In a Turbulent Egypt, Progress Depends on Responsible Opposition Leadership

jp-egypt1-articleLargeThe past turbulent weekend was rife with aggressive expressions of civic discontent in numerous cities throughout Egypt, not only in response to the recent court verdict on the 2012 Port Said football massacre, but against current president Mohammad Morsey. Protests rocked the cities of Cairo, Ismailia, Port Said, Alexandria, and Suez, resulting in hundreds of injuries and over thirty casualties (the majority occurring in Port Said). While many demonstrators maintained a stance of non-violence, the numerous accounts of forceful protestors vandalizing private and public property, provoking the police, and using weaponry are particularly troubling and certainly should not fare well for the public image of the president’s opposition.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s activity this weekend demonstrated a commendable degree of responsibility, with leadership commanding MB adherents and supporters of the president to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the 2011 revolution by planting trees and doing works of public service. In accordance to MB requests, Morsey supporters did not mobilize in response to the opposition, though individual MB members were free to attend protests should they wish.

On the evening of 27 Janaury, as extreme violence ensued in Ismailia, Port Said, and Suez, President Morsey established emergency law in these three cities, a last resort measure to re-establish order after the police had failed to do so. While many recognize the necessity of these extreme measures in such exceptional situations, this writer fears that Morsey’s opposition may misunderstand the decree. Clashes continue for the fifth day today in Cairo, leaving us to wonder if emergency law will spread to the capital as well.

The opposition’s size is formidable, but we must not overlook the vast majority of Egyptians, who are either apathetic or eager for the current instability to finally cease so the nation may begin moving towards the political and economic stability essential for reform. These are the citizens who spent the weekend at home, either watching the news reports in disappointment, trying not to think about it, or cut off by the isolation of village life.

Tensions this past weekend only further demonstrate one of the greatest challenges Egypt’s transition faces: the dichotomy between the supporters of president Morsey – who include not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also citizens who respect the democratic process which brought the current president to power – and the petulant opposition, who are calling for Morsey’s abdication of power. While not all citizens are taking sides, the existing social rift between millions of nationals truly showed its potential for destruction last December, when Morsey supporters mobilized at an anti-Morsey demonstration outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis. The ensuing melee resulted in hundreds of casualties, several deaths, and even greater animosity between the two camps.

What is the key to restoring stability, establishing a balance of political ideologies in the new government, and moving towards the reform that the nation so desperately needs as it teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and as poverty and disenfranchisement continue to plague the majority of society?

A responsible shift in the strategies of opposition leadership is the key. In a recent article, analyst Hani Sabra wisely points out the following:

“The prevalence of undecided potential voters means that Egypt’s divided non-Islamists could make electoral progress if they successfully appeal to new voters beyond their own bloc of five to six million, mostly urban supporters. However, to date, Egypt’s non-Islamist movement remains incoherent. Thus far, their strategy has been to be the party of “no” and to try to pressure authorities through street protests. This will not work. Non-Islamists can certainly win Egyptian elections, but they have to work twice as hard. They have yet to hone an appealing message, focused on the economy, for example, that would attract voters in places like Upper Egypt or other rural parts of the country, where they are particularly weak.”

Were the liberal parties to shift their focus away from streets and towards internal development and campaigning; if they developed coherent messages aside from their current platform of “no” and appealed to voters throughout the country, then these parties would fare well in the upcoming Parliamentary election, potentially winning enough seats to established a balanced legislative body, one that would represent Egypt’s diverse political persuasions.

Yet liberal party leadership remains unwilling to take such steps. Last weekend, opposition leader Mohammad el-Baradei encouraged protestors via his Twitter account to “go out into the squares to finally achieve the objectives of the revolution.” This approach from opposition leadership will bring no good to their cause or the country: continued disturbance will only impede on progress, and now that emergency law has been imposed, such tactics could potentially create a vicious circle where the fervor and disobedience of the opposition will only be fueled by increased governmental attempts to regain order by force.

While the opposition’s chants the past weekend called for Morsey to step down, it is difficult to imagine this being a positive outcome. Remember, the majority is not with the opposition, with millions either unaligned or in active support of the President.  The Brotherhood and Morsey’s supporters would not take well to a forced abdication of power, which would cause dangerous tensions in a political dichotomy that has already shown its potential for violence.  Moreover, abdication of power would undermine the democratic process that brought Morsey to power, complicating Egypt’s future elections.

Considering the dangers of the “step down” option, it seems necessary that responsible leadership on the side of the opposition wake up to the reality of the current political situation and shift their energies away from transgression and towards collaboration, organization, campaigning, and spreading a message stronger and more appealing than, “no Morsey”. Doing so offers the promise of a balanced Parliament representing the diverse political identities of Egypt, which would usher in a degree of stability where necessary social and economic reforms can finally be addressed, moving Egypt forward in its transition.

Colette Salemi graduated from Williams College in 2010 with a BA in Political Science. She has spent the past two and a half years working and studying Arabic in the Middle East and has lived in Jordan, the West Bank, and Egypt. An educator, she has been living in Cairo the past year teaching at a local NGO focused on youth empowerment through professional skills.

Photo from New York Times

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