Egypt's Opposition Seeks a New Path

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood wait outside a polling station at Mahalla El Kubra, north of Cairo, on Nov. 28, 2010

Hundreds of chanting Egyptians of varied political stripe, many of them candidates in the recent parliamentary election, press against a cordon of riot police in downtown Cairo. The usual pro-democracy advocates are here, chanting, "Oh God, please take the President! Let him fall," beneath the black flags of the Sixth of April Youth Movement and the yellow signs of its older sister movement, Kifaya (Enough). But since the Nov. 28 poll that many say was the most fraudulent in Egypt's history, the protests have swelled, and so has the diversity in their ranks. The Islamists — who saw their parliamentary presence go from 88 seats to zero — are here, as are the old-time liberals, the communists, the Nasserists and even disenchanted members of the ruling party. Some of the protesters have traveled for hours from the coastal cities of Port Said and Alexandria.

Monday is the first day of work for Egypt's new parliament. But for the opposition — which is now almost entirely locked out of politics, and has been energized by the regime's conduct in the election — it's also the first day of a new era. "I think the regime has managed to alienate everybody — even the parties it struck deals with, the so-called domesticated parties, and even members of its own ranks," says Wael Nawara, a candidate from the liberal Tomorrow Party, who is protesting alongside a friend from the ruling party. "I think this last election was the worst in the history of the country."

On Nov. 28, amid widespread vote-rigging, fraud and intimidation, a fraction of the electorate (the government says 35%; monitors believe it's less than half that) went to the polls and elected a new parliament that is chiefly made up of President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).

So unexpected was that result that even in a country notorious for its rigged political system, Egyptians found it hard not to roll their eyes. The country's most popular opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which swept a fifth of the seats in the last election, failed to win a single seat outright. The Wafd Party, the second largest and more typically regime-friendly opposition group, was also stymied, which miffed some party members who had quietly confessed during the run-up to the election that they expected to profit off of the regime's attack on the Brotherhood.

But now both groups, along with many others, are saying the regime went too far. "We thought that the target was the Muslim Brotherhood," said Wafd member Mustapha Gindi, standing beside members of the Brotherhood and Karama parties at a joint weekend press conference. "But apparently it wasn't. Apparently it was everybody who can say no." Some analysts believe the regime clamped down harder than usual in an effort to shore up ruling-party control ahead of the 2011 presidential race. But members of the opposition say that reckless rigging at the district level went further than what they think NDP leaders had planned. "The first round was 96% in favor of the National Democratic Party — to the extent that the NDP had to rig the second round in favor of the opposition," says Nawara.

Both the Brotherhood and the liberal Wafd boycotted the runoff vote; others boycotted the entire process. The bulk of Egypt's opposition now finds itself on the outside of parliamentary politics, with some of the unlikeliest of allies now apparently joining hands to craft a new strategy for what may be a moment of opportunity.

Next year will see a presidential race that many here believe Mubarak will use to transfer power to his son Gamal. The possibility of a hereditary succession riles many Egyptians who say it would guarantee a continuation of the corrupt policies that have brought riches to a few but have made life increasingly difficult for the country's poor.

Historically, the parliament was a useful, albeit weak outlet for opposition members to hold the regime in check. But the sudden shift to outsider status has caused a radical re-evaluation of methods. "It's no longer about boycotting the election," says Amr Hamzawy, head of research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut. "It's basically boycotting formal politics."

Over the weekend, a group of prominent politicians of different orientations held a series of meetings and joint press conferences. Islamists embraced their liberal counterparts, and liberals, who in the past have been sharply critical of bringing religion into politics, announced a newfound unity that spans the political spectrum. The parties called for a total rejection of the election results, and a re-vote under full judicial review. They said they are forming a parallel parliament to challenge the existing one. And they laid out plans for more joint meetings and civil disobedience.

But the opposition's track record, and continuing signs of strategic discord within some of the smaller parties, suggests that maintaining a united front will be challenging. "One of the obstacles is that we really need to learn to work together and to set aside partisan interests," says Nawara, amid a sea of different party flags. "The change we seek is huge, and we need all of the resources available."

Within the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been the most organized rival to the regime, two long-standing schools of thought over strategy are sure to complicate the group's role in a larger coalition. "Traditionally, we have always had a group of activists in the movement who have favored political participation, and we have had a group of participation's skeptical voices," says Hamzawy. Now the skeptics can argue that the election carried plenty of costs for zero gain and push for a focus on social and religious activities, as opposed to politics. "I suspect that the government will make it attractive for them to go in that direction," he adds.

But based on the Brotherhood's showing at recent protests, the political activists may yet win out. And for the time being, all the groups seem prepared to take action. "In Egypt, we do have a problem," Wafd member Gindi told journalists over the weekend. "We have a nation that does not participate. We need to give them a shock to make them move," he said, meaning the parties need to leave their offices and take to the streets as never before. The real test, though, will be whether the population will follow them there.