Egypt's new opposition coalition is facing a police state with international backing

Egypt's new opposition coalition is facing a police state with international backing
Comment: An alliance of opposition groups has attracted support from a diverse array of figures, but victory is far from assured in police state Egypt, writes Alaa Bayoumi.
9 min read
21 Jul, 2017
Demanding political change in Egypt is a high-risk campaign [AFP]
The Egyptian National Front is the latest attempt by Egypt's divided political opposition to organise and create a shared platform after the July 3 2013 military coup ended Egypt's short-lived democratic transition process triggered by the January 2011 revolution.

The front was announced by press conferences in Geneva and Istanbul on the fourth anniversary of the military coup.

The group includes some of Egypt's most prominent political opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Building and Development Party, the El-Ghad Party, former senior members of the Al-Wasat party and the April 6 youth group, as well as independents.

It outlined 11 main principles aiming "to save the homeland… uphold the principles of the January 25 revolution and its achievements... and establish a modern democratic state".

They include rejecting and criminalising military coups and working collectively to end military rule; rejecting terrorism and any attempt to justify it; upholding national unity, overcoming previous disagreements among Egypt's opposition; admitting shared responsibility for mistakes that led to Egypt's current situation; building a modern democratic state based on justice, rule of law, and human rights; and building an umbrella of Egypt's political opposition groups inside and outside the country.

In summary, the new group wants to build a platform that can unite all democratic opposition in Egypt and bring an end to military rule.

It wants to avoid past mistakes by building a unifying platform for Egypt's opposition that institutionalises dialogue and consensus

It also rejects violence and political polarisation, and believes in "consensus and partnership rather than competition" as the best decision-making mechanism to lead the country and its divided opposition out of military role.

The ENF believes that disagreement among pro-revolution groups was a major cause in the success of the July 2013 military coup. Thus, it wants to avoid past mistakes by building a unifying platform for Egypt's opposition that institutionalises dialogue and consensus.

On the surface, the ENF may look like another late attempt to organise Egypt's disenfranchised opposition. It has not escaped immediate condemnation from existing ventures, such as the London-based Egyptian Revolutionary Council (ERC), one of the main forums founded by Egypt's opposition including the Muslim Brotherhood after the coup to help unite efforts to bring down military rule.

As soon as the ENF was announced, the ERC rejected it for "giving legitimacy to the military coup" by giving up key demands of the opposition in exile, such as the return of ousted president Mohamed Morsi to power. The ERC believes that ending the military coup means reversing its principal consequences, especially the ousting of Morsi, the dissolution of the elected parliament, and the abolition of the 2013 constitution.  

Some activists also criticised the ENF online after failing to understand what distinguishes it from previous attempts to unite Egypt's opposition.

To learn more about the group, those behind it, and the difference it represents, I spoke to some of its leaders, sources close to them, and leaders at the ERC. I spoke to them off the record in an attempt to freely discuss the status of Egypt's disenfranchised political opposition and evaluate the pros and cons of the new initiative.

According to these sources, the ENF seems to enjoy four main sources of strength; its discourse, diversity, project, and context.

Special coverage inside
Egypt's war on democracy

First, the ENF adopts a discourse that rejects divisions and polarisation - especially between the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-revolution forces that participated in the June 30 2013 protests against President Morsi. The protests were used by the military as a political cover for the coup.

In contrast to the ERC, the ENF opens its doors to those who joined the protests, and calls on them - as well as on the Muslim Brotherhood - to conduct public and serious internal investigations into their political mistakes after the January 25 revolution, and how such mistakes paved the way for the military coup.

Also unlike the ERC, the ENF does not also consider the call for the reinstatement of Morsi and the dissolved parliament as a litmus test to political cooperation with other pro-democracy groups.

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In its statement denouncing the ENF, the ERC emphasised that "the return of full constitutional legitimacy represented by the (pre-coup) constitution, parliament and president… are not subject to concession or negotiation".

A senior leader of the ERC told me the return of Morsi was a "strategic and principal goal", saying that the ERC mainly served protesters and activists focused on Morsi's return rather than building coalitions and platforms with others.

He seemed to believe that "action on the ground" rather than agreement between political groups was more important in shaping Egypt's political future.

In contrast, ENF leaders such as Tarek El-Zomor, the former president of the Building and Development Party, publicly denounced divisions among political elites as a source of political weakness that enabled the success of the military coup. El-Zomor has called for overcoming such divisions as a pre-condition for defeating authoritarianism.

Second, according to the sources that I spoke to, the ENF represents the most diverse opposition platform formed since the July 2013 coup.

A Muslim Brotherhood leader who represents his group in the ENF told me that the new initiative includes leaders who had refused to work with the Brotherhood for the past four years.

He pointed to Ayman Nour, the leader of the liberal El-Ghad Party, Mohamed Mahsoub and Hatem Azzam - former senior members of the Al-Wast Party, which withdrew from the coalition with the Brotherhood shortly after the military coup - and independents such as Saif Abdel Fattah, a Cairo University professor and the ENC coordinator, as well as former senior leaders of the April 6 youth movement.

Moreover, the front includes two disputing factions from within the Brotherhood itself.

The fact that the new front has been able to bring these diverse groups together - despite their previous animosity - is a testimony to its potential

El-Ghad is a liberal party. Al-Wasat Party has a history of democratic advocacy and disagreement with the Brotherhood. The Building and Development Party, the political arm of the Islamic Group - El-Gamaa El-Islamiyya - has shown political openness and moderation since January 2011, despite the violent and hardline history of the Islamic Group. Independents such Saif Abdel Fattah and Abdul Rahman Yusuf are known of their dislike of political polarisation.

The fact that the new front has been able to bring these diverse groups together - despite their previous animosity - is a testimony to its potential.

Opposition groups are divided over whether the return
of President Morsi should be
a key demand of their fight [AFP]

Third, sources with knowledge of the initiative and how it came to life point out that the ENF is more than a declaration of principles.

They believe that the group has a detailed political map on how to unite Egypt's opposition for years to come in a search for peaceful democratic transition.

They say the initiative is the result of months if not years of research and consultation, and includes a project to establish an entity capable of representing Egypt's democratic opposition abroad.

They told me their plan includes establishing permanent mechanisms for reaching consensus among opposition groups, organising and representing Egypt's opposition on major issues such as fighting human right abuses committed by the regime, and developing a clear understanding over how to move Egypt towards democracy and an end to military rule.

One of the ENF's leaders told me that the group had already selected a coordinator and set up some committees to work on issues such as inviting more groups to join the front, building relations with foreign officials, and defending human rights. He hoped that the group could finish its foundational period and build a more inclusive and permanent structure within three to six months.

Fourth, members of the front and those close to them feel that the current political climate provides a good opportunity for the group to organise and expand - considering the multiple economic, political, and security crises facing Egypt's ruling regime led by President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi.

One observer described the ENF as the "last opportunity" for the current generation of Egypt's disenfranchised political opposition groups to organise, considering the dire conditions of the country.

However, despite all the positive factors above, the success of the ENF is far from certain - for at least three major reasons:

Egypt's opposition suffers a lack of any serious infrastructure, experienced political leaders, developed political organisations, or sufficient financial resources - and has been living under authoritarian military regimes since it gained independence from British occupation in the 1950s.

Under successive military regimes, political life has been virtually banned. Political leaders have been persecuted, jailed, or forced into exile. Political and civil society organisations were shut down and criminalised. Egypt's ruling regime has just recently approved a new NGO law that is seen as the kiss of death for Egypt's independent civil society groups.

The ENF has the backing of important and serious opposition groups and leaders who want to regroup Egypt's persecuted and divided opposition and provide a peaceful alternative to ruling regime - but its success is far from certain

The regime has also banned major opposition groups, jailed tens of thousands of activists, and frozen the assets of hundreds of individuals and organisations.

Under such conditions, the ENF - or any other initiative - is destined to face severe challenges. ENF leaders who spoke to me complained about a lack of financial resources considering that many of its leaders were forced into exile and are struggling to build new lives abroad for their families.

They also fear that regime oppression will prevent sympathisers living inside the country from publicly joining them. 

This is all in addition to the fact that most of these leaders are volunteers who have never had the chance to practice politics full-time, considering Egypt's history of persecuting and alienating the opposition.

Furthermore, divisions among political opposition groups are still alive. The Muslim Brotherhood still backs the ERC and groups that insist on Morsi's return - even though it also backs new groups such as the ENF which emphasise opposition unity with no pre-conditions.

Many secular and liberal leaders were contacted by the ENF, according to my sources, but they declined to join or to work again with political-religious groups. Negative experiences are still fresh in the minds of many activists and are difficult to overcome.

Finally, Egypt's opposition is not only facing internal divisions and a lack of infrastructure, it is also confronting a tough battle with domestic and foreign backers of the regime.

They are seeking to challenge a regime that has the backing of strong special interest groups inside the country's state institutions as well as the backing of Israel, rich Gulf dictators, and world leaders led by US President Donald Trump - who sees Sisi as a role model who deserves America's friendship and backing.

In summary, the ENF has the backing of important and serious opposition groups and leaders who want to regroup Egypt's persecuted and divided opposition and provide a peaceful alternative to ruling regime - but its success is far from certain, as it faces many unfavourable conditions that undermine the rise of any such alternative and further exposes the country to regime oppression, disenfranchising peaceful political opposition, and rising violent and hardline groups.

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.