Could Egypt’s Opposition Learn to Get Along?

Opinion Articles

o years ago last month, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s then-president (now prisoner), put the final nail in the coffin of cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, and the non-Islamist revolutionaries who led the charge to unseat President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Morsi, in a move of supreme hubris, granted himself freedom from judicial oversight, provoking large protests against his government. In the aftermath, Brotherhood members were accused of physically abusing dozens of opposition protesters. Not surprisingly, any trace of the trust between the revolutionaries and the Brotherhood evaporated. But some speculate that the events of recent weeks might be putting the old relationship back on track. That is dubious.

When a Cairo judge on Nov. 29 dismissed charges accusing Mubarak of complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters in 2011’s uprising, a few thousand, mostly non-Islamist activists, protested near Tahrir Square. Hours after the protests began, a small group of pro-Morsi, Islamist protesters joined them. It was the first time elements of the two sides of Egypt’s anti-Mubarak opposition, the coalition that powered the uprising in 2011, had joined together since the presidential election of 2012 that brought Morsi to power.

Egypt’s revolutionary camp evolved from political and civil rights movements that predate the revolutionary uprising in 2011 — human rights defenders, some members of the intelligentsia, and non-Islamist political groups. The pro-Morsi alliance is led and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest of Egypt’s Islamist forces, which is now illegal, joined by smaller, more conservative Islamist parties.

The uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011, was spearheaded by non-Islamist groups, such as the pro-democracy April 6 youth movement. 

The Brotherhood leadership, like many other sections of Egyptian society, only endorsed the protests after it became clear that they were going to have a substantive impact. But without that broad coalition, the uprising might have failed to reach critical mass. A year and a half later, when Egypt’s first openly contested presidential elections came, many (though not all) non-Islamist revolutionaries endorsed Morsi for president, seeing him as the “lesser of the two evils,” compared to Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was also running for office. Their support was critical in ensuring a narrow Morsi victory.

These two examples notwithstanding, there has been much animosity between the revolutionary camp and the Brotherhood since Egypt’s political turmoil began. Following Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, most of the revolutionaries supported a revised constitution, which they hoped would allow the country to start fresh and introduce major structural reforms to ensure social justice and accountable government. Mostly, the non-Islamist revolutionaries also rejected the political transition managed by the military. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, opted to align with the generals who took power after Mubarak left. The Islamists endorsed the roadmap and backed the military’s proposed constitutional amendments in the hopes of gradually replacing the top level of state institutions with Brotherhood supporters, rather than reforming those institutions altogether. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s plan appeared to be on track: When Morsi won the presidency a little more than a year later, the Islamists resisted reforming the security sector. Many within the revolutionary camp insisted that was part and parcel of the revolution that led to a Brotherhood presidency becoming possible.

In 2012 and 2013, the revolutionaries believed that the next phase of the revolution required thorough reform of state institutions — including the police and the military — while the Brotherhood appeared content to see Mubarak removed and replace him and his minions with themselves or their supporters. At least, that’s how the revolutionaries viewed it. That’s when the short-lived love affair ended. Just five months after Morsi’s election, he let his revolutionary allies down with a decree putting his decisions above judicial review, and rushing through a flawed constitution. In the aftermath, the new president went even further, arresting some of the same revolutionaries who backed him in the election for protesting against his rule.

Of course since then, political repression, police brutality, and military power have waxed and flexed in a new regime that has the support and backing of many of Mubarak’s old networks. The Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutionaries now find themselves running afoul of the same law that severely restricts the right to protest. Just as in Mubarak’s days, left-wing human rights activists are serving side-by-side in jail with Islamists. But does this mean it is possible for the revolutionaries and the Islamists to let bygones be bygones?

Since Morsi’s ouster at the hands of the military, the Brotherhood has tried to present its “anti-coup” coalition as wider than itself. It has helped create groups like the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, a lobby mostly focused on pressuring governments in the West to stigmatize the new Egyptian regime, including some non-Brotherhood allies. But those efforts have mostly failed. The Brotherhood has only been able to win the support of pro-Morsi figures, with Islamists in general, and the Brotherhood in particular, dominating the opposition to last summer’s popular coup, when the military overthrew Morsi. This has led much of the Egyptian public — and the international community — to view most of the protests over the last 18 months as pro-Morsi, rather than pro-democracy.

If cooperation between the revolutionaries and the Brotherhood took place, the Brotherhood would be able to challenge that perception. Co-operation could mean better international lobbying, as well as putting forward a message of unity to the media. The revolutionaries, meanwhile, would benefit from the Brotherhood’s mobilization machine — something the revolutionary camp has been unable to replicate. It’s not clear if, following the military’s harsh crackdown on the Brotherhood over the last six months, that machine remains as effective as it once was. But it still exists and in the future could come in handy for animating protests or mobilizing voters in elections.

However, stumbling blocks remain. 

In attempts to correct its image, the Brotherhood has released a number of statements claiming it made mistakes between 2011 and 2013. Few revolutionaries seem to have taken these declarations seriously, recognizing them as expressions of the Brotherhood’s regret for tactical decisions, like trusting the military to allow Morsi’s rule to continue. Fundamentally, the revolutionary camp seems to suspect that the Brotherhood remains unreformed and unchanged: there still remain basic differences on sectarianism, the rule of law, and the need for structural and progressive reform. The revolutionaries claim to seek a truly independent judiciary, and a security sector that respects human rights. But they still harbour suspicions that the Brotherhood’s primary interest is only getting these institutions to do its bidding.

The Brotherhood has pointed out that it was not the only party to have made errors, and has repeatedly noted both sides made mistakes in 2011-2013, implying the revolutionary camp essentially cheered the military’s June 2013 coup, helping to organize and participate in the massive protests that brought it about. (That’s not quite accurate: Most revolutionaries wanted to see Morsi leave office early, either with snap elections or a resignation, rather than a military-led ouster. Indeed, many revolutionary groups lost their enthusiasm for the protests after the military made clear that it would intervene directly — something revolutionaries rejected from the outset.) Moreover, as evidence of the revolutionary camp’s sincerity, its proponents point out that while the military and the security forces have sought to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, non-Islamist revolutionaries and civil rights groups have been among the staunchest defenders of human rights, including those committed against Morsi supporters.

It’s not just rhetorical support for human rights, either. Pro-Morsi factions and some members of revolutionary groups have reportedly made contact with each other via third parties or among university students who oppose the current government on university campuses. These parlays have come to little, though, as the revolutionaries continue to insist on a full apology by the Brotherhood for conduct during 2011-2013, particularly the calling of vigilante action against opponents, sectarian incitement, and exclusionary policies — with guarantees against repetition if the Brotherhood were ever to escape from a state crackdown. A group called the “Muslim Brotherhood Youth” seems to have emerged, articulating that mistakes, rather than simply tactical errors, were made, and they have paid for it in blood. But the Brotherhood leadership rejected the very existence of the group.

There are also risks for both sides in re-forming the Brotherhood-revolutionary alliance. The Brotherhood’s main concern is the cohesion of the ‘Anti-Coup’ coalition, which would be placed at risk if revolutionary demands were met via a public disavowal of Brotherhood tactics in the past. Moreover, any association with an unreformed Muslim Brotherhood brings the risk of creating dissension in the revolutionary ranks and could also strengthen the smear campaign against the revolutionary camp by the Egyptian media. The fact the Brotherhood has been banned by law also means that association with the group carries legal risks.

The Brotherhood appears convinced (unlike most observers) that the majority of the Egyptian population still supports it and thus the current government in Cairo is on its deathbed. And so the Islamists believe that any alliance with the revolutionary camp will speed along the regime’s demise. But most revolutionaries, however, seem to be aware that the new political order has plenty of life left in it. Still, many revolutionaries wonder privately if general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will really be able to complete his term in office given the serious economic challenges that the country faces. To them, this means a political opening may be possible in the longer term.

Any fully healthy Egyptian body politic will require a situation where Islamists and non-Islamists, supporters of the revolution and its opponents, can all live side by side. Without substantial changes to these groups internally, and the broader context they find themselves in, however, it is equally difficult to see them making common cause for any truly progressive goals around the rule of law, accountability, and fundamental human and civil rights in Egypt.

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