Morsi’s opponents in the “National Salvation Front” have garnered plenty of criticism for being obstructionists, sore losers, or bad faith interlocutors, depending on who’s leveling the charge. My own view is that their fault is more basic than that, having to do with their half-baked idea of what a political opposition is. Effective opposition doesn’t mean stomping one’s foot like a toddler and rejecting everything that comes from the government. It means keeping tabs on officials and informing citizens of their misdeeds. Above all, it means persuading the public that the opposition can do better at running things than the government.
First it has to be said that the Egyptian opposition faced a very long, uphill battle after Mohamed Morsi’s election. Not only did a true opposition figure come tantalizingly close to entering the run-off, only to be edged aside by the two oligarchies dominating Egyptian politics. But the post-revolutionary political arena is still under construction. There’s no parliament, no party system, and no independent institutions to oversee government performance.
The opposition thus started from sub-zero conditions, with very little resources and lots of horrible diseases courtesy of Sadat and Mubarak. Crippling internal divisions, holdover pseudo-opposition figures, and not the faintest notion of how to build broad constituencies are just three of the legacies left by Egypt’s autocrats that made it extra hard for the emergent democratic opposition.
Still, I’m stunned at Morsi’s opponents’ failure to act like a credible opposition ever since his November 21 decrees. They could barely contain their glee at his cascading failures, outdoing each other in branding him a dictator and clambering atop the rising tide of popular protest (any notion that the National Salvation Front is leading the street protests is false, as its most honorable member has pointed out). Instead of acting like the responsible statesmen they claim to be, Morsi’s critics turned into shrill Cassandras, prophesying doom and impending civil war. Most significant, they resolutely refused to meet with the president when the crisis worsened, treating him like an enemy who must be brought down.
This is very different from their behavior several months ago, when they began branding themselves and organizing for parliamentary elections. Their committed cadres fully appreciated the challenge of building real parties, not just clumps of followers. The three principals (Mohamed ElBaradie, Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabahy) then banded together to monitor Morsi’s delivery on election promises, exactly what an opposition should do. When conflict over the constitution escalated, they all accepted Morsi’s invitation to dialogue and relayed to him their parties’ demands.I take the point made by the unassailable Abdel Ghaffar Shukr, who explained that the NSF refused to meet Morsi because they felt betrayed by his November decrees. Let’s put aside the incongruous personalization of such grave issues. During an exceptional crisis when lives have been lost and a weakened president calls for dialogue, why not push your demands at the negotiating table and walk out if the president doesn’t budge? Why set as preconditions the very matters up for negotiation, namely canceling the decree and postponing the referendum?
Instead of seeing themselves as part of a fledgling political system with stakes in its survival, the NSF politicians reverted to the old template of battling autocracy. Morsi became another dictator with whom you never negotiate, not a fumbling elected president who can and must be checked. Egyptian politics became a zero-sum battle between a moral, valiant opposition and a sinister power-hungry theocracy. Morsi is Mubarak redux. The opposition must be uncompromising, because compromise is defeat.
Each of the three politicians has different motivations for this absolutist thinking. Amr Moussa is the ancien regime politician who thinks the presidency is his birthright, by virtue of his social class and lifelong government service. He’ll never accept any new group controlling the state, especially a group that represents a broader segment of the Egyptian people. Ever the opportunist, Moussa sensed an opening in Morsi’s failure and suddenly became the jealous defender of democracy and women’s rights.
Mohamed ElBaradei seems to espouse a managerial view of politics, where there’s a right way (his own) and a wrong way (everyone else’s) and Egypt has been on the wrong track since February 11, 2011. ElBaradei has taken up a role as the resident scold of Egyptian politics, repeatedly decrying the dysfunctions of the process in his Twitter aphorisms and international Op-Eds. His devotees paint him as some sort of visionary, but his perpetual disgust at the rough and tumble of politics and his self-righteous mien raise serious doubts about his capacity for democratic leadership.
Hamdeen Sabahy is the biggest puzzle of all. The only gifted politician on the NSF and the only one in that group who took real risks under Mubarak, it’s baffling why he’d choose to play second fiddle to Moussa and Baradei. It seems as if he’ll never get over being the dark horse in the maiden presidential election, securing 4.8 million votes in the first round (Mohamed Morsi got 5.7). In struggling to maintain his relevance in the post-election landscape, Sabahy has wavered between effective criticism of Morsi’s socio-economic policies and the reflexive, ugly Ikhwanophobia of Sabahy’s followers. Morsi’s decrees seem to have pushed Sabahy to the latter impulse, and he enthusiastically began proclaiming Morsi’s loss of legitimacy until criticism made him backtrack and say he meant Morsi’s “moral legitimacy.”
My point about the NSF isn’t that it’s infiltrated by feloul or that it’s an alliance of convenience. It’s that its notion of opposition is sophomoric at best and putschist at worst. The sight of politicians refusing to negotiate with an elected president but then agreeing to the military’s “we’re all family” shindig is beyond pitiful. How much more effective to have negotiated with Morsi a cancellation of his decree and a postponement of the referendum. If he refused the latter, the NSF could’ve called his bluff and walked out triumphant, revealing the MB’s bullying to the public while proving themselves to be responsible problem-solvers. Instead, by acting militant in a situation that required hard bargaining, the NSF is left to accept the fact of the referendum while saving face by grandstanding about conditions already in place.
In this moment of profound disenchantment with both government and opposition, a detached historical perspective is for me the only solace. Leon Trotsky has a brilliant observation about the French Revolution that works nicely for our Egyptian saga. "A revolution is a mighty devourer of human energy, both individual and collective. The nerves give way. Consciousness is shaken and characters are worn out. Events unfold too swiftly for the flow of fresh forces to replace the loss."