As Egypt’s Islamists Cement Their Rule, Can Secularists Reclaim the Revolution?

The secularists and liberals who helped oust the Mubarak dictatorship have been marginalized by the Muslim Brotherhood. Can Egypt's secularists win back power?

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Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Anti-Morsy protesters hold a large Egyptian flag and chant slogans in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration in Cairo, Aug. 24, 2012.

It has not been a very good 18 months for Egypt’s secular revolutionary political forces. After standing at the forefront of an unprecedented and triumphant popular uprising last year, which led to the ousting of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, their star rapidly dimmed. In the wake of the revolution, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the even-more-conservative Salafists used their existing grassroots networks to dominate parliamentary elections last winter while post-revolutionary secular parties struggled to catch up. Presidential elections earlier this summer were an even bigger disaster: the  non-Brotherhood pro-revolution camp divisively split itself between multiple candidates, producing a thoroughly Mubarak-era runoff choice between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy and Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq representing the military-backed deep state.

“What happened in the presidential election was a wakeup call to a lot of the players,” says Hussein Gohar, head of foreign affairs for the Social Democrat Party, one of the main post-revolutionary secularist parties.  “People panicked after Morsy became president and they’re still panicking.”

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The Morsy-Shafiq choice left most of the secular revolutionaries out in the cold and thoroughly depressed. For the past several months, they have watched from the sidelines as Morsy and the Brotherhood faced off against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF—impotently hoping for a scenario where both sides lost.

Now Egypt faces a new crossroads. Morsy is firmly entrenched in the presidential palace; his power struggle with the military ended rather abruptly last month when he succeeded in outmaneuvering the SCAF—sending Mubarak-era Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and his loyalists into early retirement. Most importantly, there’s a new parliamentary election looming after the previous parliament was dissolved via court order on a technicality. The exact timing of the new elections is uncertain; it’s tied to the ratification of a new constitution, which is still being drafted. Gohar said he expects the elections to come “any time between December and March.”

All of which begs the question: does Egypt’s secular opposition have enough time to make an impact this time around and can they learn from their tactical and organizational mistakes of the previous 18 months?

The looming deadline has touched off a flurry of political activity. The local press is now filled with daily updates on coalition negotiations between a host of post-revolutionary secular parties such as the Social Democrats and the Free Egyptian Party. This week a new political player emerged in the form of former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who officially launched his own Constitution Party.

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“They’re just starting to realize that [elections] are fast approaching,” said secularist writer and analyst Bassem Sabry. “Everyone wants to get into some alliance or another. It’s a question of how and who approaches who and who’s in charge.”

Veteran socialist politician Hamdin Sabbahi–who finished a surprisingly strong third place in the presidential vote—is being courted by multiple parties to join forces. And longtime Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa, despite a weak fifth place presidential showing, “remains a towering figure” on the secular scene and is being similarly courted, according to Sabry.

Fourth place finisher Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood official who fashioned himself as a progressive  Islamist and an alternative to the Brotherhood, has so far remained distant from the more secular negotiations and is expected to form his own electoral bloc along with other centrist Islamist forces.

“The future of the Egyptian left is not as bleak as people think,” said Wael Nawara, a longtime progressive activist and a member of the Constitution Party. But Nawara acknowledges that whatever secular coalition emerges for the new parliamentary elections will still face an uphill battle to crack the combined Brotherhood-Salafist bloc that captured nearly 75 percent of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Parliament.

“Financing, for starters, will be an issue. This is an area where the Muslim Brothers already have an advantage,” Nawara said. In addition to their own homegrown financing from disciplined loyalists, the Islamists are widely presumed to be benefiting from a river of overseas funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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“These other parties will just have to rely on local donations—which is just not something people are used to here. They’re at a disadvantage,” Nawara said. There’s also a steep learning curve to be overcome on how to build the kind of grassroots mobilization machine that the Brotherhood spent decades crafting. To help speed that process, Gohar, the Social Democrat official, has turned to his European counterparts for help. A delegation from the Danish Social Democrat Party arrives in mid-September to conduct what Gohar calls “Democracy 101” training sessions, and the British Labor Party is planning to conduct similar training here.

There is, of course, a completely separate secularist opposition to Morsy that has been recently making its presence felt—the pro-military/pro-Shafiq crowd that viscerally hates the Brotherhood, but also deeply distrusts most of the secular revolutionaries.

On August 24, around 2000 people staged a defiant and decidedly angry protest outside the presidential palace, openly calling for a new revolution to purge the Brotherhood from power. The protest was most notable for the sense of pure paranoid rage coursing through the crowd. Several protesters told me that Morsy had stolen the presidential elections with the help of the U.S. government and the biased media. Two different television camera crews were attacked by the protesters.

“I’m here to bring down the Brotherhood. Their presence is illegitimate,” shouted Farida Mansour, a mid-50’s homemaker and one of many women there who wore the tradition Islamic hijab covering her hair. “Ahmed Shafiq won the election. Everybody knows that!”

Shafiq has been overseas, mostly in Dubai, since losing the election; Egyptian prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest at the end of the last month on corruption charges if he returns. But he remains a polarizing force and focal point for the free-floating anti-Brotherhood anger that simmers in some corners of Egypt’s secular society. If he were to return, or even if he forms a party from de facto exile, it could capture a surprising amount of reactionary protest momentum, buoyed by support from the vestiges of the old Mubarak regime.

Put simply, the pro-Shafiq secularist opposition regards the more revolutionary contingent as dangerous radical hippies, while the revolutionary crowd regards the Shafiq supporters as retrograde counter-revolutionaries who seek to dial back the clock to the Mubarak era. They both share a common enemy, and some politicians have spoken of forging an alliance between the two camps, but other observers find that impossible to imagine. “There are those who are angry and want things to go back to the way they were. For these people Shafiq and company are a natural solution,” says Sabry. “The progressive bloc is unable to reach out to that crowd. There’s too much distrust on both sides.”

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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