CAIRO — Egypt’s disparate opposition groups remain so divided that analysts and activists say they risk losing the last major decision-making body in the country to Islamists when the country votes in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Hostility to the country’s new Islamist-backed constitution drew thousands of protesters into the streets last month and degraded the Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility nationwide, a trend that the opposition claimed was reflected in a smaller majority in a national referendum on the document, compared with previous votes that the Islamists had rallied around. The crisis bolstered opposition optimism that they had been left with a prime opportunity to upset a string of Islamist electoral victories over the past year, politicians and analysts said.
An unlikely alliance of liberals, leftists, secularists and old-regime loyalists had pledged to run as a single party in the parliamentary elections, expected in April, to maximize their chances at the polls.
But petty infighting, ideological differences and disorganization in the ranks have rendered the chances of unity at the ballot box increasingly unlikely. The result, analysts say, is likely to be further gains for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour party, which together won 72 percent of parliamentary seats last year, in the first national election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
“It is really a miracle that we are still sitting together,” said Mohamed Abulghar, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and a prominent voice in the loose and increasingly divided National Salvation Front, which formed last month to oppose the constitution pushed forward by Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood-backed president who was elected in June 2012. The NSF had vowed to present a united front going forward, but that unity has largely crumbled.
Now the factions are splintering over economic policy, as the country’s economic crisis deepens. And they’re bitterly divided over whether members of Mubarak’s old government and now-defunct ruling party should be accepted on the ballot.
The Egyptian leftists, who oppose the government’s efforts to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, say they don’t want the liberal capitalists on their electoral ticket. The youth activists don’t want to run alongside old-regime “remnants,” such as former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who is part of the NSF but who also served as a popular foreign minister under Mubarak. The liberal al-Wafd party wants to back out of calls for a single ticket and run on its own list entirely. And still others would rather neglect the vote and focus their efforts on a mass protest planned this week for the two-year anniversary of Egypt’s revolution.
“I personally prefer to focus on January 25th because it was proved in this country in the last two years that nothing happens without the mobilization of huge masses of Egyptian citizens,” said Hussein Abdelghani, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front, arguing that previous protests had spurred cabinet reshuffles even though elections had brought the Islamists to power.
The Revolutionary Youth Union, an anti-Islamist activist group, said at a news conference Sunday that it hoped to use the anniversary protests to “topple” Morsi’s regime.
That a semblance of unity still exists behind closed doors, where the parties have strived in recent weeks to define specific policies and assemble candidate lists despite the odds, is “thanks to the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis,” Abulghar said.
But the sheer organizing force of the Muslim Brotherhood also is a major challenge.
The opposition has accused the Brotherhood of exploiting the poverty and religious sympathies of Egypt’s Muslim majority to get votes. During last year’s parliamentary races, liberal parties accused the Islamists of handing out cooking oil and urging their constituents to vote for “Islam.”
But in the run-up to this election, the Islamists — and many other, ordinary voters — say the opposition has learned little from previous criticism and is out of touch.
“The opposition doesn’t go to elections, they don’t go out to the streets,” said Mohammad Mostafa, a hotel worker in a run-down district of central Cairo. “They don’t come out to see how people are begging,” shouted a passerby as he spoke.
In recent weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood has launched the kind of grass-roots charity projects that analysts say have proved critical in building voter support among Egypt’s poor in recent years. It provided free seminars across the country to educate Egyptians about their new constitution. The Brotherhood office in Fayoum, a rural province south of Cairo, recently led a women’s literacy campaign. In the coastal city of Alexandria, the Brotherhood paid for a rat extermination campaign. The group’s charities operate mobile medical clinics in slums and rural areas year round.
Some factions within the opposition are catching on. The Social Democratic Party says it has started building schools on the outskirts of Giza, Cairo’s dense and populous sister city along the Nile, where Islamists command wide support. The April 6th youth movement, a group of liberal political activists that helped launch the revolution, sent a mobile medical clinic this month to Beni Suef, a deeply conservative town in central Egypt. Abdelghani, of the NSF, said that some local politicians within the alliance have handed out jobs to constituents — a practice that political analysts say falls right in line with old-regime tactics and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some parties also have chosen to avoid the word “secular” this time around, saying that the Brotherhood might use it against them. And a few have relaxed their concept of what’s known as “feloul,” or remnants of the old regime. “In the last election, our party did not include one person from Mubarak’s party. This time we are going to include anybody who is not stained by corruption,” Abulghar said.
Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said the opposition has learned some lessons from its bitter experiences in Egypt’s fledgling and deeply imperfect democracy. But the various groups are unlikely to overcome their differences in time for the next critical vote, he said. “For some of them, ideological principles still matter more than political gains and political power,” he said.
With control of parliament and the presidency, the Islamists would be able to shape the new Egypt. But Soltan, who is deeply critical of Morsi and the Brotherhood, believes that the Islamists will win again this spring. “I have no doubt,” he said, “whether I like it or not.”
Ingy Hassieb and Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.