By late November, it seemed as if Egypt’s opposition had finally found its mojo. It was more united than ever, now under the new banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF). It had common, clear and precise public goals. It was capable of instigating massive public protests that at least rivaled those of the Islamists, and people seemed to actually be looking up to them with some degree of hope. The opposition had the president and the Brotherhood increasingly cornered, and the possibility that the NSF might come out as victors from November’s constitutional crisis, or the political conflict that ensued, did not seem entirely far-fetched.
Nearly five months later, the story looks drastically different. An image of internal disharmony surrounds the NSF. Morsi and the Brotherhood increasingly appear to be on the opposite end of a checkmate, and seem rather more emboldened and comfortable with unilateralism. The opposition has gotten very few, if any, of its core demands. Other than failing to stop the aggressive pushing of the divisive constitution, the opposition’s unachieved demands include getting detailed commitment to amend the new constitution in a consensus-building manner, sacking the controversially appointed current prosecutor-general, changing the Hisham Qandil government with a new and neutral cabinet until the elections (a less prominent alternative was a national coalition government), an agreeable electoral law, and more. The response? Morsi did reshuffle the cabinet a few days ago, but he defiantly kept Qandil and also brought in a few more Brotherhood members and loyalists, a sign of not feeling much pressure. The streets of Egypt also appear to be increasingly devoid of any mass protests. What’s more, a recent opinion poll has indicated that while Morsi’s popularity has fallen to its lowest level ever, the NSF’s popularity seems to be painfully suffering as well.
So, what happened?
Well, setting aside an increasingly unreasonable, paranoid and power-drunk Brotherhood, several things did go wrong. First, the NSF often seemed torn between wanting to engineer calculated political pressure, one that could bring Morsi and the Brotherhood back toward a more desirable political path, and between an all-out immediate confrontation that could only push the president and the Brotherhood to become more stubborn, paranoid and fight back in an existential battle. The opposition’s demands and movements, from time to time, also appeared articulated and presented in a manner that made it harder for Morsi to respond positively while sufficiently saving face in front of the public and his base, pushing him further toward the option of soldiering on no matter the potential consequences. Of course, that is not to say that Morsi, or the Brotherhood, would have necessarily responded amicably had the approach been different.
Many observers also agree that there appears to be a tug of war between two main directions and influences within the NSF. The first could be described as a more puritan and revolution-oriented influence, represented by NSF Coordinator-General and Constitution Party leader Mohammed El-Baradei (and, in a different form, Nasserist former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi), while the other could be described as a more pragmatic and engagement-oriented wing, one that is represented by Al-Wafd as well as Conference Party leader and former presidential candidate Amr Moussa. There is also the question of how decision-making can be effectively, efficiently and fairly done with the considerable number of entities that comprise the NSF, which includes parties of radically different sizes and orientations, movements and even singular public figures on their own. And while the internal decision-making and political alignment mechanisms involving the many entities that comprise the NSF had sufficiently worked in the beginning, they now appear to be showing signs of stumbling. Most visibly, public statements from the different NSF entities and figures now increasingly appear conflicting and less coordinated in substantial ways. Additionally, the presence of individuals perceived to be varyingly associated with the former regime in some of the parties of the NSF has been the source of friction and sensitivity for the more puritan grassroots members of the opposition.
There is also the perception that the opposition “responds,” but does not take initiative, at least not enough. Even today, the public perception continues to be that the opposition is waiting for Morsi and the Brotherhood to make moves and react accordingly rather than experiment with different strategies. While this is debatable, there seems to have been at least enough space and time for the president and the Brotherhood to think of ways to outmaneuver the opposition.
Then, there is the debate of “what now.” The NSF had started with a clear raison d’etre and goals, namely to bring down the November constitutional declaration and its effects, as well as to stop the drive to ram through a constitutional draft that was too nationally divisive. While the core of these two goals largely remain standing albeit in evolved forms, one likely question is whether the NSF should become a full long-term political alliance, a predominantly electoral alliance with a very limited shared platform (the NSF officially stated it will work together, whether on elections or on a boycott campaign), or to largely go separate ways before the elections once (possibly) core demands have been addressed. I, for one, believe in the necessity of long-term deep organizational and political integration, no matter what the chosen format is. There are just too many liberal and leftist parties out there whose sizes do not afford them any real impact on their own.
Of course, one other common critique of the NSF is that it has focused largely on criticizing rather than presenting detailed policy alternatives. At times perhaps it is good policy to do just that when you’re in the opposition, so as maintain the critical focus on the ruling administration. But the public also needs regular signs that this opposition has ideas to fix the country if it were to assume power today, something the opposition appears to have been taking steps lately to address. Of course, with the strong ideological variation within the NSF, from the far right to the far left, it might be difficult to agree on anything but short-term national goals. In addition, the opposition’s shared vision of a “civic state” with greater equality and freedoms will perhaps eventually need further development, coherent argumentation and clarity in a manner that can sway the majority of the electorate and population, the undecideds.
Moreover, the Egyptian public and the revolutionary street are both increasingly exhausted after more than two years of continuous protest and mobilization, as well as oft-harrowing breaking news. For the opposition to hope to significantly move people into the streets anytime soon to exercise any political pressure is something that could prove increasingly difficult unless greater grassroots organization is achieved.
Nevertheless, it is actually remarkable that the NSF has remained intact this long, has — effectively — remained officially united in position and movement, and shows no real signs and intentions of breaking apart anytime soon. But for the NSF to rebound from its current downward slope, several key steps have to be undertaken. Chief among them: The opposition will need fresh faces to appeal to the public, as well as better understanding of public opinion and how to respond and engage with it. The NSF will have to get its internal house in order, create more solid internal cooperation and effective decision-making mechanisms, further ensure unified political stances, build grassroots networks (whether as individual parties or as the NSF as a whole), consider the integration of smaller similar parties, reach outside of more traditional strongholds to the less urban areas and offer more policy alternatives.
Moreover, expanding the common ground with Al-Nour, the largest Salafi party, is a surprisingly possible undertaking at the moment, and the ground is fertile for that matter on nearly everything except the most profound: the amendment of the constitution. The opposition also needs to experiment with new strategies for exercising legitimate political pressure, with the target of bringing Morsi and the Brotherhood as realistically as possible back into a more inclusive democratic process.
Bassem Sabry is a writer and Egyptian blogger who covers the region on An Arab Citizen. On Twitter: @Bassem_Sabry