Where is the Giuseppe Garibaldi, Simón Bolívar, or Mustapha Kamel of the January 25 revolution? The lack of an outright leader has badly harmed the opposition movement’s ability to impact politics. In the last two years, Egyptian liberals and leftists have stumbled ten steps back for every single step forward.
The general air of uncertainty and confusion was highlighted in an episode in May 2012; Egypt made history when the first ever televised American-style presidential debate took place, pitting former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa against ex-Brotherhood politician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Both failed to impress. Despite predictions that they were the front-runners in a field of thirteen candidates, Aboul Fotouh and Moussa ended up fourth and fifth, respectively. Given both candidates’ poor performance, the question lingers: where are the liberals in democratic Egypt?
The centrist and liberal opposition, a fractured, disoriented bloc, features big names but not much in terms of influence. Instead of establishing a union of leftist and centrist players to create a credible movement, there is simply a void filled with independently inefficient parties, hesitant to merge and unable to have a significant effect on the political scene whilst acting alone.
Thus, the success of Islamist politics post-January 25 is not particularly surprising; the Muslim Brotherhood had an eighty-year head start on any other political entity. The group has a sound internal organizational structure, huge capabilities in reaching cities across the 1 million square kilometer country, and most importantly, a clear and accepted leadership.
The opposition’s lack of straightforward or coherent policies has not helped their cause. Even though there are scarcely any significant differences in ideology between the leading opposition figures—Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Hamzawy, Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, Osama El-Ghazali Harb, and others—they have failed to band together. Rather than pooling resources, building a viable support base, and eventually challenging the Muslim Brotherhood for supremacy, each of the above remain tied to their own political affiliations and have only recently formed a loose association, the Gabhet El-Inqaz, or National Salvation Front (NSF). This is especially frustrating for the younger generation of activists, disinterested and unimpressed with the lack of cooperation.
The NSF actually is untenable in the long term. The fact is that among its three main leaders there is a rift in ideology; Hamdeen Sabahi’s Nasserist ambitions are a significant obstacle to forming a durable and united coalition. This was already on display during the May presidential campaign. Despite impressing many with his record of long-standing insubordination during the Mubarak era, Sabahi alienated many affluent voters with a radical tax policy, which possibly cost him a spot in the run-off against Morsi. Moreover, the very nature of the NSF is short-sighted. Much like its part-predecessor, the Egyptian Bloc, which lasted for roughly a year starting in August 2011, the NSF was formed to hold up a particular cause. Just as the Egyptian Bloc was formed to challenge Islamists during 2011 parliamentary elections, the NSF was formed to oppose President Morsi’s November 22, 2012, constitutional declaration.
The Egyptian people have proved to be more than capable of rising and responding to such causes. From “We Are All Khaled Said” to “Down with SCAF” to “No to an Islamist Constitution,” successive demonstrations have ripped through the heart of Egypt and crippled Brotherhood efforts to maintain calm and control. The problem is that there is no long-term campaign in place to effectively direct Egypt’s opposition. One of the main reasons this is the case—and why the opposition remains splintered—is its absence of a leader. Both of Egypt’s other modern revolutions have been centred around charismatic individuals, capable of uniting a nation and leading the way forward into a new era. In 1919, Saad Zaghloul spurred a revolt against British rule that ultimately led Egyptian independence in 1922 and a first constitution in 1923. Thirty years later, the Free Officers movement took Egypt into the second half of the 20th century, taking the country from monarchy to republic. Today, Egypt is waiting for the leader who will take it from republic to democracy.
First, garnering support from a sceptical public is a challenge because the opposition is without clearly delineated ideologies and policies. Second, their inability to unite at moments of national crisis further damages their credibility. Had the NSF envisioned a long-term political initiative it would have been able to campaign much more effectively and efficiently. Finally, the fact that its current leading figures are all over sixty (with the exception of Hamzawy, 46, and Sabahi, 58) and some well into their seventies, makes them unsuitable candidates. They are unlikely to be able to see their political project through, but more importantly, they lack the vigour and strength to compete with a generally younger Brotherhood leadership. The current generation of activists and protestors, the so-called ‘Facebook generation,’ needs a leader who they can relate to and who represents them.
Beyond leadership, the opposition has yet to vocalize its vision for Egypt. It is possible that a sense of fear, or at least apprehension, exists. This may be a fear of reprimand or retribution by authorities, but it is more likely a fear of alienating key sectors of the electorate. For example, if the NSF, or its main leaders, outwardly advocated a policy of laïcité—or separation of church and state—a key demand of Egypt’s left-wing opposition, it would risk alienating millions of voters who while sympathetic to the opposition still consider religion to be an essential facet of both national culture and society. Another consideration that forces the opposition to be cautious is the fact that it must avoid making any tacit or subtle approvals of violence. Another core demand of revolutionaries has been the dissolution of the Ministry of Media, housed in the famous Maspero Building. Time and time again, Maspero has featured battles between protesters and police.
Of course, if popular opposition leaders publicly called for the Ministry to be dissolved it could fuel even more violence, with demonstrators discerning the call as a legitimate approval of vigilante action against a government entity. As long as these concerns remain at the fore of Egyptian politics, the opposition will face a disconcerting choice: remain cautious, reserved and within the strict bounds of the law, or take a bold and brave initiative and face persecution, prosecution, or both.
Seifeldin Fawzy is a political commentator. He works at Thebes Consultancy, a Cairo-based law firm.