The ballot and the street

“The President and the Brotherhood take credit for the most significant achievement the opposition made this year,” says Tamer al-Mihy, member of the political bureau of the Social Democratic Party. “That they started to unite and work together,” he reckons.

Mihy is speaking about the National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of various political groups and personalities that formed in November to oppose Islamist hegemony over the political scene. The front offered a form of political representation to a growing anti-Islamist street movement.

Scores had been gathering outside the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square to protest President Mohamed Morsy’s controversial power grab through a constitutional declaration, parts of which he later rescinded under popular pressure.

So far, the front has managed to remain relatively united throughout the fast-moving political developments of November and December.

The future, however, poses two challenges to this nascent political opposition.

The first is how to contest a robust Islamist movement, which has on its side repeated electoral victories. The second is how to represent a street movement that often resists political representation.

Eye on the ballot

Opposition parties and figures who rose to prominence after the revolution have learned the hard way that they cannot make political gains without uniting against more organized Islamist powers, especially those with decades-long organizational experience.

In the run-up to last year’s parliamentary elections, 14 liberal and leftist parties formed an electoral alliance, The Egyptian Bloc. However, parties dropped out of the alliance one by one due to disagreements over seat distribution; come election day, the alliance was comprised of only three parties. The bloc also had to compete for non-Islamist votes with another liberal electoral alliance, the Revolution Continues.

Islamist groups, spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party, meanwhile, took 70 percent of seats in parliament.

In the presidential elections, the same non-Islamist players remained divided, and the revolutionary vote was split. Nasserist leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, Muslim Brotherhood defector Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh and leftist human rights lawyer Khaled Ali — all considered candidates of the revolution — ran separately. None of them made it to the runoffs.

The results of this month’s constitutional referendum suggest the united opposition is much more competetive. The 63.8 percent with which the Islamist-friendly constitution was approved reflects a weakening of Islamists’ electoral prowess, with less than 33 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls.

With new parliamentary elections expected to be held within the next two months, the electoral field will become once again a proving ground for the opposition.

Hassan Abu Taleb, a political expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says whether the front remains united will depend on whether its member parties can put aside their own political interests and continue to fight together against the domination of the Islamist current.

There is more demand for unity now than in past elections, says Mihy, and steeper political consequences for parties that decide to run independently. Thus, there is a greater chance, he says, that the opposition will remain unified.

“We all agree on the general goals of restraining a fascist authority and changing the constitution,” he says. “Now there’s popular pressure that will make it difficult for a party to announce it is leaving the ranks of the united opposition. It would be political suicide.”

Mihy says that to improve its ability to mobilize voters, the front aims to build a strong, institutionalized mechanism and enhance communication between Cairo and the governorates. The referendum showcased the opposition’s significant weakness outside major urban centers.

He adds that over the last few months, opposition party bases have worked together in the governorates as teams, which they will be resistant to dismantle.

Amid speculation over what form future cooperation between front members will take, Wahid Abdel Meguid, a member of the front’s political bureau, tells Egypt Independent that the front is considering running its members on one list in the upcoming elections.

Abu Taleb says the front’s major task now is to work toward securing at least half the seats in the parliament and then to use those gains to bring down the constitution through legislative means.

“If they run on one list, [opposition parties] will see a strong victory and change the current political landscape, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and the Salafis,” he says.

Abdel Meguid denies rumors that the front will start a new party; however, he says some parties in the front are planning to merge.

Eye on the street

While the front says the upcoming elections are its priority, it also vows to continue working as a revolutionary force in the street.

Leading members of the front have stressed that while it will participate in electoral politics, the front refuses to accept the status quo the ruling Muslim Brotherhood has forced on the country.

“We represent a revolutionary opposition and also an institutional opposition that works through the legitimate mechanisms of elections, and when the rights of the people are being violated, we stand with them in the street through protests and sit-ins, which are additional tools of opposition,” says Abdel Meguid.

Many in the leadership value the street movement as the compass of the opposition.

“The most important development in the opposition is that it has learned that it’s not about figures or stars. What determines their success is the amount of work they do in the street,” says Abu Taleb. “Without work on the street, the figures remain leaders without soldiers, and everyone loses.”

Meanwhile, Akram Ismail, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance who credits the opposition’s organizational development with an increasing ability to mobilize on a street level, is concerned with the movement’s potential.

“The opposition’s political power is capable of creating pressure on the rule of the Brotherhood, but not replacing it,” he says. “They can disrupt a lot of things, but they cannot take initiative.”

“The opposition is not one party with one agenda; it’s a wide alliance that spans from the liberal right to the socialist left,” he says, which can pose a structural impediment to its political ascendancy.

But for him, and at least for now, the opposition’s agenda is not to rule but to pressure the ruling Brotherhood to make compromises that lead to a more democratic state and hinder “their attempt to rebuild dictatorial rule.”

This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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