentary election. The data from these ballots, properly interpreted, tell a tremendous amount about Egypt’s political terrain.
But the opposition has focused on Cairo and Alexandria, where a minority of Egyptians live, while the majority continue to have the impression – rightly or wrongly – that the opposition does not really care about the rural masses.
Egyptians are most interested in seeing the dividends of the revolution in four areas: jobs, overall economic health, higher wages and security. With the economic situation looking gloomy in 2013, opposition groups have a chance to take the initiative, but for the last two years they have not been able to clarify their message.
The umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front, may do well in the next parliamentary elections, which are due to take place sometime in the next two to three months. However, its success depends on a number of factors. The coalition has to realise that while the majority of Egyptian voters did not vote “yes” on the Muslim Brotherhood’s constitution, they also did not vote “no” as the opposition urged. Most Egyptian voters didn’t feel it was necessary to vote for either camp, and ignored the referendum altogether.
There are some practical issues that contributed to the low turn out, such as long queues, intimidation (perceived or otherwise) of Copts, and voting that was restricted to home districts. Nevertheless, the NSF has not been able to inspire the population at large – and it is going to have to figure out how to do so, particularly on the core economic and security issues. No group, including the Muslim Brotherhood, owns those issues. The opposition still could.
Former Brookings Expert
The NSF also has to hold itself together – which will prove difficult considering the different elements and political ideologies that it represents. It cannot propose a set of vague policies based on the lowest common denominator.
The umbrella group is now in the process of registering as a single party, made up of its quite distinct parts, and it will need a rationale that goes beyond simply being anti-Muslim Brotherhood.
There is an opportunity for a competent alternative to the Brotherhood, if the NSF can take it. That requires the different elements of the opposition to view the coalition as a strategic step with a long-term vision, and not as simply a reaction. Otherwise, the whole process will fail before it begins.
Furthermore, the NSF needs to engage an alliance with another political actor: Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former presidential candidate and leader of the Strong Egypt Party. Mr Aboul Fotouh is potentially a powerful ally within an opposition umbrella group.
At present, the two parties are ambivalent about each other, but the NSF should work hard to convince Mr Aboul Fotouh to join its diverse political coalition. He occupies the centre with his “moderate Islamist” background, having left the Muslim Brotherhood’s reformist wing after the uprising. His inclusion in the opposition could lessen the polarisation within Egyptian politics that has widened in the past couple of months.
Finally, and perhaps most delicately, the NSF needs to have a clear, open and direct message about religion in Egypt. So far, the non-Islamist opposition that is centralised within the NSF has been unwilling to speak about religion, fearing a battle with Islamist groups. Moreover, the NSF wants to stop the politicisation of religion, which might imply that it should remain silent about it.
Yet this is misleading. Religion is a part of Egypt’s social fabric. If the NSF wants its message to be as simple as “do not cheapen religion by making it about politics”, then it needs to say this more forcefully.
It needs to be transparent about what non-politicised religion looks like, and how it is intrinsically tied to Egypt’s religious tradition, as it is represented by Al Azhar University’s approach. But if the NSF says nothing, it will continue to be demonised by Islamist opponents in the religious debate.
Will the opposition mobilise on these points, and win a parliamentary majority in the next few months? They might. But then again, opposition groups also could have united behind a joint ticket in last year’s presidential elections, which would have supported a successful non-Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Mubarak president.
The opposition needs to learn from mistakes of the past two years, quickly, to give Egypt what it deserves: a political force that can hold the present government to account, and also outline an alternative for the future.