ElBaradei and Egypt's state of play

A few tidbits about the outcome of the recent elections in Egypt — I didn't really want to blog about them a lot because they were a travesty, but here are some thoughts about the post-election game. 

I wrote this on the day after the poll to a friend who asked about the opposition after the elections:

I think the regime has been in panic mode to handle this situation for the last week. The Wafd, having decided to boycott the second round, can only come back at this point as the second opposition party after the Tagammu, although it had expected to be the first with around 15-20 seats. Individuals may decide to come back and claim their seat to make full use of the money they spent getting elected, but for now it appears the party will sit things out. The Wafd actually has money, but has mostly not been allowed to spend it building party infrastructure and networks etc. They may decide to fold back and regroup, preparing for the post-Hosni moment.

The Tagammu is in the midst of a big leadership crisis it might not survive. Although it looks like it won about 6 seats, you have a core of the party that has rebelled. In Egypt this usually makes a party vulnerable to being frozen by the Political Parties Committee, but that's not that likely here.

The MB is reeling from this election, which will probably enable more confrontational elements of the Brotherhood to surface — by confrontational I mean the people who want to confront the regime politically rather than make deals with it. The leadership appeared to be convinced, like the Wafd, that they would retain 15-30 seats or more. But the quietist trend probably dominates, with a fixation on the the post-Hosni moment.

Individually, these and the rest of the opposition have little choice but to retreat and wait out succession, and work on their grassroots. The logic will be to wait hoping that succession will provide some kind of reset mechanism for the political system, or at least an opportunity for renegotiation with the regime. Since it's all so opaque, that is probably too sanguine an approach: there is nothing that guarantees the next president will have the power to redistribute the political system, although there may be a honeymoon period.

The logical alternative is to collaborate and build on the tentative alliances formed in recent years to create a real national opposition movement, or a committee for the salvation of Egypt, or even Ayman Nour's idea of a shadow parliament and shadow government. I'm just not sure that the leadership is there to do that, though. Were Mohammed ElBaradei to provide more dynamic leadership he might become a gathering point, but he has thus far shown little willingness to do so. I can't imagine most of the Wafd's leaders taking part seriously, even if they have been seriously shaken by the election. The MB, to take part in such a grand coalition, would have to yet again bear the brunt of arrests and attacks on economic interests. Other parties only have a few personalities. I suspect we won't see serious movement in that direction for a few months anyway, with time taken to reassess the situation.

I remember in 2005 Madeleine Albright gave a closed door meeting to some opposition figures (Saad etc.) and told the people in the room, "there is not a viable opposition movement in Egypt that we can support." The regime will continue to ensure there isn't, and the opposition hasn't showed any more savvy in creating a real alliance. Their calculus must be: either risk alienating the regime by backing ElBaradei or a national movement calling for radical change, or wait it out for a hypothetical better future. Especially as they are expecting outsiders to back the regime (US, France, Italy, UK, EU and of course the Arab states).

So for now, probably no street action, but next year there could be. The demands for annulment by NGOs is not likely to get that far. The opposition is weak and under siege, but its biggest problem is a lack of leadership. And ElBaradei spent the elections in Brazil...

I would correct that last line: yes, ElBaradei was in Brazil ostentatiously ignoring the election, but he's come back with what seems renewed willingness to campaign for reform. In the last week he's toured parts of Upper Egypt and gained new attention as a potential unifier of the opposition. Here's something else I wrote last week:

An immediate interpretation of the election results is that those opposition movements that had advocated a boycott — and first and foremost among them Muhammad ElBaradei and his National Association for Change — are vindicated. ElBaradei’s call for a boycott was based on the premise that any form of participation in elections that are held in an unfair environment is tantamount to an endorsement of the regime. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more so the Wafd, participation was seen as an attempt to appease the regime, as well as a reflection of the fact that despite its limitation, parliament can serve opposition groups as a platform from which to reach out to the media and claim some leadership roles. 

If the decision by major parties to participate in the elections was a bad sign for ElBaradei, the election’s results has pushed the opposition back in his direction. ElBaradei has shown his disdain by spending the election season in Brazil, and recently returned to Cairo and embarked on a national tour. The Muslim Brothers are lending him verbal support for a first post-election protest, but remain undecided about whether this means using their considerable ability to mobilise supporters. Any such move would likely trigger another fierce crackdown against the Islamists, just after over 1,300 of its supporters were arrested as part of a pre-election crackdown. ElBaradei still has to show a greater willingness to lead the opposition, and other actors such as the Wafd have similar calculations to make about whether they want to alienate the regime. Thus, even if the conditions post-election appear ripe for a renewal of the stand of the Egyptian position that refuses the current political framework, the state retains a great capacity for dissuasion and repression.

Talking to people in the MB, I get the feeling that decision to actually mobilize supporters on the street has not been made. I doubt it will be, and can understand why: they would face yet another massive crackdown. Only the right political context and momentum among the opposition would make that likely, as well as as the MB accepting to be by fast the biggest element in an united opposition but not necessarily have the biggest say.

Nonetheless, the regime is already reacting to ElBaradei's recent comeback. Two incidents in the last few days are noteworthy: 

- ElBaradei was refused entry into the journalism syndicate by syndicate chair Makram Mohammed Ahmad, a regime loyalist if ever there was one. Zeinobia provides indignant coverage.

- In Minya, local Christian figures were blocked from meeting with ElBaradei.

- Salafist groups are beginning to attack ElBaradei. This is probably at the instigation of security, or to ingratiate themselves with the authorities after the recent signs that the government is unhappy with some Salafists (for instance the closure of the al-Nas satellite channel):

Mahmoud Amer, head of Egypt's Al-Sunna al-Mohamadiya religious group, issued a religious edict this week calling on Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to "repent" for inciting civil unrest and calling for a popular boycott of next year's presidential elections.

“The temporal ruler has the right to kill [ElBaradei] or imprison him if he refuses to repent,” Amer said. “Mubarak represents Egypt's legitimate Muslim ruler, and defying him is a sin.”

“Whatever mistakes the ruling regime may make, the adverse effects of civil disobedience and unrest on society promise to be much greater,” he added.

They are playing with takfiri fire here, this is close to calling ElBaradei an apostate.

Here's another take on the state of the Egyptian opposition - it's not rosy.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.