Egyptians walk underneath an election campaign poster erected by supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, in Cairo on Jan. 28. (Khaled Elfiqi/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Egypt is in the midst of a baffling election season. President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is running for reelection, and a succession of possible opponents have met unfortunate ends. A rogue military colonel who announced his candidacy on Facebook promptly disappeared. The prominent former general Sami Anan was detained and his deputies attacked by vigilantes. Civilian lawyer and liberal favorite Khaled Ali announced his withdrawal, complaining of irregularities.

Sissi claims to be a democrat, but without a challenger, the entire election risked invalidation by Egypt’s intermittently independent judiciary. The president needed an opponent, and with hours to go before the Jan. 29 filing deadline, he finally got one: Moussa Moustafa Moussa of the small al-Ghad Party. Before Moussa’s announcement, however, it seemed as if Sissi’s challenger might come from an older and larger organization, the New Wafd Party. Though often described as “liberal” or “secular,” my research into historical party texts suggests that the Wafd is consistently neither — it is first and foremost a nationalist party. And while many have written it off as a stale, co-opted opponent with little relevance to national political developments, the last month has shown that the situation is not so simple.

The Wafd’s internal deliberations and external balancing act can shed some light on how co-opted opposition parties operate in authoritarian regimes.

The complexity behind opposition flip-flopping

The New Wafd, Egypt’s oldest surviving political party, is the continuation of a movement founded in 1919 to fight British imperialism. The old Wafd dominated Egyptian politics for three decades, until it was banned by the Free Officers shortly after they came to power in a 1952 military coup.

Three weeks ago, party chairman El-Sayyid El-Bedawy Shehata announced that the Wafd would back Sissi’s bid for reelection. The Wafd’s 36 parliamentary deputies even signed endorsements supporting the incumbent president. Then, as other candidates started to disappear or withdraw one by one, rumors started to circulate that the Wafd might nominate its own challenger.

Unable to rely on their own deputies — who had already endorsed Sissi — some Wafd members were apparently gathering citizens’ signatures to get party leader El-Bedawy on the ballot. But two days before the filing deadline, the Wafd announced that the party’s governing High Council had voted against the idea. Party leaders reiterated their support for Sissi.

With trustworthy reporting hard to come by in Egypt’s present political environment, it is nearly impossible to know exactly what happened. Authoritarianism often forces opposition parties into binary choices — boycott or not, protest or not, withdraw or not — which are difficult for observers to interpret.

Backing Sissi could indicate resignation to — if not active support for — the authoritarian status quo. But as many within and outside the Wafd have pointed out, running would have given a shred of democratic cover for an election that was anything but democratic.

A long history of internal contention

The Wafd’s shifting position reminds us that the battle for Egypt’s future is being fought not between institutions, but within them. While Sissi’s loyalists — or at least apologists — may control the Wafd and other co-opted organizations for now, that control is not unchallenged. And although Sissi, like Egyptian leaders before him, has certainly encouraged splits within rival groups, top-down manipulation is not the only source of disagreement.

El-Bedawy was elected president of the Wafd Party in 2010, in a surprisingly democratic contest that included televised debates and oversight of the voting process by respected public figures. A wealthy pharmaceutical executive, El-Bedawy has wielded considerable power over the party’s direction. From the start, however, dissatisfied factions have challenged his rule. His opponents in past party elections have included Mahmoud Abaza, a scion of a powerful family who still has loyalists in the party, and Fuad Badrawi, a longtime party activist and grandson of Fuad Sirag al-Din, who re-founded the Wafd in the late 1970s after a quarter-century ban.

During last week’s High Council meeting, dissenting Wafd members protested inside the party headquarters chanting “we will not be part of the puppet show!” They are hardly the first to disrupt events at the party’s mansion in Cairo’s upscale Doqqi neighborhood.

In 2010, disaffected Wafd members protested to demand their party boycott rigged parliamentary elections. In 2014, members staged sit-ins at party offices to protest an influx of former Mubarak supporters running as Wafd candidates. This movement, the “Wafd Reform Front,” adopted Badrawi as its figurehead, leading to his brief expulsion from the High Council.

For years, Wafdists have been sharing memes on social media comparing El-Bedawy to Egypt’s long line of ruling autocrats. One post this week excitedly pointed out that if El-Bedawy ran against Sissi, he would be required to resign his party affiliation and his eight-year term as party head would finally be over.

El-Bedawy’s time is up anyway: He is term-limited, and later this year, the Wafd will elect a new leader. Tellingly, one potential successor is Bahaa Eddin Abu Shaqqa, head of the Wafd’s parliamentary delegation and a spokesperson for Sissi’s reelection campaign.

No matter who is elected, the battle for the party’s soul will continue.

At times in its long history, the Wafd has sharply criticized incumbent rulers; at others, it has been markedly silent. This constant flip-flopping looks to many observers like hypocrisy, but it also reflects the Wafd’s sharp internal divisions.

What seems like hypocrisy highlights the real battle for Egypt’s future

It can be tempting, when watching from afar, to assume that politics in authoritarian regimes will happen among well-known, organized actors in the public eye. Will the civilian intelligence apparatus challenge the military? Will established activist groups manage to organize protests against the regime? Will the Wafd confront Sissi?

However, more than four years after the 2013 military coup, public politics remains risky. Open confrontation can mean a quick ticket to prison, or worse. The resulting public quiescence can make the status quo seem permanent. But within these organizations — in ways that rarely make it into Western media — Egyptians are continuing to fight.

Sofia Fenner is an assistant professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College.