Embattled opposition stands at crossroads

After heated disputes over the integrity of the electoral process, the new parliament’s composition was officially announced yesterday. It showed a sweeping victory for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and a blistering defeat for opposition groups.

The announcement comes on the heels of a wave of outrage that swept the opposition and culminated two of the largest opposition groups boycotting the run-offs, triggering questions about the embattled opposition’s future.

According to the Muslim Brotherhood leader Saad al-Katatny, only one option for the opposition remains: unite and take to the streets.

“It is not enough to discuss reform demands in closed salons,” al-Katatny told as Al-Masr Al-Youm. “Demands should be made in the streets to pressure [the regime].”

 “The opposition has no option but to unite over the minimal requirements of reform,” said al-Katatny, adding that his group will not call on supporters to take to the streets unless all political opposition groups support such a move.

“All [opposition groups] should bear responsibility for pushing reform,” said al-Katatny. He claimed that Egypt is witnessing “a historic moment that makes it necessary for us all to unite despite our differences.”

The Brotherhood, usually held as the largest and most organized opposition group in Egypt, was ousted from the people’s assembly. None of the Brotherhood's 130 candidates emerged victorious from last week's violent first round, prompting the group to boycott election run-offs. The Wafd Party, the second most prominent opposition group, followed suit after its failure to secure more than two seats in the first round. Citing fraud and voter intimidation, the party announced its withdrawal from the run-offs, held earlier this week.

 “What happened was beneficial to the Egyptian opposition,” said Nasser Abdel Hamed, a prominent activist in the National Association for Change. “The NDP made a huge mistake in uniting the opposition.”

Despite Abdel Hamed’s claims of a united opposition, evidence to contrary abounds. The leftist opposition Tagammu Party refused to unite with other opposition groups in boycotting the run-offs. Within Wafd, seven of eight candidates who passed the first round defied the party’s decision and failed to withdraw from the race.

For some observers, even if the opposition eventually managed to achieve a unified stance, not much could be expected to result in the way of concrete reform.

“What’s after they unite?” wondered Samer Soliman, a political scientist with the American University in Cairo. “It is like adding zeros to each other, the sum is another zero. The opposition is not deeply immersed in the society; it remains aloof.”

The current opposition is incapable of orchestrating massive protest or civil disobedience whereby the regime faces significant pressure to embark on democratic reforms, added Soliman.

Earlier this year, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN atomic agency head, formed a new opposition movement called the National Association for Change (NAC). An outspoken opponent of Mubarak’s regime, he came to the fore while calling on opposition groups to boycott the polls in response to the ruling party’s failure to guarantee the integrity of elections. None of the major parties heeded his call, however, until after the first round had already finished.

“What happened gave a momentum to those who were calling for the boycott,” said Bahey Eddin Hassan, director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights. “Yet, the pro-boycott group still seems lost. All depends on its ability to organize itself.”

ElBaradei’s group has been racked by internal divisions and undermined by Elbaradei’s personal absence. Throughout the year, ElBaradei has spent just a few weeks in Egypt.

“ElBaradei is not taking himself or his movement seriously. He is against protests,” said Ashraf al-Sherif, a political science lecturer with the American University in Cairo.

Since its inception, the NAC has failed to mobilize large scale protests with the aim of pressuring the government. Although ElBaradei previously threatened resorting to civil disobedience if the regime failed to meet his demands, he never specified when he planned to execute his warning.

For many analysts, the Brotherhood is the only group capable of mobilizing the masses. In the summer, the group threw its full backing behind ElBaradei by collecting signatures in support of his reform petition that listed seven demands including full judicial monitoring of elections and the lifting of the Emergency Law. The group, which remains officially banned and routinely harassed by the state, is not expected to spearhead large public protests, analysts contended.

“The Brotherhood is not willing to pay the political price of such an action,” said al-Sherif. “Their primary goal is to preserve their organization rather than to bring about change.”

According to official results, NDP candidates grabbed 420 of 508 total seats while opposition parties failed to secure a combined total of more than 15 seats. Independents won the remainder of seats. As for the Brotherhood, it formally boycotted the new parliament following its first election round losses. By contrast, the group garnered 88 seats in the 2005 elections and attained unofficial status as the largest opposition bloc in the people’s assembly.  

“I think we are entering a phase of stagnation that will last until the 2011 elections,” said al-Sherif. “Things will remain the same until then. We will have to wait and see if upcoming elections bring a new president or present a new formula.”

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