Raphael Thelen

Overcoming a wall, stumbling

An opposition rally in Egypt

Egypt’s opposition has lost—again. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s constitutional referendum passed with 64 percent approval, despite the opposition’s efforts. Nevertheless, the opposition’s sense of motivation seems to be at an all-time high, as does its fragmentation. What looks like a united front is only being held together by its common enemy, President Mohammed Morsi.


“The Brotherhood and the Islamist bloc in general are adherent to a very authoritarian idea of what the state should look like,” says Amr Adly of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. For weeks Adly has been working tirelessly to highlight the flaws of the new constitution.


What was thought of as the end of the transition process from dictatorship to democracy has tossed the country into one of its deepest crises. The opposition criticizes the proposed constitution’s concentration of power in the hands of the president, as well as the growing lack of parliamentary oversight over the military. Additionally, they point out the missing safeguards for the basic human rights of Egypt’s people in the new constitution’s text. “The social and economic rights don’t rise up to the expectations of the revolution,” says Adly.


The current crisis has galvanized Egypt’s labor unions, making them one of Morsi’s most formidable foes. “In regard to workers’ rights, the constitution is totally empty,” says union member Fatma Ramadan. “It serves the owners of businesses at the expense of the working class.”


In cities like Mahalla, the country’s industrial heart, unions are taking an increasingly political role beyond the immediate issues of wages. “Like his predecessors, Morsi is trying to control the unions,” says Ramadan.


In a move that passed almost unnoticed during the past few weeks of turmoil, Morsi removed all union members older than 60 from their posts. The official reason behind the move was to get rid of Mubarak-era loyalists. But instead of allowing unions to refill their own ranks, Morsi’s cabinet filled them with his followers.


Incidents like this made it clear to the unions that they will have to protect themselves. With the economy already on its knees, unions have staged a wave country-wide of strikes, often winning concessions, though in face of the ongoing negotiations between the Morsi government and the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan, these victories might be short-lived. Part of the deal is far-reaching economic reforms. To secure the loan, the government has to slash subsidies and continue the privatization of public companies. “We will keep on protesting and staging more strikes, to keep the government under pressure,” says Ramadan.


Apart from Morsi’s economic policies, his cultural agenda is also stirring up the opposition. “The fight against Mubarak was easier, because religion was not part of the equation,” says Adham Hafez, a cultural activist and choreographer.


The Muslim Brotherhood’s “Renaissance Project” states that its aim is to peacefully Islamize Egypt’s society. Through education, media and preaching they are spreading their beliefs, and cultural freedom has taken a back seat. “We have to be more present in public without being apologetic about our presence,” says Hafez.


Hafez’s latest star is Sama al-Masry. The belly dancer produced a video directed at the Muslim Brotherhood and the Renaissance Project. Dancing in a sexy dress, she tells the Brotherhood, “I won’t be silent, and as a woman I won’t just sit at home.” The video was viewed on YouTube more than 300,000 times in its first few months online.


Hafez, together with other performance artists, is planning on erecting a temporary sculpture garden in front of government buildings to express his opposition. “Only this way we can change people’s perspective.”


But the question of how to move forward reveals deep splits in the opposition. During the constitutional referendum it was about voting “no” or boycotting. The wider opposition is split over the question: participation in democratic institutions or radical opposition?


“Street protests are only a means to an end, not a means in itself,” says Adly. In his opinion the opposition has to wrestle the government and the parliament free from the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the Brotherhood’s recent successes, Adly sees a sliver of hope. The turnout rates during the constitutional referendum as well as the party’s approval rating were the lowest of all post-revolutionary elections—only some 10 million Egyptians endorsed the constitution, compared to the 13 million who voted for Morsi in June.


“The first step toward success was the fight over the constitution. The second one was the referendum, and the third one will be the upcoming parliamentary elections,” says Adly. Elections are to be held 60 days after a new constitution is ratified.


The hopes of the opposition rest on the National Salvation Front. The alliance was founded by the three former presidential candidates: Mohammed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa. ElBaradei is a left-leaning liberal, Sabahi is a Nasserist, and Moussa is the former Foreign Minister under Mubarak. They do not have much in common apart from their opposition to the Brotherhood, and even if they win the upcoming elections they will hardly be able to form a viable coalition.


But even this is an open question, as parts of the opposition will call for a boycott again, saying it does not want to legitimize the Brotherhood’s rule and the new constitution through its participation.

Same enemy, different ideas—Egypt’s opposition. (AFP photo)

“The first step toward success was the fight over the constitution. The second one was the referendum, and the third one will be the upcoming parliamentary elections.”