The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged nsf
Carrothers: Egypt’s Dismal Opposition: A Second Look

Thomas Carrothers of Carnegie had a good piece on the over-dissing of Egypt's opposition:

Overly harsh views of the Egyptian opposition—combined with a lack of recognition that many once-weak opposition actors in countries emerging from authoritarian rule have gone on to win elections—fuel the unhelpful idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political force likely to hold power in Egypt for the foreseeable future. And that idea in turn encourages the problematic belief evident in U.S. policy in the past year that no alternative to the Brotherhood is likely to be viable for many years and the resultant tendency to downplay the Brotherhood’s significant political flaws.

The United States and other Western powers should not make it their business to actively support the opposition. But they should at least approach Egypt’s new political landscape with an open mind, informed by experiences from elsewhere.

Listening to U.S. officials and political analysts pillory the Egyptian opposition, it is hard not to wonder what gives American observers so much judgmental self-confidence. The United States has more than two-hundred years of democratic history, the finest institutions of higher education in the world, and one of the highest standards of living, Yet, in last year’s U.S. presidential elections, the country produced a slate of political opposition figures that as a group did not compare favorably to Egypt’s major opposition leaders in intelligence, integrity, or capability.

He makes many good points, but the central one — that the Egyptian opposition is complete mess, but that this is not unusual in these situations and that it's not as hapless as its critics contend — is very much worth bearing in mind. US and EU officials I've heard complain about "whiny liberals" who are "useless" are putting out self-serving arguments that attempt to excuse their support for SCAF and, later, Morsi during the constitutional declaration crisis of November 2012. One American diplomat, I remember, condemned some in the opposition for having supported Ahmed Shafiq's candidacy — perhaps unaware that the government he represented had supported Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. I've been critical of this opposition's often tenuous hold on reality, but they're not the only one with the problem.

The Future of Egypt's Opposition

Bassem Sabry writes, in long piece on NSF travails, that Salafi-NSF made increasingly likely by shared hostility to MB:

Moreover, expanding the common ground with Al-Nour, the largest Salafi party, is a surprisingly possible undertaking at the moment, and the ground is fertile for that matter on nearly everything except the most profound: the amendment of the constitution. The opposition also needs to experiment with new strategies for exercising legitimate political pressure, with the target of bringing Morsi and the Brotherhood as realistically as possible back into a more inclusive democratic process. 


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.

Morsi's popularity dips (just) below 50%

The latest poll conducted by Baseera, one of Egypt's better pollsters, illustrates the hit the Morsi administration has taken in the last two months: President Mohammed Morsi, whose approval rating reached 78% in September at its peak, is now less than 50% for the first time. The trend is clearly a downwards one, and that's in the absence of a strong alternative leader in the opposition. The National Salvation Front, on the other hand, has also taken a hit but may face a greater challenge: some 35% of those polled had never heard of it, a devastating measure of the NSF's lack of street presence (although, to be fair, the NSF's components and individual leaders may be better know.

The full press release from Baseera is after the jump.


Press Release on the Poll Conducted by Baseera Center on the Performance of the National Salvation Front and the President’s Approval Rating after Eight Months in Office

Magued Osman

President’s approval rating continues to decline, falling to less than 50% of Egyptians.

One third of Egyptians have not heard of the National Salvation Front, while more than 50% of those who have do not support the NSF.

The Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research "Baseera" conducted its periodic poll to track the President’s approval ratings after eight months in office. The results showed a continued decline in approval ratings. The percentage of those who approve the President’s performance reached 49% compared to 53% at the end of the seventh month, and 78% at the end of the first 100 days in office. This is the first time to observe an approval rating that is less than 50%. At the same time, the percentage of those who disapproved rose to 43% compared to 39% by the end of the seventh month in office and 15% by the end of the first 100 days. The approval rating of the President is only 35% among university graduates, compared to about 54% among those with less than intermediate education.

At the same time, the percentage of those who would re-elect President Morsi, if elections were held tomorrow, continued to decline, reaching 35% compared to 39% at the end of the seventh month and 58% at the end of the first 100 days in office.

The poll conducted this month included a number of questions about the National Salvation Front (NSF). The results show that 35% of Egyptians have not heard of the NSF at all. This percentage rises to 45% in rural areas, compared to about 24% in urban areas. The percentage of those who have never heard of the NSF is about 20% in urban governorates compared to 39% in Lower and Upper Egypt. Moreover, half of those who have less than intermediate education have not heard of the NSF, compared to 7% of university graduates.

Respondents familiar with the NSF were asked whether they support the Front. The results indicate that 35% do support it, 53% do not, and 12% are undecided or have no opinion about NSF. The percentage of supporters is higher in Lower Egypt governorates, reaching 42%, versus 35% in urban governorates, and 27% in Upper Egypt.

Respondents familiar with the NSF – supporters and opponents – were asked about their views about its performance. Around 12% evaluated its performance as good, 33% as average, and 42% as poor. The rest of the respondents were undecided. These percentages vary considerably between NSF supporters and non-supporters. The percentage of those who perceive the NSF’s performance as good is as high as 33% among supporters, compared to only 1% among opponents. Similarly, the percentage of those who see its performance as average is 58% among supporters compared to only 17% among non-supporters. The percentage of those who perceive its performance as poor was only 3% among supporters compared to 75% among non-supporters.

When respondents familiar with the NSF were asked their views about the best political figure, Amr Moussa came first (19%), followed by Hamdein Sabbahi (12%), and Mohamed El-Baradei (6%). However, 27% reported either that there was no worthy political figure or that they were all undeserving, while 29% were undecided.


The survey was conducted using landline and mobile telephones. The size of the probability sample was 2275 Egyptians above 18 years old. All interviews were conducted on Monday and Tuesday February 18 and 19, 2013. The response rate was approximately 74%, and the margin of error was less than 3%. Income brackets were determined based on ownership of durable goods. For more information on the detailed findings and the methodology used, please refer to our website

Baheyya on Morsi and his opponents

On Morsi's Opponents


She's back (also with this piece on Morsi) and this bit of vitriol for the NSF:

My point about the NSF isn’t that it’s infiltrated by feloul or that it’s an alliance of convenience. It’s that its notion of opposition is sophomoric at best and putschist at worst. The sight of politicians refusing to negotiate with an elected president but then agreeing to the military’s “we’re all family” shindig is beyond pitiful. How much more effective to have negotiated with Morsi a cancellation of his decree and a postponement of the referendum. If he refused the latter, the NSF could’ve called his bluff and walked out triumphant, revealing the MB’s bullying to the public while proving themselves to be responsible problem-solvers. Instead, by acting militant in a situation that required hard bargaining, the NSF is left to accept the fact of the referendum while saving face by grandstanding about conditions already in place.

She's right about this, of course, although I think the NSF has made some subtle improvements in its strategy even in the last few weeks. I agree with her profile of its leaders, too, although I'm always dumfounded by her admiration for the execrable Hamdeen Sabahi, particularly considering what we know about the financing of his presidential campaign and his former admiration for Muammar Qadhafi.