Last updated: February 20, 2013 1:27 pm

Egyptian opposition seeks a game plan

An Egyptian protester prepares to throw back a tear gas canister fired by riot policemen during clashes near Cairo's Tahrir Square©AFP

As Egypt last month descended into another political crisis and spate of bloodshed, Egyptians looked to the country’s liberal opposition to give a coherent voice to the anger on the streets.

They saw them as a means of providing a platform for forthcoming parliamentary elections, or agreeing a serious dialogue with the government, or even for condemning demonstrators using violence to commemorate the second anniversary of the revolution.

Instead opposition leaders under the banner of the National Salvation Front dithered. They angered the government, frustrated diplomats of sympathetic western countries, disappointed their supporters and further alienated those fighting in the streets.

“We’re not surprised to see what Morsi and the Brotherhood are doing,” says Sally Toma, a leftwing activist. “But we are surprised to see the liberal opposition abandon protesters to deal with police brutality on their own.”

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its president, Mohamed Morsi, have been criticised for pandering to their Islamist base with an eye toward forthcoming elections and failing to formulate a coherent, inclusive strategy for moving the country beyond its political deadlock or tackling its economic crisis.

But just as Islamist politicians are caught between their hardline rank-and-file and the exigencies of higher office, so their liberal, leftist and secular opponents remain stuck between rowdy street protesters with absolute demands and pressure to sit at the table and cut a deal that could give their constituents a voice in the country’s future.

“The opposition is still divided and still lacks a real long-term game plan,” says Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Centre. “They’re still largely in this obstructionist mode that I’m not sure it’s going to be constructive.”

Western diplomats wary of the Brotherhood’s ideology say their capitals end up giving the government tacit backing over an opposition considered fragmented, incoherent and indecisive.

While it has been quick to call for dissolution of Mr Morsi’s cabinet, it has also failed to articulate a clear economic and social plan should it gain power, leading government insiders to say the opposition is flailing because it lacks ideas.

“I’m personally disappointed at the liberal opposition and bemused by their performance, as many other Egyptians are,” says Gamal Heshmat, a top Brotherhood official and member of the upper house of parliament.

“They’ve rejected all the democratic means they once promoted and called for; they reject national dialogue and the election’s results. This is all at a time when political Islam is strongly present in the street and offering alternatives.”

Even opposition supporters were disappointed by the incoherence of their leadership during the spasm of violence that erupted on the anniversary of the revolution.

After some members of the NSF met representatives of an Islamist party close to the government this month, there was talk of an imminent deal between the opposition and the government. But days later, other members of the front issued a press release rejecting any dialogue and calling for the Morsi government to resign immediately.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file activists continued street protests, contemptuous of the political see-sawing. Opposition insiders say apparent shifts in position are a result of quick decision-making in a volatile political landscape rather than stark differences.

“It’s more a division of roles than a division of opinion,” says Ahmed Hewary, a leader of Mohamed ElBaradei’s Dostour party. “Revolutionary youth movements are in a position of getting more marchers into the streets. The NSF is more in the role of withdrawing from directing the street actions and more in a position of political voicing. It will be the negotiation front for the street demands.”

Moreover, the NSF’s few attempts to sit down with Mr Morsi or his close associates resulted in “unclear, unreal, and uncanny” talks that led nowhere, Mr Hewary says

Opposition leaders concede they are fearful of further losing legitimacy among street protesters by appearing in meetings with Mr Morsi that lead to little more than a press event designed to satisfy the government’s international backers, such as the US.

Torn by its conflicting constituencies, Mr Hamid says the opposition makes too many preconditions for dialogue. “The Brotherhood is not going to bend over backwards to make concessions,” he says.

Few believe the secular and liberal allies could win a majority of seats in forthcoming elections for the lower chamber of parliament. They barely won a quarter of seats in the parliament that briefly sat last year.

But some opposition activists point out that if they win a third of seats, they can play the role of spoiler, preventing the Brotherhood from amending the constitution to iron out technical difficulties without their approval.

Embracing the electoral process also carries the risk of further legitimising a vote the opposition remains ill-equipped to win. Liberals and leftists fear the Muslim Brotherhood will cheat or dramatically outspend them.

The government’s refusal to change constituency maps, strengthen the status and authority of independent monitors or adopt rules to increase representation by women and Christians has led to fears that an election overseen by a Brotherhood government will be stacked against them no matter how hard they try to win votes.

“We’re worried of cheating both in the elections and during the counting of votes,” says Hussein Gohar, leader of the Social Democratic party, a component of the NSF. “Of course we don’t have as much money as the Islamists. We are doing our fundraising, but we don’t have external funding.”

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