Egypt’s opposition struggles to unite

As a consitutional referendum looms, President Morsi’s opponents are torn between a ‘no’ campaign and a boycott.

Sabahi amid crowds
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahi was greeted by many anti-Morsi protesters when he arrived in Tahrir Square [REUTERS]

Cairo, Egypt – Just days ahead of a national referendum to approve Egypt’s first post-revolution constitution, the country’s opposition remains divided, struggling to decide whether to vote “no” or to boycott entirely a process they view as unfairly rigged by Islamist forces.

But as the array of liberal, leftist and progressive parties search for consensus, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its more conservative Salafist allies have already begun campaigning throughout the country to convince Egyptians to approve the constitution.

The leadership of the National Salvation Front, the umbrella opposition group, has seemed content to press their civil disobedience campaign, hoping that public pressure and the violent response from President Mohamed Morsi’s supporters – which has already led to several deaths – would derail the proposed referendum.

The Front’s official goal is to halt the vote entirely, and representatives are reluctant even to discuss contingency plans if the referendum goes ahead. But major strikes from Egypt’s labour movement, which the opposition had hoped would be the crucial blow against Morsi, have failed to materialise, making the vote likely to proceed as planned.

Some parties have begun to move unilaterally, holding rallies, handing out pamphlets and disseminating information, both on the streets and online, pushing for a “no” vote. This last-minute decision-making has liberals worried that they are dooming themselves to another defeat and has left observers wondering how Morsi’s opponents remain disorganised, a year after Islamists scored an overwhelming parliamentary election victory.

“The total lack of coherent strategy is disheartening,” Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst who covered last year’s parliamentary elections for the Eurasia Group, wrote on Twitter. “[The] opposition [is] not feckless but outmanoeuvered … [they] should’ve prepared for this long ago.”

Differences keep Egypt’s opposition divided

Yet among the opposition party membership, there appears to be little alarm at the prospect that they have waited too long. Many say they are confident that the Brotherhood, in which Morsi held a top position until winning June’s election, has lost significant popularity over the past six months after perceived over-reaching and poor performance in government.

Hossam Moanes, a spokesman for the prominent Popular Current, a socialist party that grew out of former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s surprising “dark-horse” campaign, said that the group would hold a popular vote on Tuesday to determine its strategy.

That vote, he said, would involve tens of thousands of party members and span each Egyptian governorate.

“We have two trends inside the Current, there are still two points of view, and we’re trying to do it democratically,” Moanes said. “My personal opinion is to boycott. The legitimacy of the regime is collapsing, and participating in the democratic process while there is bloodshed among Egyptians is not the right thing.”

Non-representative representation

The battle over the constitution draft may be just one symptom of a broad ideological clash between Islamists and their opponents that could endure in Egypt for years. The current crisis, however, dates back to the summer, when the constituent assembly tasked with drawing up the document began its work.

Even then, the assembly rested on shaky foundations.

Its first iteration came in March, when parliament filled half the assembly with politicians from among its own ranks. Most opposition groups boycotted the entire process, viewing it as a farce, since the parliament was dominated by a super-majority of both the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Salafis.

That assembly was ruled unrepresentative by the courts and dissolved in April, only to be replaced by another in June containing 39 parliamentarians, with the rest of the membership composed of “public figures” – judges, legal experts, religious delegates and others.

Critics charged that the second assembly suffered from the same flaw as the first, only this time parliament had arranged the Islamist super-majority less obviously, selecting Brotherhood and Salafist allies to fill the seats of the “public figures” and supposedly non-partisan members.

Lawsuits against the assembly hung overhead from the outset, and in November, nearly two dozen opposition and Christian delegates finally walked out. Another dissolution by the courts seemed inevitable until Morsi issued a special decree on November 22 making the assembly immune to judicial oversight.

The president’s opponents were outraged. Lacking true national consensus, they argued, he had sidelined minorities and rammed his constitution through with the sort of raw majoritarian power that had no place in the birth of a new democracy.

Hossam Issa is a prominent law professor once short-listed to be Morsi’s prime minister.

“Can you imagine Mr Obama saying that the Republicans are refusing to make an agreement on the fiscal cliff and this is dangerous, and so I issue this law outside the Congress?” he asked at the time. “A constitution cannot be built by majority … I want them to acknowledge that we are now in a very, very dangerous situation, and they must not act as Muslim activists.”

‘Power grab’

Morsi’s power grab succeeded in rearranging Egypt’s political scene, uniting a diverse array of parties that had once been enemies. Young revolutionaries from the April 6 movement now found themselves on the same side as remnants of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Leftists and progressives who had voted for Morsi for no other reason than to prevent the victory of his opponent, former air force general and Mubarak’s prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, were now in league with Shafiq’s supporters.

Egypt gridlocked over Morsi

In Tahrir Square last week, Ahmed Abdul Tawwab, a 28-year-old accountant who had voted for Morsi, took a pamphlet from a young man handing them out to the crowd. The paper listed various controversial articles from the draft constitution, alternatively mocking and critiquing them.

Article 219, particularly controversial for effectively placing the principles of legislation in the hands of interpretable Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, “infringes on the mind and human rights and civilisation itself”, the pamphlet stated. No author or party affiliation was given.

“I don’t have a problem with the Brotherhood,” said Tawwab, who added that he was still making up his mind about the constitution. “But I’m not in favour of Islamising the state.”

Since then, new pamphlets have appeared, and an online campaign dubbed “No to the Constitution” has begun posting professionally edited videos on YouTube, showing “average Egyptians” explaining why they were opposed to the draft. As of Tuesday, the campaign’s Facebook page had some 3,300 “likes”.

The independent film collective Mosireen has also begun releasing a series of short video interviews with experts, explaining problems with specific articles. The Strong Egypt party, led by former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, has also stepped in to help coordinate the “no” effort.

But it remains far from clear whether the opposition’s slickly produced efforts at persuasion will be able to counter the Brotherhood and Salafis’ well-oiled get-out-the-vote operations, which have helped the Islamist movement to victory in consecutive elections.

“Secularists are divided among themselves and poorly organised on the ground, and they have not developed a message with widespread popular appeal,” Marina Ottaway, a Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, wrote on Tuesday. “Under these circumstances, Islamist forces want to accelerate the return to formal democratic politics, because they can win. Secular forces cannot afford to play that game.”

Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front associated with Mohamed ElBaradei’s Constitution Party, claimed that his party had maintained offices throughout the country which were first established in 2010, when ElBaradei returned to Egypt from his job as the UN’s nuclear watchdog chief. They have been collecting signatures to petition successive governments for constitutional reforms ever since.

Putting those offices to use on a “no” campaign is another matter, one Dawoud and others in the Front have not seemed to prioritise. Their push, publicly at least, is to put enough of their supporters on the street, reject negotiations, and hope Morsi backs down.
“Personally, I don’t even think we should have this referendum,” Dawoud said. “We have no option but to continue with demonstrations and escalations and hope they will see the light.”

Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

Source: Al Jazeera