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Egypt's political crisis tests opposition ahead of key votes, outcome defines its future

Egypt's latest political crisis over a disputed constitution is posing a difficult test for the mostly secular opposition: Can it maintain its new-found unity and achieve anything beyond bringing large crowds out into the streets to protest?

Faced with a series of ever larger and more violent protests, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has suffered damage to his credentials as a leader of all Egyptians. Six people were killed and nearly 700 wounded on Wednesday during pitched battles between his supporters and opponents.

Still, Egypt's first freely elected president is poised for another win at the ballot box — this time in a Dec. 15 referendum on the disputed constitution drafted by his allies.

"Morsi realizes that he is facing an opposition that does not agree on one thing," said analyst Diaa Rashwan, citing also the weakness of the leftist and liberal groups behind last year's uprising.

How the opposition fares could determine its future and, consequently, the fate of a country that had never seemed more divided. At stake is whether Egypt will succumb to the will of Islamists and gradually become an Islamic state, or settle on a middle ground tilted toward Islam, but upholding the rights of women and minority Christians.

The opposition has yet to announce what its next step is aside from calls for more mass rallies. Yet to be revealed is whether it plans to boycott the constitutional referendum or campaign for a "no" vote against the charter.

What is virtually certain is that no matter what the opposition's next move, the charter will be approved in a referendum.

A boycott would hand Morsi and his allies an easy win since their hard-core base of supporters would vote "yes." However, a significantly low turnout would diminish the document's legitimacy and show that the opposition momentum is still there.

Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have stood firm by the Egyptian leader's Nov. 22 decrees that gave him near absolute powers and placed him above any oversight, as well as his call for a referendum on the draft constitution, pushed through in a marathon session last week by his Islamist followers.

In a nationally televised speech on Thursday, Morsi offered nothing concrete to defuse the crisis, refusing to rescind the decrees or abandon the referendum. "The nation is ready for the referendum on time," he declared.

The draft constitution has been sharply criticized by Morsi's opponents, who contend it allows religious authorities too much influence over legislation, threatens to restrict freedom of expression and opens the door to Islamist control over day-to-day life.

Political scientist Rabab El-Mahdi of the American University in Cairo noted that Morsi's moves are rooted in his conviction that his position is by far the strongest.

"He took a look around him and realized that his camp is the strongest and best organized, while factoring in the weakness of everyone else over the past two years," she said.

The opposition, emboldened by the huge turnouts for rallies over the past week, is adamant it will not enter negotiations to resolve the crisis until the decrees are rescinded and the draft constitution is tossed out.

Stated publicly, repeatedly and emphatically, the hardline stand by both sides means no breakthrough any time soon.

In a country that has steadily grown more conservative in the past 40 years, the opposition is struggling to project an identity that appeals to Egyptians beyond the urban elite.

The struggle is made all the more difficult by what its leaders see as the Islamists' well-oiled machine of propaganda and misinformation.

In the nearly two years since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising, Islamist clerics and politicians have seized every available opportunity to defame opposition leaders and their supporters as divorced from reality, agents of the West, Mubarak loyalists, morally loose or even enemies of Islam.

Since the current crisis erupted, the opposition has been at pains to show a united front. They swiftly created a National Salvation Front to bring together their disparate groups and named Mohamed ElBaradei, the country's top reform campaigner and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as its chief coordinator.

"I assure you that the opposition stands in one line and with a single heart. We are working toward the same goal," ElBaradei told skeptical reporters in a news conference on Wednesday.

The three main opposition leaders — ElBaradei, former Arab league chief and foreign minister Amr Moussa and leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi — have little in common besides their opposition to what they see as a power grab by the Islamists.

There are other problems too with these three pillars of the opposition.

ElBardei lacks the charisma and oratorical skills needed to move crowds, at times sounding like an Ivy League professor.

Moussa is in his 80s and dismissed by many as a "relic" of the old regime with neither vision nor energy.

Sabahi, who finished an impressive third in the June presidential election, is the most charismatic of the three, with his leftist convictions appealing to many of the youths who engineered the uprising against Mubarak, but he is widely seen as a political rookie.

The strength shown by the opposition in recent days has impressed many, but questions linger about their future strategy.

"The opposition has proven stronger and more resilient than the Muslim Brotherhood expected," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. "The question now is, what will they do with the momentum they have? The opposition has proven their ability to draw tens of thousands to the street but their ability to leverage this momentum into concessions is something else."