Ahead of the fourth anniversary of the January 25 uprising, Egypt’s Islamist and liberal activists, remain poles apart despite speculations that they may be considering some kind of rapprochement.
“The time has come for us to restore popular unity in preparation for a new wave of the January revolution,” read a statement released by 20 Egyptian opposition groups on Sunday January 4.
The statement cited ongoing discussions and activities as part of a recent national reconciliation initiative between various activist groups that include the prominent youth activist group April 6 Movement, Journalists Against the Coup, and the Revolutionary Alliance of Egyptian Women.
On November 29, both liberal and Islamist forces joined ranks for the first time in months when a protest of over 1,000 people gathered near Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the dismissal of charges against Mubarak.
A small group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters later joined the protest – making it the first significant demonstration in which liberal and Islamist forces had protested together since the days of direct military rule.
There have been several calls for unity by different groups over the past year, with seemingly limited impact. The recent statement is a reiteration of an initiative announced in January 2014, by April 6 Youth Movement which called for unity.
The Muslim Brotherhood has made several calls for unity, which have generally been greeted with scepticism by liberal groups.
A statement released on November 30 by a group calling itself the “Muslim Brotherhood Youth” referred to mistakes made by the Brotherhood and called for unity across all factions.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood was not a signatory to the statement released on January 4, the statement said: “Everybody must take part in the quest for restoring unity.”
Abdul Mawgoud al-Dardery, former spokesperson of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), welcomed the call for unity.
We are looking for consensus between all political forces and revolutionary forces. We don't have to agree 100 percent on every point. But we at least need to agree on the following; working together against military rule, and working together for democracy, freedom, and rule of law in the country. And then the rest is open for discussion.
“We are looking for consensus between all political forces and revolutionary forces,” said Dardery, who is now based in the US.
“We don’t have to agree 100 percent on every point. But we at least need to agree on the following: working together against military rule, and working together for democracy, freedom, and rule of law in the country. And then the rest is open for discussion.”
Yet, beyond calls for unity on vague principles, contentious recent history tends to rear its head.
Many liberal and secular groups, including the April 6 movement, later accused former President Mohamed Morsi of becoming increasingly authoritarian during his rule and many supported Tamarod – a mass petition that called for new elections and culminated in huge anti-Morsi protests on June 30, 2013.
Current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was defence minister at the time, stepped in to oust Morsi on July 3, 2013.
The ongoing rancour between the Brotherhood and non-Islamist groups soon surfaced.
“It was the secular groups that betrayed the Egyptian democracy, that betrayed Egyptian freedom,” said Dardery in response to a question about the sense of betrayal felt by many liberals. He said that liberal groups needed to take action to regain the trust of Muslim Brotherhood members.
“They really need to condemn the military coup, they really need to state clearly that they believe in democracy, and that they believe in liberal ideas of freedom for all and justice for all,” said Dardery. “And they need to stop this elitist mentality. But the fact of the matter is that they sided with the military against democracy.”
However, Zizo Abdou, a spokesperson for the April 6 Youth Movement, told Mada Masr that the movement would definitely not reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood. “We have other revolutionary forces to coordinate with. This will never include the Brotherhood,” said Abdou.
Many analysts also think that a significant rapprochement between Islamists and liberals is unlikely.
Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, thinks that, while any kind of call for wider unity could appeal to some secular youth elements, he doesn’t “expect it will have wide support among the liberal and secular youth due to the mistrust they harbour towards the Islamists”.
Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says that “unless there is a broad range of groups – bridging the Islamist-non-Islamist divide – willing to coordinate and bring sustained pressure, I don’t see much likelihood for the [most recent] initiative to have much impact”.
Political rifts also go beyond a supposed Islamist/non-Islamist divide as opposition movements have splintered within themselves into smaller sects.
The original April 6 movement splintered into two groups in 2011 amid internal disagreements.
The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood have denied the existence of the “Muslim Brotherhood Youth” and other reports have suggested that there have been disagreements within the group along generational lines.
Calls for protests against the authorities in November by the conservative-Islamist group Salafi Front were denounced by the Salafist Call, which includes al-Nour Party – the largest Salafi group – that supported the ousting of Morsi.
Yet, Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms Mohamed Lotfy points to occasional differences between what is announced in the political sphere and what happens on the streets.
Lotfy says that a shared experience of repression and human rights abuses amid a crackdown on dissent is stoking anger and driving disparate groups of protesters together.
The authorities arrested or killed thousands of Islamists in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, and later widened their crackdown on dissent to include secularists, liberals, and leftists. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and April 6 Youth Movement have been ruled as illegal by Egyptian courts.
“[Repression] has pushed a lot of people to reconsider their position towards demonstrating with the Muslim Brotherhood and you can see this on the university campuses,” says Lotfy. Students with different political affiliations – angered by repressive security measures on campus – have increasingly protested together the last two academic years.
As January 25 – the fourth anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak – approaches, Dardery believes that the level of repression of dissent by the authorities and calls for unity between groups will boost protests. “I expect this will be an important step in the right direction to bring down the coup regime and replace it with a democratic alternative,” said Dardery.
April 6’s Amal Sharaf says the “call for unity with revolutionary groups can only have a good effect”, but that, come January 25, “the movement will not be protesting alongside the Brotherhood”.