The return of tamed opposition in Egypt

Egypt's opposition parties are being co-opted or contained. In the foreseeable future, the most effective opposition to the regime will most probably take place outside elected institutions and by actors different from political parties, says Rawia M.Tawfik Amer

Rawia M Tawfik Amer
30 June 2014

One of the bases of the durability of authoritarianism under Mubarak was the existence of a tamed opposition that was allowed to participate in the political -  including electoral - game, but according to rules set by the regime alone. The January 25th revolution promised to open spaces for the emergence of a strong opposition which could contest the rules of the game. However, the last presidential elections, and the coalitions formed to run for the upcoming parliamentary elections next month, indicate that politics in Egypt is returning to one characterised by tamed opposition which does little more than maintaining the political status quo.

In their analysis of the resilience of authoritarianism in Egypt, scholars underlined how Mubarak’s regime used opposition to sustain his regime. In his contribution to the edited volume ‘Debating Arab Authoritarianism’, Lust-Okar noted how secular parties neither made use of the weakening of the regime to mobilise mass protest, nor contested the neo-liberal policies implemented by this regime, in spite of their catastrophic social implications. In this sense, opposition parties helped the regime to improve its image as a pluralist one, without competing with it for power. This made opposition, as Zartman argued, a force that is supportive of, rather than threatening to, authoritarianism. The illegalised Muslim Brotherhoods, the most organised political opposition, was part of this dynamic. Deals with the ruling party had sometimes determined the number of seats the movement should run for in parliamentary elections and other representative institutions.

The January 25th revolution had promised to open spaces for the development of strong opposition. In March 2011, a new law organising political parties was introduced lifting the restrictions on forming new parties that existed in the old law in place since 1977. As a result, newly established parties proliferated, reaching more than 90 parties. Given their limited experience and mobilising capacity, new secular parties gained a few seats, leaving the Islamists as a dominant force in the parliament elected in November 2011-January 2012. The short lived parliament, which was dissolved less than six months of its first session, gave little time for the new parties to practice parliamentary politics. Now, more than three years after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian politics seems to be restoring the role of opposition parties in legitimising authoritarianism. This was evidently the case in the recent presidential elections, and will most probably characterise the upcoming parliament.       

Sabahi in the presidential elections: playing by the rival’s rule of the game 

Not a few number of observers and commentators noted that the result of the last presidential elections in Egypt was a forgone conclusion, a formality in light of the widely expected victory of the former Defence Minister, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a coronation for the army general, and a legitimising tool of Sisi’s leadership after his ousting of the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi last July.

Human rights and elections monitoring organisations inside and outside Egypt, including Carter Centre, Democracy  International, and the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, expressed their concerns towards the repressive atmosphere that restricted freedoms of expressions and assembly, and criminalised dissent. Yet, the leftist politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, opted to run for presidency in what he himself believed to be an ‘unfair’ game.  In a comment almost one week before the elections, Sabahi told the BBC that the election contest was ‘not a fair fight’ and that his campaign was facing many restrictions. Eventually, Sabahi did nothing more than help legitimise the unfair game.  

Moreover, Sabahi continued his role in this game and announced his acceptance of its results, in spite of the ‘systematic violations’ reported by his campaign in the first day of elections, and the rising calls emerging from within his campaign to withdraw. These reported violations included collective voting, police forces’ intervention to affect voters’ choice in some polling stations, the arrest and detention of members of Sabahi’s campaign in a number of governorates, and preventing Sabahi’s delegates from entering some polling centres.

Sabahi explained his position by claiming that democracy has to be fought for even if the atmosphere is ‘not ideal’.  But I believe best explains Sabahi’s position is his stand towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and towards the roadmap overthrowing the movement announced on the 3rd of July. Like Sisi, Sabahi saw in the roadmap a historic opportunity to eliminate and destroy his strongest rival, the Muslim Brotherhood. Equally important, by expressing outright support for the roadmap, Sabahi approved the centrality of the military in Egyptian politics and its right to intervene to enforce its own settlement of political contestations. This support made void any claim by Sabahi during his campaign that the army should protect, but not rule, the country. These facts indicate that both presidential candidates had common political goals and shared principles, even if their proposed socio-economic policies were different.

‘Opposition’ parties campaigning for the state candidate: the new Egyptian irony

The role of opposition in legitimising Egyptian elections was clearer in the case of El-Nour party, the Salafi party that came second after the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party in the post-revolution parliamentary elections, and gave its blessing to the 3rd of July roadmap. The party, which announced that it does not seek any ministerial posts in the new government, backed Sisi by organising campaigns to increase turnout. After the low turnout in the first day of elections, and in response to criticisms by Sisi-supportive private media that El-Nour had not done enough to mobilise voters, party leaders defended their party’s position claiming that it was the most active political force in campaigning for Sisi. Among the numerous parties that backed Sisi, including well-established parties such as Al-Wafd and Al-Tajamu, and new parties such as El-Masryyen El-Ahrar, El-Nour presents the most ironic example of an opposition party that displayed its allegiance to the state candidate.

 Other opposition parties: between a rock and a hard place

 In this context, only a few parties have been struggling to maintain their autonomy from, and their opposition to, both the state and the Muslim Brotherhood led anti-coup alliance. El-Dostour, founded by Mohamed El-Baradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the iconic figure in the January 25th revolution, backed Sabahi in the presidential elections, and joined him in a political coalition that may turn into an electoral coalition in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  Yet the party has little chance in the upcoming elections, especially after introducing a new parliamentary elections law early this month that put political parties at a disadvantage by giving their lists 22% of the seats only. The same applies to parties such as ‘Masr El-Qaweya’, founded by the former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, which struggles to build its internal structures, connect to the masses, and oppose government policies in a restrictive political environment.    

This picture leaves us with a mode of politics very much similar to the one under Mubarak, where opposition parties, like other political organisations, are either co-opted or contained. At least in the foreseeable future, the most effective opposition to the regime will most probably take place outside elected institutions and by actors different from political parties.


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