Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Divided they stand

Unless the ruling party becomes stronger, and less reliant on the state apparatus, opposition parties will continue to flounder, writes Wahid Abdel-Maguid

The Egyptian opposition is entering the second decade of the 21st century in a state of disarray. Some of us may recall the few months in 1976 when a multi-party system was promised. Hopes, however, dimmed within months.

The gap was wide between the aims of president Anwar El-Sadat's regime and the expectations of the opposition. Parts of the opposition organised themselves in parties, including Tagammu, Wafd, the Liberal Party, and the Labour Party. Others remained independent, hoping for the right time to get onto the political stage.

As it turned out, long-awaited pluralism remained restricted and the first generation of the opposition found itself dragged into battles that sapped its energy. Restrictions on the activities of the opposition were harsh and the leadership of the opposition didn't know how to wriggle from the political straightjacket in which it was placed.

Eventually, the political scene acquired a flavour of acrimony and distrust, one for which the opposition may be just as responsible as the regime. The regime wanted to boast to its Western friends that it was a democracy, and the opposition didn't know how to turn the game in its favour, how to turn the window dressing into a reality.

This situation remains unchanged to the present day. The past 30 years brought no improvement in the political climate, although much has changed on the social front. Nothing shows the depth of the opposition's crisis better than its inability to address the future of the country after Hosni Mubarak. The president has so much power now that the issue of succession is crucial to the country's future. And yet the opposition doesn't seem to have anything to say in the matter, aside from a discourse that mixes reality with myth.

Most people who follow news of the opposition parties know that these parties have little to offer in terms of political progress. However, should public participation be broadened, and should elections become free, some of these parties may turn into a force for change.

The political stagnation that has continued for so long has taken its toll on the country. Because of the unfavourable political climate, the energies of the parties have turned inwards, producing a series of disputes and conflicts within the parties, ripping some of them apart.

It is not that these parties are lacking in abilities. The Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserist parties, in particular, are packed with politicians, intellectuals, academics and experts who are capable of producing political programmes better than anything available so far. The Wafd, to mention only one, has members and sympathisers who can perform quite admirably in any parliamentary elections, but many of them are averse to participating in elections that are not totally free.

Younger members of the opposition often accuse the older parties of being lackeys of the regime. This is not true. The older parties may have lost their drive, but only because of the frustrations they had to go through. Party members who lost interest in party work are, unfortunately, the ones who are most capable; the ones who refuse to waste their time and effort on fruitless endeavours.

As a result, we don't have a shadow party that can form a government on short notice. We don't have parties that can challenge the state apparatus and compete with the ruling party. And even the ruling party is not in great shape. It has come up with quite a few plans since the Policies Committee was formed, but that's rather a recent development. But on a purely organisational level, the National Democratic Party (NDP) is not really a modern political party, nor can it win a majority in free elections.

This is a problem for everyone, most of all the opposition parties. Because of its structural and organisational weakness, the NDP relies heavily on the state's administrative and security services. Counter-intuitively, the existence of a strong ruling party could be of great help to the opposition parties.

Indeed, there is not much hope for pluralism in Egypt until the ruling party is strong enough to win elections fair and square. Until such a possibility exists, don't expect the ruling party to hold elections that it may lose.

Free elections would give the opposition parties a chance to improve, and may also cut the Muslim Brotherhood down to size. The Brotherhood has grown out of frustration with politics. When you restrict political life, religion steps in to fill the void. The Brotherhood benefited from everything that weakened its secular rivals.

As it turned out, clampdowns on Brotherhood members served to increase the group's popularity. Those members of society fed up with the regime and its endless restrictions often end up supporting the Brotherhood -- claimed to be the strongest component of the opposition in Egypt, and definitely the biggest. But the Muslim Brotherhood lacks a project and is just playing things by ear, just like the rest of the opposition parties. Because of that, its chances are not that much better than the opposition's secular parties.

It may not be too late for the opposition, but it needs first to regain some of its vitality. For starters, the opposition needs to win back some of the talented members it lost during its years of disenchantment. And opposition parties need to spend more time worrying about national issues than engaging in internal bickering.

The Muslim Brotherhood, too, has a chance, but it needs to give more power to its younger members. Among the younger members of the Brotherhood there are some truly promising figures, including quite a few bloggers. The future of the Brotherhood depends on its ability to place its public duties ahead of its internal considerations.

As for the protest movements that appeared since 2004, the best known of which is Kifaya, these are mostly transient movements. Should political life become freer, the need for such movements is likely to diminish. Even if democracy prevails, few of the current protest movements would be able to exercise enduring influence. One reason for that is that all the leaders of these movements come from a political life marred by frustration and bickering, and are therefore inclined to repeat the same twisted patterns of the past.

The same goes for cyber opposition. Protests on the Internet have cropped up to fill a vacuum in our political life. If the opposition gets back on its feet, in its current or a changed form, Internet protests would also become less relevant.

The Egyptian opposition will not transcend its historic crisis until the regime introduces major political reforms, an unlikely prospect at least in the foreseeable future. At most, some of the opposition parties may win a few more seats in the 2010 parliament.

As for the presidential elections of 2011, none of the opposition groups or parties has a candidate plausible enough to make a presidential bid that is more than symbolic. The opposition is going to have a hard time agreeing on a presidential candidate of one of its parties. But it may agree on an outsider with a certain appeal to the public, for that could be a winning tactic.

Mohamed El-Baradei, whose name has been mentioned in this regard, is an unlikely candidate, however. He may be cherished by the elite, but he is not that well-known to the public. Perhaps, the best bet for the opposition in the next presidential election is to find a political outsider who is adequately known to the public and willing to take a chance against all odds.

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