Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Opposition in the balance

Despite the country’s worsening political crisis and harsh economic problems, Dina Ezzat finds out that both the secular and Islamist opposition to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood are falling short of offering a comprehensive rescue plan

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Al-Ahram Weekly

What identity for the NSF?

Presented as a political rescue front, but criticised as an alliance of the failed, the National Salvation Front is still the most important expression of the anti-Morsi opposition

 

“What is your view of the alliance of losers and thieves who are counting on a corrupt mass media to spoil the efforts of President Mohamed Morsi?” This was a question in an Arabic exam at an Alexandria preparatory school spotted by several Egyptian dailies this week.

The obvious show of bias presented in the exam, not to mention the politicisation of education, is not an unusually negative reference to the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), something essentially done by members of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, it is an assessment shared by many people who are as frustrated by the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood regime as they are by what they see as the failure of the NSF to adopt a constructive political agenda that could help to resolve their problems.

“I am not getting anything out of anyone. I am not getting anything out of this new president who promised to make life better and nor am I getting anything out of the front,” commented Medhat, who works at a fast-food store not far from Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Medhat, in his early 30s, was hoping that things would settle down after Mohamed Morsi was elected president last summer and that the economy would pick up sufficiently to allow him to make enough money to marry his fiancée after four years of an engagement that has been extended due to a lack of resources.

However, things have not happened that way. “Look at the square. It is still full of demonstrators,” Medhat said.

Medhat is convinced that he is not benefiting from the demonstrations. “My salary has not increased since 2010, and everything is now much more expensive. How have we benefited from the Revolution? So why do we keep on demonstrating,” he asked.

It is hard to underestimate the increasing frustration of people like Medhat, and, indeed, of those who suffer from harsher economic challenges. It is a frustration that NSF leaders say is caused by the regime, due to its failure to run the state properly, and it is one simultaneously used by the regime to defame the NSF, now that the latter has emerged as one of the main bodies calling for protests against what it qualifies as attempts on the part of the Brotherhood to push aside all opposition and monopolise the state.

Launched last November in the wake of the controversial presidential constitutional declaration that granted the head of the executive provisional extra-judicial powers, the NSF is a body that brings together 14 opposition parties and several public figures. Its leading names include Mohamed Al-Baradei, NSF secretary-general and leader of the Dostour Party, Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the Popular Current Party, and Amr Moussa, leader of the Conference Party.

These three parties and figures could alone sum up the dilemmas of the NSF, for they do not match in their political orientations and they do not conform in their views of the future of the country, let alone in their recommendations for exiting the current political and economic crisis.

This is not just the case with these three new parties established last year. The same thing is true of older parties like the Wafd, the oldest name in liberal politics, and Al-Tagammu, the leading name among leftists. While the diversity, and consequently the differences, within the NSF were not centre-stage during the fight against the November 2012 constitutional declaration, they became more apparent later.

“Yes, there are alternative views within the NSF, and there is at times a tough give-and-take about this or that matter, but things are globally conducted in a healthy way,” argued Bassel Adl, a member of the NSF.

According to Adl and other members of key parties in the NSF, for all its internal disagreements the organisation remains a democratic body that is keen to allow for debate among its members. However, according to Hossam Al-Khouli of the Wafd, this will be reduced significantly over the next few months as the NSF establishes a proper structure and hierarchy that will allow for smoother operations.

“Things take time. We are all coming to terms with a new political reality. This is the case not just for the newly established parties, but also for the older parties like the Wafd, which was significantly constrained during the 60 years since the 1952 Revolution that put many restrictions on political parties,” Al-Khouli said.

“We are finding our way around the new rules of the game, and things are being systematically streamlined.”

Yet, this is easier said than done, critics say, including those who have defected from the NSF owing to their disillusionment. For such people, the NSF has been so deeply involved in a war of egos that it has become impossible for its leadership to act together. This war, critics say, is not just about the lack of chemistry between Al-Baradei, Sabahi and Moussa, but is instead also about the lack of fit among the constituencies of the parties and groupings within the NSF, with each one claiming to be at the helm or the founder of the Front.

Critics also speak of another war of egos within some of the NSF parties themselves, particularly the Dostour and Wafd, with the former having engaged in open debate about its structure and leadership.

Adel and Al-Khouli argue that this is an exaggerated assessment of what they call unsurprising differences among three men subscribing to different political experiences and schools. They insist that the diagnosis of an ego-driven failure on the part of the NSF is more wishful thinking on the part of the regime than a reflection of reality.

Yet, such internal differences are not the only problems the NSF has to deal with. Other problems include the views that some of the parties and figures of the NSF hold against one another, with the Conference Party sometimes being seen as too associated with the pre-January Revolution regime and the Wafd Party being accused of being too easily co-opted by the present regime, especially under the leadership of party leader Al-Sayed Al-Badawi.

Mohamed Orabi of the Conference Party shrugs off accusations that his party is close to the pre-January Revolution regime. “This is not a valid argument, even though it was used in the weeks and months after the revolution. Instead, it is clear that for the vast majority of Egyptians this allegation is designed to facilitate the character assassination of leading figures who have served the nation, and not the regime, in the past and are capable of continuing to do so,” he said.

Orabi added a reference to what he called the “tight race” that had taken place during the second round of the presidential elections last year between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, last prime minister of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.

According to Al-Khouli, the “exaggerated misinterpretations” of the political choices of the Wafd Party are simply attempts to undermine the history of this century-old political party. “These misrepresentations are an attempt to deprive us of a constituency that we have now and that we are working to expand,” he said.

The need to follow a more grassroots approach is something that is often mentioned in almost every reference to the NSF, with the front being seen as “too elitist” by many independent political commentators.

Hussein Abdel-Razek of the leftist Tagammu Party is willing to admit that “we need to all get out of our offices and to reach out to the people with a clear message about what we can offer them,” adding that the leftist parties in general “have a good chance of offering a plausible alternative to what the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to impose.”

But the left, at least in its purist version, is not necessarily at the centre of the NSF, though both the Dostour and Popular Current are left of centre. “However, when you look at the situation on the ground you immediately find that the core of the protest movements that led to the 25 January Revolution was composed of workers and the lower middle classes, and these are the typical constituencies of the left,” Abdel-Razek said.

“These people represent the capital of the next phase of the political march towards freedom and social justice.”

According to Sayed Al-Toukhi of the Popular Current Party, the country’s youth, this party’s largest constituency, are another bloc that can be counted upon in the battle to dissuade the Muslim Brotherhood from trying for “all-out political monopoly.”

Yet, the youth, as Al-Toukhi himself admits, are not particularly impressed with the line adopted by the leadership. “They are more radical in their approach. They want an outright move towards firm change and away from procrastination and extended political bargaining,” he said. This is, in a way, the main issue that the NSF seems to be facing now: either to work to try to mend the regime or to act in a bid to topple it.

In the wake of the November crisis, this dilemma was hard to miss in the statements made by Al-Baradei about “a regime that is losing legitimacy” and in those by Moussa, who spoke of “a regime that needs to bow to the people who brought it to power” and Sabahi, who spoke of a regime that “is collapsing”.

The dilemmas were also seen in the debate over whether to participate in the parliamentary elections, due this spring but now deferred to autumn due to a debate over the electoral law.

Members of the NSF who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly did not try to deny such discrepancies, which they said were normal for a loose umbrella of the anti-Morsi opposition.

“One thing is clear, and that is that the entire NSF is in agreement about the measures that need to be taken now: change the government, act to introduce a legitimately appointed new prosecutor-general, and fix the controversial articles in the new constitution,” Orabi said.

According to Al-Toukhi, “for all its current and possibly future disagreements, the NSF remains what it was formed to be: a body of national forces that are united in the objective of denying the Muslim Brotherhood the uncontested monopoly of the state. The NSF might have drawbacks, but at the end of the day it is the counter-power to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.”

“The NSF as a whole and most of the parties that are members of it have programmes that could offer a decent alternative to the tortured rule that the Muslim Brotherhood has been showing since Morsi took over last July,” Adel said.

 

Searching for an alternative

Political scientist and commentator Amr Al-Shobaki argues that the opposition needs to move beyond being a mere “contesting voice” against the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood

“When the Muslim Brotherhood commits a grave mistake, the opposition leaders manage to mobilise wide protests. But without these mistakes on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition leaders are unable to mobilise as many people to support any of its demands, legitimate as these might be,” said political scientist and commentator Amr Al-Shobaki of the state of the country’s political opposition.

“The youth organisations might be an exception because they can easily build up backing for a cause they support,” he added.

One clear example of where the opposition leadership was successful in garnering the support of the population, Al-Shobaki said, was when it demanded protests against the constitutional declaration announced by the presidency on 22 November last year to grant the president provisional extra-judicial powers.

“But this was not the case with the demands made by the opposition leadership to change the government of [Prime Minister Hisham Kandil] and to introduce a more efficient and independent government,” he added.

Al-Shobaki argued that the opposition for the most part today remains “for now a mere contesting voice against the ruling regime.”

A true political opposition, he suggested, needs to offer more than just reactions to the decisions of the presidency and the ruling party. Egypt’s “opposition has not offered an alternative to the regime, either in terms of potential leadership or in terms of state management options,” he said.

This was perhaps particularly true of the parties making up the National Salvation Front (NSF), put together by leading opposition figures in the wake of the November constitutional declaration. Outside the NSF, there were parties that seemed to be working more on the ground and trying to provide serious alternatives to the public, he added.

“I am thinking particularly of the Strong Egypt Party and the Egypt Party in this respect. They are really in touch with the masses, and they are really trying to provide specific working plans for things like reform of the police or rectification of the [controversial] constitution.”

Both these parties have Islamist sympathies, the first being led by former Muslim Brotherhood figure and independent presidential front runner Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and the other by modern Islamic preacher Amr Khaled.

The fact that these two parties have wide popular followings was perhaps due to their being relatively small and new parties working independently and without having to synchronise their positions with other political entities, as was the case for the parties that were members of the NSF, Al-Shobaki said, which included a variety of viewpoints from far left to far right.

“Take the Constitution Party and the Popular Current Party, for example. These two parties are the products of the 25 January Revolution, and they have a considerable, if not overwhelming, base of youth supporters that are willing to challenge any official without hesitation. This is not the case at all with the more traditional parties in the NSF,” Al-Shobaki said.

According to Al-Shobaki, regardless of inter-NSF divisions it was not particularly useful for any political party to confine itself to mere acts of protest.

“This is not the way things always work. In fact, this is not how things worked when ousted president Hosni Mubarak had to step down after 18 days of protest [in the winter of 2011] because the end of Mubarak’s rule was prompted by a combination of protests that were widely supported by the people at a time when the army also decided to give up on Mubarak,” he explained.

“I think the sooner the opposition realises that it is not by protests alone that the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood can be toppled the better it will be for their political choices,” he added.

In line with the style of the Strong Egypt and Egypt Parties, and unlike those allied to the NSF, there was also another quarter of the opposition that was trying hard to work on the ground and to develop a constituency, Al-Shobaki said, this represented by the National Movement Party that supported Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, when he joined the presidential race last year.

According to Al-Shobaki, “this party is really catering for the conservative constituency that finds no representation in the NSF and not even in the Conference Party led by Amr Moussa,” the former Arab League secretary-general and Egyptian foreign minister.

“I think the National Movement Party is trying to copy the style and mechanisms of the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of its grassroots approach. This Party might have more influence on the ground due to its grassroots-based approach, rather than, say, the Dostour Party led by Mohamed Al-Baradei,” a former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose name is closely associated with the launch of the protests of the 25 January Revolution.

However, in Al-Shobaki’s view, the opposition as a whole has yet to devise a united programme that can bypass the current political and economic crisis that the country is going through. “Obviously, there is no comprehensive roadmap, but there are sufficient ideas that if accommodated by the ruling party could help to defuse the crisis, or at least attempt to do so,” he added.

Such ideas include the demand to end the mandate of the current prosecutor-general, appointed by the president without respect for constitutional procedures and whose appointment is now challenged by a court ruling.

Also on the list of steps that the regime could adopt is the appointment of a new government that could provide creative ideas to solve the economic crisis and the appointment of a committee to work on fixing the most controversial articles of the constitution that was adopted a few months ago with less than two-thirds of the less than one-third of eligible voters who turned out in the polls.

“There are some things that the regime could do if it was serious about reaching out to the opposition, but it is not doing any of them,” Al-Shobaki said. He added that the ruling regime had also shrugged off without hesitation the comprehensive “exit schemes” that had been put forward by members of the NSF, including the Amr Moussa Initiative that demanded a six-month end to political hostilities pending the application of an economic rescue plan.

As far as Al-Shobaki was concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood regime was shrugging off the opposition almost exactly in the same way that the Mubarak regime used to do.

“So here we are with a regime that is shrugging off the opposition and an opposition whose main bet is to topple the regime through protests,” Al-Shobaki concluded.

“The big question today remains: if this regime fell as a result of its accumulated mistakes, would the opposition be able to assemble itself into offering a collective and consensual alternative?”

 

Neither for nor against

Prominent Nour Party figure Ashraf Thabet says that early presidential elections are not necessarily the best way out of the current political crisis

“The Nour Party has never been in any coalition with the ruling Freedom and Justice Party [FJP]. We agreed on some things and disagreed on others. As a result of the accumulation of mistakes on the part of the FJP, we were bound to part ways,” Ashraf Thabet, a leading figure in the Nour Party, one of the most prominent Salafist entities in post-25 January Revolution Egypt, said recently.

“This ‘fully with’ or ‘fully against’ [the FJP] approach is not something that we subscribe to because what we subscribe to is the interests of the nation. We support whatever helps and opposes whatever hampers the interests of the nation,” Thabet said, whose party was nevertheless widely seen as a supporter of the FJP before the recent fallout that could push this influential Salafist group away from the ruling political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Thabet, “throughout the 2011 elections [and the 2012 dissolved] parliament we were often at odds with the lines adopted by the FJP.” A member of the party’s higher committee, Thabet refers to incidents of “purposeful opposition”, like the opposition of his party to FJP demands during the 2012 presidential elections.

“When the FJP was calling for the removal of the government of [former prime minister] Kamal Al-Ganzouri, we in the Nour were saying that it did not make sense to keep changing governments during the interim period, and we managed to work with other political forces within parliament to support the mandate of the government,” he explained.

Thabet also underlined the fact that during the first round of the presidential elections the Salafis, especially those who were members of the Nour, voted more for presidential elections candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who ran as an independent, rather than for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood and FJP’s official candidate.

According to Thabet, the performance of the FJP and of President Morsi in particular has meant that it is in need of much good advice, and “this is what we have been giving,” he said.

Thabet argued that arguments between the two sides, which have included the sacking of an assistant to the president from the Salafist side, have not led to “exaggerated disagreements” with the FJP.

“There have been incremental mistakes that have been made [since Morsi took over] that have prompted clear disagreements,” he said, adding that the political crisis the country was facing and the disturbing economic situation have been the outcome of the president’s poor performance in office, to which the Nour takes exception.

However, the party was not calling for early presidential elections as a way out of the crisis, because it believed that an elected president should be allowed to serve his term in office, Thabet said. But there was a need for the mistakes that had been made to be remedied, since otherwise these could prompt or even justify the present polarisation.

An initiative proposed by the party for national reconciliation, made before the falling out of the two Islamist parties a few weeks ago, also remains on the table.

The Nour, Thabet suggested, was still opposed to the presidential proposals for reconciliation, since these would entail the appointment of an allegedly “more efficient government,” together with “reconciliation with some of the figures from the ousted regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.”

The Nour, Thabet said, was “still working” with both the FJP and the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), among other opposition entities, to find a way to initiate a national dialogue that could help bridge the gap between the regime and the opposition.

“We think that the way forward is for the parliamentary elections [due for the spring but now deferred to the autumn] to allow for the elected parliament to reflect the diverse views of the nation through a government that should be formed from the parliamentary majority in line with the new constitution,” Thabet said.

In parallel to this process, the Nour Party leader argued, his party was also working on helping to remedy the economic crisis. “We are calling for the introduction of a clear legal framework that could fast-track investment, and we are also trying to help mend relations between Egypt and the Arab Gulf countries that have huge and possibly expanding investments to make in Egypt,” he said.

In Thabet’s view, the current political crisis could be mended if the ruling party and the opposition were able to agree on some basic principles. This mission, he added, was being pursued by the Nour in its capacity as a party that was neither in alliance with, and nor was against, the present ruling party.

 

Strong Egypt?

Sometimes criticised for its “confused” positions, the Strong Egypt Party is the only group prescribing a specific remedy to the current political crisis in early presidential elections

“We are an opposition party. We have never thought of ourselves as anything but that, and the Islamist shade within the party does not at all mean that we are strictly Islamist. Moreover, the previous membership of the party’s leader of the Muslim Brotherhood does not at all mean that we are working on the side of the ruling party, as some would like to suggest,” said Mohamed Al-Mohandes, a founding member of the Strong Egypt Party that was established last autumn under the leadership of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former presidential frontrunner and expelled former member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The party, named after Abul-Fotouh’s campaign, has often been subject to criticism for what is seen by some as its “grey” political positions that always seem to be designed to avoid angering the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

But Al-Mohandes argues exactly the opposite. According to him, “our positions have always been very clear: we have stood firm against every decision by the president that we thought was unbecoming of a democratically elected president coming into office after a revolution that toppled a dictator,” he said.

Himself a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Mohandes insists that the positions of Strong Egypt have been very clear from 22 November last year, when the party took a firm stance against a presidential constitutional declaration that granted the head of the executive provisional extra-judicial powers, to this week when Abul-Fotouh was again making calls for the president to re-visit his political choices or succumb to early presidential elections, possibly next year.

“We have declined to be party to the overwhelming state of polarisation to which society has been victim. For us, being in the opposition means standing firm against decisions or choices that we see as incompatible with the national interest. This is very different from the Islamist versus non-Islamist discourse that has been taking over the political scene,” he said.

Last autumn, the Strong Egypt Party called on its followers to vote against the constitution that it said was incompatible with the demands of the 25 January Revolution, especially regarding the establishment of social justice. “We offered a detailed study of the articles that we thought were deviating from the path of social dignity and freedoms, as demanded by the 25 January Revolution, and we explained our views to the people,” Al-Mohandes said.

In this respect, Strong Egypt was acting in line with the wider opposition that rejected the constitutional draft that was essentially written by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, he added.

However, earlier this year Strong Egypt deviated from the otherwise almost collective voice of the opposition that decided to boycott calls for parliamentary elections that were due this spring but were deferred tentatively to the autumn as a result of a debate over the electoral law.

“Our choices are neither designed simply to oppose the ruling party nor flatly to follow the National Salvation Front or for that matter any other political entity. Our decision to agree to join the parliamentary elections was prompted by our firm belief that this was the way to be able to rectify policies, in other words through parliament,” Al-Mohandes said.

For the most part, Strong Egypt was following the same line as the NSF in declining calls from the presidency to join a “national dialogue” that was widely described by the opposition as being inconsequential as the president had firmly declined to commit to any guidelines in advance.

This raised concerns among the secular opposition, which is still lamenting its support for Morsi during the second round of the presidential elections last summer, since the now-elected president has failed to honour promises made at the time in return for the support of the non-Islamist vote.

However, earlier this year Abul-Fotouh deviated briefly from the party line by joining one of the national dialogue sessions with the encouragement of the Salafis who were proposing mediation between Morsi and the opposition and who had partially supported Abul-Fotouh during the presidential race.

“We did what we did because we had a plan to propose. We felt it was our duty to go the extra mile to spare this country from hitting an economic impasse,” Al-Mohandes argued. “This is what a political party should be doing: acting to rectify problems,” he added.

An IT engineer by profession, Al-Mohandes, in his early 30s, thinks that it will not be long before the “socialist, democratic and moderate Strong Egypt Party, whose membership today is at less than 10,000,” will find an adequate niche in the wider opposition.

Mohamed Imam, a businessman in his early 40s and also a founding member of Strong Egypt, is even convinced that the party will eventually be able to position itself as a widely representative body that has members from many backgrounds and a strong base in socialist Islamism, an ideology to which he personally subscribes.

Having worked closely with Khaled Abdel-Hamid of the Socialist Popular Coalition and Shadi Al-Ghazali Harb of the Dostour to draft the “Fairmont Understandings”, a set of demands put out by the opposition to Morsi during a meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Heliopolis, Imam is convinced that this episode is one of many testifying to the ability of the followers of the Strong Egypt Party to work with representatives of all patriotic political groups and parties “away from polarisation”.

Moreover, Imam is convinced that Strong Egypt, “which is inclusive of Islamists and others”, offers a version of neo-Islamism that goes beyond the traditional concepts of political Islam to allow for the integration of other political schools of thought that share the same principles of socialist Islamism and relate to social justice and egalitarianism.

Political science professor Amr Abdel-Rahman agreed that Strong Egypt was “perhaps one of the most interesting groups in the opposition and in Islamism as a whole.”

“It is of course an opposition party, and interestingly enough it is also an introduction of left-Islamism, if you like, into the political scene in Egypt,” he suggested. For Abdel-Rahman, it would be a mistake to associate Strong Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, given that the former was based on socialist principles, while the latter subscribed to what might be called the “religious right”.

“You should not confuse the two on account of Abul-Fotouh’s former association with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abdel-Rahman said.

That said, Abdel-Rahman was of the opinion that the leadership of Abul-Fotouh, with his own history and the political miscalculations he made during the presidential race, was in a way reducing the chances of Strong Egypt to assume its place as a prominent left-of-centre political group.

Securing a new leadership was not the only thing that Abdel-Rahman thought Strong Egypt needed. It also needed to focus more on its constituency, he said.

“As a left-of-centre party, Strong Egypt needs to stop counting on the Salafis, who were not particularly helpful for Abul-Fotouh during the presidential race, and to work instead on appealing to the obvious constituencies of all socialist democratic bodies — the middle class and minorities,” he said.

However, it was unlikely, Abdel-Rahman thought, that any such shift would take place before Abul-Fotouh handed over the leadership to someone “from the younger generation”.

 

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