- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2010

CAIRO | When Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and former head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, swept back to Egypt in February talking of democratic reform and possibly running for president, he reinvigorated a stagnant political opposition.

A loose coalition of opposition parties and reform movements sprang up with Mr. ElBaradei as the figurehead and began gathering signatures for a seven-point petition calling for democratic reform in Egypt.

But when the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, threw its weight behind that movement in early July, suddenly the numbers ballooned, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. The coalition now claims to have more than 300,000 petition signatures, with more than two thirds of them gathered by the Brotherhood.

It’s an indication of the powerful force for change in Egypt that could emerge if the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s notoriously fractious secular opposition groups were able to create a united front that demands an alternative to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled with an iron fist for 29 years.

Though they have widely varying views on what Egyptian government and society should look like, the groups agree that democratic reform is needed. The challenge is going beyond a signature-gathering campaign to more tangible action.

“If you have an opposition that comes together around a specific reform proposition or issue, and can communicate the message that things can be different, it would present a formidable challenge to the regime,” said Nathan Brown, a professor and Middle East expert at George Washington University.

While they have agreed on the reform petition, the problem is “cooperating on some kind of plan of action, communicating it, and finding some kind of galvanizing way to keep it in the public eye,” he said.

Mr. Brown, like other Mideast analysts, does not expect the Brotherhood and Mr. ElBaradei’s National Association for Change (NAC) to rise to the occasion and mount a movement capable of challenging the government.

The price for political activism is high in Egypt, where the government has ruled for nearly three decades under an emergency law that allows it to arrest and detain people indefinitely without charge. It is regularly used against political activists, and the Brotherhood typically pays a higher price for activism than other movements.

And Egypt’s opposition rarely agrees. Calls in the coalition for boycotting the upcoming parliamentary elections has revealed a lack of consensus, though Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior leader of the Brotherhood, said the group would participate in a boycott if all of the opposition committed to it.

While many consider it unlikely, the possibility of a united opposition is alarming to the regime.

The 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak, who underwent surgery in Germany in March, is rumored to be in quickly declining health. He has attempted to stifle the rumors with a heavy schedule of public appearances, but has recently appeared thinner and paler than usual, and each canceled meeting draws renewed speculation.

Mr. Mubarak has not named a vice president, and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to take power, a scenario opposed by many Egyptians. Speculating on what would happen should Mr. Mubarak die before naming a successor has become a national pastime.

Amr El Shobaki, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says if the Brotherhood and opposition created a united front, they could influence the outcome of such an event.

“They can play a role, exert pressure, and push the regime to choose another option besides Gamal,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood was a member of the NAC from the beginning, but it was only in July that it put forth an effort to join the signature campaign, which the coalition hopes will garner one million endorsements. Mr. El Shobaki said he sees this increased support for and participation in the coalition as an attempt by the Brotherhood to send a warning to the regime about what could happen if it continues to marginalize the group.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned in Egypt but is tolerated, aims to bring Egypt under Islamic law, or Shariah. While it has supported and used violence in the past, since the 1970s, the group has fully renounced violence.

More recently, it has embraced the democratic process, winning 20 percent of seats in the lower house of Parliament in 2005 elections.

That victory caused consternation not only for the regime, but also for the U.S., which had pressed Egypt to become more democratic. The government regularly arrests and detains Brotherhood members, and early this year launched a heavy crackdown, arresting hundreds of members and leaders.

The regime often uses the Muslim Brotherhood as a justification for its authoritarian tactics.

“Our regime is very successful at making Western regimes afraid of Islamist groups,” said Mr. Aboul Fotouh, a senior Brotherhood leader.

While the Brotherhood has the largest grass-roots support of any movement in Egypt, Mr. Aboul Fotouh maintains that it is not as widespread as some insist: In free and fair elections, the Brotherhood would not garner more than 20 percent or 25 percent of the vote, he said.

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