Egyptian Opposition Struggles to Overcome its Divisions

Against the Backdrop of Merciless Repression · The repression of political forces in Egypt has reached an unprecedented level of ferocity. However, the divisions between the various currents, especially between the Islamists and the secular parties as well as the absence of any alternative are the chief reasons for the regime’s apparent stability.

Cairo, 30 January 2018. — Press conference of the opposition members. Among them Hamdeen Sabahi (2nd row L.), lawyer George Ishaq (centre), Khaled Dawood (2nd row R.), Mohamed El-Baradei (1st row R.)
Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP

The brief triumph of the January revolution allowed for the expression of different ideologies within a legal framework and tens of parties were founded at the time. The largest share of these was made up of the most significant parties, both in terms of organisation and membership size, with a wide span of political affiliations, ranging from Islamist to liberal, from left-wing to nationalists. When the debates subsequently came to be polarised around the July 2013 military coup, there appeared two main blocks: the Islamist block, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the secular block, the National Salvation Front. But the army’s brutal onslaught against the Islamists cut them off from their grass roots base and a government was formed with the Salvation Front parties. Seven years after the military intervention, we observe that these formations themselves have vanished from the political arena.

Obstructing political activity

The regime uses countless forms of harassment to persuade the parties to give up their activities but rarely bans them as in the case of the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood). Groups belonging to the Legitimacy Support Alliance1 such as Al-Wasat or Building and Development were allowed to survive but could not engage in any significant activity.

The better to secure its control over the parties, the power structure has arrested a number of rank and file members in order to send a message to their leaders. When it is felt that the permissible bounds have been overstepped, the leaders themselves are apprehended or assaulted in public.2 The threat of dissolution is also used, accusing the parties of flaunting the law. Surrounded thus on all sides, the parties choose caution and are content to publish news communiqués. Because they know that if they try to address the masses, they risk severe reprisals.

In the opinion of Mustapha Abdelal, a member of the committee now drafting the by-laws for a new party, Bread and Freedom, in the process of creation,3 “the political climate is worse than it was before the 25 January revolution, and the regime cracks down on every freedom.” It was at the end of 2013 that a splinter group from the Socialist Popular Alliance Party issued a call for the creation of Bread and Freedom. The moment chosen to create a party which remained within the matrix of the power structure was a bit tricky since the army had just changed the rules. “We set about recruiting our cadres in order to gather the 5,000 required memberships, but as time went by the political climate grew more oppressive and it became increasingly difficult to reach out to the categories we had in mind,” Mustapha told us.

Summoned by the police

In its determination to limit the appeal of political parties the regime seeks mostly to deprive them of their reservoirs of activists. To this end, according to Mustapha Abdelal, “instructions were given to the effect that authorisations be delivered only to those wishing to found a party with approval of the Central Security Forces. When, after repeated complaints, a head of the registrar service exhibited a document containing these directives, those concerned made submissions to the attorney general. But in addition to this administrative red tape, they met with difficulties hiring halls or a locale to house their offices.”

Party members are forever receiving police summonses and five of them are currently in gaol. These are activists with genuine social and political activities,” Mustapha Abdelal stresses. These arrests of active party members are not justified by any security motives but are simply meant to hamper the party’s activities.

Similar problems have beset the Strong Egypt Party which came into being after the presidential election which had seen Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutouh garner more than 4 million votes. He became the party’s chairman after it was officially created but was arrested shortly before last year’s presidential election, a few days after the party’s vice-chairman. His arrest took place following several media appearances during which he denounced the despotism of the power structure and the climate of repression which had characterised the electoral operations, in particular the arrest of the putative candidate Sami Annan, former army chief of staff.

From 110 MPs to . . . 1

As a consequence of these arrests, the party’s activities have come to a standstill, according to one of its leaders, who prefers to remain anonymous: meetings are restricted to the political bureau which only handles administrative matters, while party work has been halted in all the governorates. “The militants are afraid to move, for if the chairman, in spite of his being a former presidential candidate is maltreated in his cell, what will be the fate of rank and file members?” our informant explains.

Whereas it once had 110 seats across the country, the party now has only one because of the activists having lost touch with one another. The fear of police brutality grew stronger after the putsch, all the more so as the party had refused to recognise the 3 July 2013 regime. “When Al-Sissi came to power, many party members resigned,” this same informant points out, “and some insisted on receiving written notification of their resignation as proof that they had ended all ties with the party.” Which goes to show how widespread is the fear instiled by the security measures taken after the 2013 coup.

Both our informants assure us that there are no contacts between their respective parties and the present regime. In fact, in 2014 the chairman of the Strong Egypt Party turned down an invitation from the President which he regarded as more of a propaganda operation than a genuine desire to initiate a social dialogue. He was perfectly right, as was later shown by the meetings that did take place between the president and other parties and movements.

Refusal to collaborate with the Islamists

The parties themselves contribute to this depletion of the sources of militant activism by aggravating their ideological differences and refusing to adopt positions in common. One need only observe the attitude of the civil4 movement towards the Islamists. The refusal to collaborate with the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed a terrorist group by the authorities, is understandable. But in the present context of indiscriminate repression, the reluctance to associate with other opposition parties such as Al-Wasat, Building and Development or A Strong Egypt is less comprehensible.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, until the death of Mohamed Morsi, it insisted that his reinstatement as president was the only way to resolve the crisis. This attitude could only be seen as a provocation by the secular forces. Thus none of the major parties seems prepared to make concessions with an eye to ending the polarisation and laying the ground for the advent of a broad opposition front.

The smaller parties could come up with a better balanced rhetoric but they are not at present capable of breaking the stranglehold of polarisation. For example, the secular April 6 Youth Movement offered its condolences to the Muslim Brotherhood when it had been at the forefront of the organisations calling for its overthrow. And it is worth noting the extraordinary leap accomplished by one of the components of the Islamist movement—a wing of the Brotherhood which is not recognised by the top leaders—publishing a declaration in which it states that “the Muslim Brotherhood now differentiate between general political action and narrow party competition for power.”

Such a statement can only embarrass all the players. The majority of the Brotherhood does not approve of this turnaround, i.e. this clear distinction between general political action and party politics, even if certain young people are demanding it. As for the other parties, this eventuality would deprive them of their argument that the Brotherhood is the best prepared to take power in the event of a competition since it would declare itself out of the race. The power structure itself which uses the Brotherhood as a bugbear in its foreign policy, would no longer have that alibi if the movement as a whole were to adopt this strategy.

According to two informants in the Civil Democratic Movement5 who wish to remain anonymous, it is largely because of the regime’s explicit threats that certain parties keep at a safe distance from parties with Islamist affiliations (such as the Strong Egypt Party). Indeed, some leaders of this Movement are afraid they might suffer the same repression as the Islamists if they established ties with them.

Thus the refusal to collaborate is in fact due to the fear of a clampdown by the power structure.

Rehashing old disputes

The elites continue to bear the stigma of ideological divides which surface on certain occasions such as the commemoration of the events which took place on avenue Mohammed Mahmoud in November 2011 or of the 30 June 2011 demonstrations,6 both of which provide opportunities to rehash the conflicts associated with those painful events.

To explain this rift between the secular current and the Muslim Brotherhood, one leader of the Civil Movement offers two further reasons: a mutual lack of confidence and a difference of objectives. Because in his opinion it is one thing to aspire to a secular state and quite another to be hungry for power. The Muslim Brotherhood’s objective is to hold power as was evinced by their persistent demand that Morsi be reinstated. He believes that by thus putting the interests of their organisation before the interests of society, the Brotherhood demonstrate that their political thinking has never evolved. However, the trouble with this analysis is that political parties by their very nature aim to take power. Otherwise how are they to put their ideas into practice? Does this mean that the Brotherhood should not have this objective?

According to our other informant, many independent personalities belonging to the Civil Movement accept the idea of an alliance with the Islamists, but cannot put this into practice because it would cause the withdrawal of the political parties that are also members of the Movement. Such a withdrawal would have a considerable impact on the Civil Movement because these parties provide it with a political umbrella. This reading is confirmed by our first informant: the Strong Egypt Party is indeed better accepted today thanks to many discussions. “The rapprochement will take place but not between the present leaderships,” he believes, since in his view the main opposition comes from the elders.

Here it is important to stress that the younger members of the Civil Democratic Movement—and beyond—are indeed at odds with their elders on two issues: on the one hand they are more sympathetic to the idea of accepting the Islamists in a broader alliance; and on the other, they are more reluctant to team up with elements favourable to the regime. We had an illustration of this when they refused to join an alliance with the Conservative Party and the Union for the Defence of the Constitution, both of which counted among their ranks members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) which was in power before the revolution of 25 January 2011.

Risk of explosion

Drawing lessons from the January 2011 revolution, the Egyptian regime has tried to seal all the breaches by which the protests could flare up again, opting for an overall strategy which involves several different apparatuses: security, judiciary, legislative, media, social and economic. Its efforts are aimed at keeping the masses under pressure, beleaguered by muted struggles with no possible outlet, which is why the situation might explode at any moment. And if things get worse, no one will be able to control the crowds.

On the security front, the regime has a preference for police actions. There have been tens of thousands arrests (60,000 according to some human rights organisations). According to a press release from the Ministry of Home affairs in March 2018, 19,108 “terrorists” have been apprehended in four years. This operation has spared no party. Indeed, since July 2013 young people like Ahmed Duma and Hazem Abdel-Azim, who played prominent roles in the 30 June protest wave which brought down the Morsi regime, have nonetheless been apprehended, along with former senior officers including the general and Chief of Staff Sami Annan and Colonel Ahmed Konsawa who had both declared themselves presidential candidates. Also arrested were former magistrates like councillor Mahmud Khadiri and former diplomats like ex-ambassador Rifaa Tahtawi, but also Islamists, women and young girls.

There is evidence, too, of whole families being arrested, including children, who were later turned over to relatives. The police also burned or demolished the homes of certain people on their wanted list. They also tortured prisoners, some of whom died.

Targeted killings as a method of repression

The most frequent police tactic has been targeted killings. According to a report by Reuters, based on a study of the Ministry of Home Affairs press releases, 465 deaths were announced over a period of three and a half years. The document refers to many instances of citizens whose deaths occurred, according to their relatives, while they were in the hands of the security services.

In legislative terms, following the military coup the regime has enacted laws implementing a strict control of public space: the 2013 law on demonstrations, the 2015 anti-terrorist act and another dealing with civil associations in 2017. The first of these, meant to regulate the organisation of street protests, actually came to limit them and was used to repress the opposition.

At the same time, several laws were enacted meant to organise the political landscape according to the calculations of the power structure: one was designed to make sure the government would have the support of parliament; another dealt with the organisation of information, making sure the executive had the last word in the composition of the bodies governing the media; and one dealt with the appointment of the heads of the control bodies, enacted by Al-Sissi in the absence of any parliamentary debate and empowering the president to appoint and remove the chairmen of these bodies, a measure which some regard as an impingement on their independence.

In the judicial area, six jurisdictions were created at the end of December 2013 to examine cases of “terrorism” and three more were created during the next judicial year 2018–2019. These tribunals have pronounced hundreds of death sentences and, according to human rights workers, no criteria of law are respected in the course of these hearings, the accused being parked behind a glass partition which prevents them from communicating properly with judges and attorneys. The police interrogations involve brutalities, and the judges take into account confessions made under torture, rejecting statements made by the defendants in court. Not to mention the severe verdicts issued in most cases.

Accused of being mercenaries

All the media were enlisted to turn public opinion against politicians in general and especially the Muslim Brotherhood when its members sat in the People’s Assembly or occupied the presidency. The media use insults to discredit the Brotherhood in the eyes of the population, calling them bleating, blindly obedient sheep, while the youth movement activists are described as “young mercenaries,” accused of receiving money from abroad, meant to foment domestic turmoil.

At the economic level, the regime has impounded the bank accounts of thousands of people, especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Islamist movements in general, whether they were political activists or merely social or charity workers. In 2018, law No. 22 was published dealing with “the organisation of the surveillance, inventory, management and expenditure of the funding of terrorist groups.” At that point the State changed its tactics, instead of impounding the targeted funds, it confiscated them, while the regime’s opponents lost their jobs on account of their political affiliations.

By bringing to bear all these apparatus the power structure has sought to spread panic among the population and especially political activists. In the context of the apparent stability of the Sissi regime, who began his second term of office with a series of constitutional amendments conceived to reinforce his authority, these procedures succeeded in considerably reducing the number and size of confrontations with the regime compared with the period preceding the putsch. Political leaders and the rest of the population are quite literally haunted by this all-inclusive strategy implemented by the power structure. And yet in spite of its obvious impact on the capacity for popular initiative and the serious risks run by anyone who would oppose it, this is not what keeps the masses from risking an open clash. In fact, the determinant factor is the lack of any alternative and not only at the head of the State. The people see no global vision, coherent and convincing, which could enable the country to overcome the political, economic and legislative chaos brought about by this regime and to achieve stability in every domain. This lack of a vision and the rivalries between its various components attest to the depth of the crisis which besets the Egyptian opposition.

1Composed of several movements and parties whose purpose is to support former President Mohamed Morsi and denounce the military coup.

2The chairman and vice-chairman of Al-Wasa were arrested immediately after the putsch, as were, last year, the chairman and vice-chairman of the Strong Egypt Party. The authorities also assaulted a group of politicians belonging to the leadership of the Civil Democratic Movement during a street gathering, injuring the chairman of the Egyptian Democratic and Social Party who had been the first Prime Minister after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi.

3The parties in the process of formation are those which have not yet fulfilled all the requisite conditions to be legally recognized: 5,000 founding members in at least 10 different governorates.

4EDITOR’S NOTE: In Egypt, the term “civil” is tantamount to “secular.”

5Composed of a group of politicians and the following parties: Egyptian Social Democratic Party; Al-Karama Current; Al-Dustur; Socialist Popular Alliance Party; Reform and Development Party; Bread and Freedom; Free Egypt Party.

6The mass protests which prepared the military takeover and the overthrow of Morsi.