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Can Egypt’s Islamist Winter give way to a Liberal Spring?

Marginalised in post-revolutionary Egypt, the country’s liberal opposition has united against President Mohammed Morsi’s controversial new measures. But is the resurgence sustainable?


For decades under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s constricted political life was compared to the smog enveloping Cairo. Then last year, when the crowds at Tahrir Square succeeded in ousting the long-time dictator, Egypt appeared to live up to her title of "umm al-dunya", or mother of the world, a centuries-old honorific that had turned into a jeer.

But shortly after the 2011 uprising, the choking fumes descended again on the revolutionaries - the young activists who had turned Tahrir Square into a carnival of freedom.

Leaderless, disparate and new to the political game, the liberal opposition was no match against the discipline and organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood - a movement that has been around, in some shape or form, for more than eight decades. For Egypt’s liberal, largely secular activists, the Arab Spring had turned into the Islamist Winter.

But on November 22, when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi issued a series of decrees granting himself sweeping powers, a divided opposition rose up en masse against the decrees. Days later, the Islamist president tapped into the growing opposition fear of a Brotherhood takeover when he pushed through a draft constitution by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly and granted Egyptians just two weeks of deliberations before a December 15 constitutional referendum.

"The presidential decrees and the announcement of the December 15 constitutional referendum provided a boost to the liberals," Karim Bitar, research director at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), told FRANCE 24.

The National Salvation Front is born

As protesters took to the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities in the wake of Morsi’s move, a number of political parties and groups came together to announce the creation of an opposition coalition, called the National Salvation Front.

The liberal-leaning umbrella group includes the Constitution Party, co-founded by former chief UN weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, as well as a number of political parties and movements.

In addition to ElBaradei, the Front succeeded in bringing together former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabahi, a popular Egyptian leftist politician.

"They are all united by the rejection of authoritarianism and the arbitrariness and confusion of those in power right now," said Bitar. “The most credible of the three key figures is Mohamed ElBaradei. He is very popular with many Egyptians and has moral authority, which he has maintained by not running for the [2012] presidential election."

The Front’s central demand - after Morsi rescinded his November 22 presidential decrees last week – was the postponement of the December 15 constitutional referendum.

Opposition drops boycott, calls for ‘no’ vote

But with the Egyptian president refusing to back down on the referendum, the opposition was essentially left with two options: boycott or call for a “no” vote.

Liberal Egyptians fear a referendum would yield a victory for the “yes” bloc since the Brotherhood’s well-oiled machinery can deliver a cohesive rural vote. The latest crisis has also brought the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party closer to Salafist groups, bringing Islamists into a united bloc.

But Egyptians are also keenly aware of the lessons of the Sunni boycott of the 2005 Iraqi general elections, which saw a Shiite resurgence that continues to dominate Iraqi politics today.

In a blog published shortly after the November 22 presidential decrees were announced, Middle East expert Nathan Brown noted, “The potential opponents to his [Morsi’s] move are legion but they are also divided and many are politically clueless,” he wrote, before adding, “Those who oppose these moves need not only unity but a strategy. And that has never been their strong suit.”

With just three days to go before the scheduled poll, the Front finally came up with a strategy, urging their supporters to vote “no”.

National Salvation Front sets conditions for referendum

But while announcing the decision Wednesday, Sabbahi set a number of conditions, failing which, the opposition warned it could still call for a boycott.

One of the conditions was a call for judicial oversight of the referendum – a difficult one for the government to meet given Morsi’s frequent clashes with the judiciary over the past few months.

Judges have been a contentious issue in Egypt, with the Islamists claiming that many judges are “feloul” – a term that literally means “remnants” in Arabic and is used to refer to Mubarak loyalists.

Thousands of judges have refused to have anything to do with the controversial referendum. But Morsi maintains that he has the cooperation of a sufficient number of judges.

Some of the other conditions are easier to meet – including local and international monitors to observer the process, and security to ensure no voter intimidation will take place.

But on at least one condition, the Front appears to have backed down. While Sabbahi insisted that the referendum be held on just one day, it has now been confirmed that the controversial vote will take place on two days: December 15 and 21.

No end in sight to Egypt’s crisis

But whatever the outcome of the December 15 referendum, there is little doubt that Morsi will emerge from the current crisis a much weakened figure on the international and domestic stages.

Last week, US President Barack Obama called his Egyptian counterpart to express his “deep concern” over the latest crisis - a marked departure from the praise Obama lavished on the president for his role in mediating the Gaza ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

On the domestic front, the constitutional referendum may result in a “yes” vote, but it would only deepen the dangerous divisions within Egyptian society, making the rest of Morsi’s tenure a fraught term.

If the draft constitution is approved, Egypt is likely to head to the polls for parliamentary elections within the next few months.

Nearly five months ago, Morsi was elected with a 51% sliver of a majority after many Egyptian liberals opted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate over rival Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister under Mubarak who was widely regarded as a “feloul”.

For the next parliamentary elections, if the opposition does not succeed in seizing the momentum, they will be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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