On the Egyptian opposition

The National Salvation Front’s recent decision to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt that reminded me I have been thinking of writing a post on the subject of the Egyptian opposition for weeks. Warning: it's a long post.

Anyone who follows Egyptian politics will have probably made two broad conclusions by now. First, that the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi, out of a combination poor judgement, paranoia and greed, have made the choice of sacrificing the possibility of a stable and inclusive transition for the sake of consolidating their control over the old regime machinery rather than reforming it. Second, that the “liberal” or secular opposition gathered under the banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF) is missing a golden opportunity to benefit from the Brotherhood’s actions and the public indignation they have caused by behaving in an utterly politically clueless manner. Let us deal with the second part of that equation.

Whatever bluster the MB is making about having a mandate from the parliamentary and presidential elections — and I believe it does have a mandate, albeit not one to act as they have done — its actions as of November 22, 2012 (when Morsi enacted his constitutional decree) and thereafter (its humiliating rushing of the constitution) have sent the opposition into spinning hysteria. It appeared, at first, that the move would unite a disparate group — after all the NSF was formed — but today, despite the united position on a boycott, there is still a good chance individual politicians and parties will still participate. I’ll get back to the wisdom of a boycott later.

The NSF may be right to be angry, and it is not the only political actor to share in that anger (look at the Salafis’ recent blistering critique of the MB as power-hungry and bent on appointing supporters in local administration for electoral advantage) but the anger has not been channelled constructively. Dissonant voices inside the NSF (ranging from ones which claimed, at least until a few days ago, respect Morsi’s legitimacy but ask him to mend his ways to those who want to overthrow him), a growing disconnect with protestors, changing demands and lack of organizational savvy are causing the opposition to appear totally out of touch and incapable of representating a viable alternative. Rarely are politicians handed such a golden opportunity as the opposition was on November 22, and while it got the secularists (mostly) under one umbrella, the NSF has squandered it.

In no particular order, here is what I see as the main problems:

  • The NSF is being led by the protest movement rather than leading it. Despite the best efforts of the Muslim Brothers to paint the NSF as the ringmaster of the protest circus, it is painfully obvious its influence is diminishing. Still, the NSF could have a calming effect (and, contrary to MB claims, has consistently denounced violence, even if it could have been more forceful in its condemnation of attacks on MB offices and figures). Its positions and rhetoric changes day to day depending on public mood (as defined by a private media that is hysterically anti-MB and exaggerates issues that are grave enough in reality). So one day they are into negotiating and the next the Morsi regime cannot be dealt with. Which one is it?
  • The NSF’s demands took over one month to coalesce — and then they allowed themselves to be trapped by their own positions (the main reason for the boycott, without a thought to long-term consequences). There were good demands in there, notably the focus on ensuring the forthcoming elections are free and fair, the electoral law a matter of consensus, and domestic and international observers being allowed unfettered access. That last point is particularly important since the NSF is unlikely to have the MB’s army of party observers that proved so effective during the presidential election, but has many allies in civil society — and the Morsi administration appears to be ready to grant the request, since some international monitors have already been approved.
  • One the main demands, for a National Unity Government (NUG) to be formed, seems of dubious necessity to me. What, precisely, was being envisaged? ElBaradei gets the ministry of trade, Moussa the ministry of labor, Sabahi the ministry of education? Are they after specific portfolios? Or are they in fact looking for a super-prime minister who would co-rule with Morsi? There is a case to be made for the sacking of particular ministers — Egypt could use an interior minister really dedicated to reform and a team of economic ministers, led by a economically-savvy PM, that makes the government’s primary focus redressing the economy. But, if elections are to be held in 2–3 months, do you really need a NUG? And according to what standards would you staff it? It’s pretty clear the reason the Nour Party supports a NUG is to get its own foothold in the cabinet, probably for the education portfolio that it wanted before. But the current cabinet is necessarily temporary, the elections’ results will demand a new cabinet, and now is not the time for long-term projects (remember the temporary Ganzouri cabinet’s ridiculous 10-year plan?)
  • Likewise, Amr Moussa’s demand that elections be postponed made no sense to me. Postponed to what purpose? There may be decent reasons, but they never made them clear. And who governs in the interim — an all-powerful president and an Islamist-dominated Shura Council that has sole legislative authority even though it was never elected with that authority in mind? Elections may have returned (relatively) poor results for the non-Islamists so far, but they can’t be avoided forever, and I’m not sure more time with a contested government helps matters.
  • The NSF wants the constitution amended, and Morsi agrees in principle. But it has not specified the mechanism by which the constitution should be amended. The MB’s choice, backed by the constitution, is that a committee could be formed to identify articles to change (i.e. limit the scope of changes) and that the modifications could be put to the next parliament. I doubt that this is what the NSF wants, but we have not heard its ideas — does it want a deal whereby the constitution is quickly amended and the Brothers promise to adopt the committee’s recommendations? Fat chance. More importantly, we have yet to see a serious document produced by the NSF regarding the 40 or so articles it claims to find problematic. What are its proposals? Or is is playing its cards close to its chest because it might need to leave the “Islamic” component of the new constitution aline to secure the backing of the Nour Party?
  • The NSF criticizes Morsi for not “achieving the revolution’s goals” yet does not put forward proposals to do so itself. Not a single political force in Egypt has offered what every outside expert, and much of Egyptian civil society, said would be desirable for a more democratic Egypt. Such as a transitional justice process that foregoes the dozens of trials of former regime figures on very specific charges for a trial of the regime itself, by an extraordinary tribunal. Transitional justice is not about punishment as much as it is about truth-telling and healing. Is Hosni Mubarak’s crime that he authorized the killing protestors, that he was corrupt, or — as I see it — chiefly that he criminally misgoverned the country for three decades? And what of his predecessors? Where is the soul-searching about where Egypt is coming from and where it should be headed? The attitude towards transitional justice by officials (at least in the civil service, perhaps not in the Morsi administration although they have not shown otherwise) can be summed up by something a friend who works in the field told me recently. After approaching the authorities about implementing a transitional justice framework (for instance on the South African model), he was told point blank: “We are not a post-conflict society. If you want transitional justice, go to Congo.”
  • Another issue they could raise is security sector reform, where again there is much agreement but zero implementation. The Morsi administration appears to be eschewing reform for co-optation and, over time, infiltration of the ministry of the interior. It now has a minister of interior believed to be sympathetic to its goals, but he is facing an unprecedented rebellion from the ranks of police NCOs (currently on strike in several provinces) and the opposition of much of his officer corps. Conscripts who form the bottom tier of the police force, and especially the Central Security Forces riot police, may not be very happy about being used as cannon fodder against protestors for much longer, either. In the last two years, no political force in Egypt has presented a coherent plan for security sector reform (although many party platforms mention it) or even expressed the desire to seek international expertise on the matter (after all many other countries have gone through such a process). Why not change that and offer some concrete yet radical?
  • The NSF has not capitalized on the grievances around issues of social justice and governance, have not offered their own take on whether an IMF deal is desirable and if so what kind of austerity measures should be taken to improve Egypt’s fiscal balance. Too often, it will simply criticize what the Morsi administration does without suggesting an alternative — and sometimes individuals in the opposition even criticize things they really back, simply for the sake of embarrassing the government. This reminds me of the way the Brotherhood often conducted itself under Mubarak, criticizing the NDP on everything simply as a positioning tactic. This tactical approach, permanently short-term and reactive, has made the elaboration of a longer-term strategy impossible, particularly when NSF leaders seem to predict (bank on?) game-changing events such as the rise of chaos or a military intervention. Let’s say those happen — what will be their goals then? What do they stand for?

I spend much of my time, on this blog and elsewhere, criticizing the Brotherhood’s disastrous handling of politics in the last two months. They deserve full blame for the situation of the country, and should be the ones making concessions to get out of the current situation. And too often others, notably outsiders, make excuses for them. But the NSF’s ineffectual leadership has made this all the more easy, with no clear alternative being proposed to counter the narrative that the “opposition” are just a bunch of spoilers. I don’t believe it’s that simple, but they are unable to counter that idea without putting forward some serious, well-thought-out proposals.

On the question of the boycott, I can partly understand the position: the Morsi administration has sent the country into pronounced uncertainty, is unable to provide security, is making terrible economic decisions, and is unwilling to make concessions to the opposition when they do propose something concrete that would not affect its electoral chances, such as promoting women in elections or engaging in (mutually acceptable) redistricting. Having asked for the wrong things initially, and threatened not to participate if it doesn’t get what it wants, the NSF is now stuck with having to carry out its threat or back down. It thus now appears to be betting that the boycott and protests will eventually force the Morsi regime’s hand. Such a strategy is doubly risky: it opens the NSF to accusations of destabilization and unwillingness to compete (in elections which may turn out to have, at least, unprecedented foreign and domestic monitoring), and does not give it a backup plan should the current instability recede and elections take place with some participation from the rest of the opposition (Salafi, felool, etc.)

The danger is thus that, while the elections will take place in a turbulent context, they will nonetheless be generally seen as good enough (like previous partly flawed polls) and the NSF and its components will be left on the outside — and it will have ceded its current status as “the opposition” to either the Salafis should their current tiff with the Brothers continue, or the felool if they make a strong comeback (a distinct possibility).

Was there an alternative that still enabled them to put pressure on the Brotherhood? Probably. One course of action would be to build a broad alliance (with the felool and possibly the Salafis, at least on some issues) that is anti-MB. They could have even campaigned to impeach Morsi and rewrite the constitution (unlikely since 67% of parliament would be needed, but still a potent threat.) Such a campaign would have leveraged the current polarization to their advantage, and if unsuccessful might still give them a large presence in parliament and an opportunity to change tack towards Morsi once elected, should prospects for negotiations reopen. On the constitution, they could have found at least areas of agreement with the Salafis, who might not want its Islamic components changed but are open to changing other areas — and putting pressure on Morsi to include them (and other political forces) in cabinet positions.

Even without such deal-making, a presence in the next parliament (and there is no reason to believe they could not at least reproduce the decent results of 2011, when they controlled about 25% of seats) would have been useful in a myriad of ways. Certainly a lot more useful than their current political existence, restricted to TV studios and press conferences.