The Liberal Playbook: Fresh Game Plan Needed


Egypt’s liberal opposition think Washington has got it all wrong. The narrative increasingly voiced by the liberals is that Washington has adopted the Muslim Brotherhood and will patiently work with President Mohamed Morsi’s government while the country falls to ruin. As former parliamentarian and National Salvation Front (NSF) member Amr Hamzawy put it last month, The American administration has made a “strategic bet on the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The liberals feel that Washington’s recognition of and dialogue with Egypt’s Islamist leadership puts the opposition on the back foot, so much so that it has pushed the latter out of the political process. Liberals feel cornered, and have started running a parallel political process outside the current framework, arguing that this is the only card left to play. Ironically, all this accomplishes is further isolation of the opposition, making it less likely for them to achieve any gains. Two years after the revolution, the liberals have not succeeded in gaining broad-based grassroots support, and plans to boycott and run a separate political process will further fuel the perception that its leaders are an elite class operating out of an ivory tower.

The liberals’ sense of hopelessness is not without justification. Morsi has put the opposition through all the hoops since gaining power last summer; government promises of inclusiveness have not been met with action. Several rounds of presidency-initiated ‘National Dialogue’ created a façade of parties working together to address Egypt’s maladies; but these attempts have been largely superficial and discussions shallow. The general consensus is that the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), are focused on consolidating and preserving power above advancing national interests. This has led to ever-deepening polarization of politics and stagnation of an economy in desperate need of a boost, all resulting in increasing frustration for the liberal opposition groups.

In an attempt to deny legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP, several liberal parties called for a boycott of the political process. They doubt that House of Representatives elections (when they eventually do take place) will be fair, as they are discouraged by allegations of fraud in previous elections over the past year and are concerned with the fishy redistricting for upcoming elections. Opposition leaders find the food-handout type of incentives offered by the FJP to be highly irregular and out of synch with international norms for campaigning. A liberal leader wishing to remain anonymous tells me that the FJP would not get more than 20 percent of the House of Representatives if elections were fair, but the way things are they will win around 70 percent of the seats, which is no different from letting them have 100% in terms of law making.

The boycott approach would only work if the opposition succeeds in disseminating their message and mobilizing the population. However, opposition parties have neither a clear message nor organizational strength. The consistent message that Morsi’s government delivers is in line with what Washington likes to hear – maintaining peace with Israel, preservation of the status quo in the Sinai, Suez Canal stability, and an open economy led by the private sector (never mind that the mere act of towing this line says nothing of the sincerity or ability to deliver on these promises). Conversely, the liberals are disjointed with no unified message. This fact should not count against them, as diversity will bring more to the table in the new Egypt; but they must at least have some common ground to bring interest groups together in order to gather the weight of constituencies behind them. In a recent poll, more than one-third of Egyptians had not even heard of the leading opposition bloc, the NSF. Developments at the end of March were not encouraging – the NSF has indefinitely postponed its dialogue initiative after the Salafi Nour Party and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt refused to participate. Should this bloc crumble, a new coalition is almost sure to rise out of its ashes – as experience over the past two years has shown that alliances are malleable – but this will take the opposition back square one in terms of building popular support and a coherent platform.

Washington faces the same struggle as the Egyptian public in knowing who the opposition are and what they stand for. This can only be remedied by action on both sides. The view from Washington is that opposition parties snubbed Secretary Kerry’s invitation to meet during his visit to Cairo last month. Liberal groups see it differently. As April 6 Youth Movement Ahmed Maher wrote, “The main purpose of [Secretary Kerry’s] visit to Egypt was to meet with businessmen, the president, and the defense minister, made clear by the schedule announced by the American State Department and the U.S. embassy in Cairo.” The entire opposition was an afterthought, jointly invited to attend a 45 minute session where each group would barely have had the chance to introduce themselves. Interestingly, news reports announced that opposition parties turned Kerry down, with no reference to the reasons why. This reflects another problem of messaging for the opposition. On the part of the American administration, Kerry should be reaching out to all stakeholders in a meaningful manner, especially as Washington is explicitly encouraging opposition parties to participate in upcoming elections. Opposition parties too, could have made a better attempt to express the importance of having more time with Kerry to the Cairo Embassy, instead of walking away feeling bruised. 

Ultimately, Egypt and the United States need each other. If opposition parties want to shape the new Egypt, then they should take advantage of even the mishandled opportunities to engage with the American administration, rather than shutting themselves out. Doing so is in Egypt’s national interest: the liberals have a duty to push Washington to be more vocal on human rights violations, the rule of law, the demise of judicial independence, and the perils of the Islamist power grab.

Some opposition members believe that the United States has a deep-seated interest in propping up the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, as this is the best way to maintain the peace with Israel, given the organization’s clout to keep groups like Hamas in check. However, the evidence suggests that the United States is stalling rather than actively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. U.S. legislators are busily trying to condition future economic aid to Egypt and restructure military assistance altogether – a move that is in neither countries’ interests. In addition, the $190 million that was released during Secretary Kerry’s March visit is more of a goodwill gesture rather than a salute to the present government. In fact, it is part of the regular $250 million given to Egypt for development projects and technical assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development, and is not new funding. Ultimately, a grand conspiracy against the opposition seems a less likely explanation than ‘Washington fatigue.’ After two years trying to adapt to the mercurial political transitions across the Middle East, the United States is struggling to keep pace with all the swings.

Voters are tired too. The Egyptian public is fed up of seeing an ever-changing political landscape bearing no improvements to daily life. Polls have shown waning support for Morsi, and according to a study released on March 17 by the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies, 82 percent of Egyptians surveyed want the military back in control, while a more recent Baseera poll shows Morsi’s approval ratings at an all-time low. The FJP’s demise will be the unwillingness to concede any power; but as the opposition boycotts the political process, their loss will be not being there to pick up the pieces.

Isolationist politics doesn’t work. The liberals fear that participation is tantamount to granting legitimacy to the ruling power. However, not voting in the constitutional referendum, for example, backfired as the constitution went through with a strong yes vote represented by barely one-third of the population. As Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in Cairo last year, the days of elitist politics are over, alluding that a Mubarak-era elite cannot be replaced by either a religious (Islamist) or secular (liberal) elite. If the opposition continues on its current trajectory, they run the risk of turning into an exclusive club. They need a new game plan. The first step is to stop behaving like victims – justified or not – and to get back in touch with the people they seek to represent. The liberals are well poised to lead with experience managing large organizations and an abundance of good ideas. They have the institutional memory that is needed to manage the economy. A boycott policy cannot be an endgame and turning away from Washington is a dangerous path. The opposition needs to engage U.S. officials to take a harder stance on the ongoing abuses in Egypt, as this will also serve to prevent further violence and bloodshed. Engagement is key, even if starting from a point of weakness.

Mustansir Barma is a political economist and is presently the Senior Economic Researcher with the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.

Photos: WEFAslan MediaHossam El HamalawySarah Carr

Image: NSF.jpg