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Why is the Egyptian opposition unfit to govern?

A popularly held belief about political opposition in Egypt is that it suffers from fragmentation and organizational weakness, and that, were these various groups and individuals to unite and organize, they might remove the military dictatorship from power and govern Egypt effectively.

I argue, however, that the problems of Egyptian opposition run deeper. Even if, or when, the military loses public support and finds itself compelled to hand over power, the opposition would be unable to govern the country effectively and would likely plunge Egypt into further chaos (by “opposition” I mean those seeking to take part in governance, not civil society initiatives).

I build this claim on the following four assumptions:

First, most of the opposition share the military’s worldview. This includes their understanding of the role of the state, governance and Egypt’s foreign relations. They blame the military for not enacting this worldview; for being incompetent, driven by self-interest or for betraying Egypt’s national interests. If they seize power, these oppositional groups would be seeking to enact almost exactly the same worldview.   

To illustrate, the majority of the oppositional groups view the state as the agent of development; responsible for providing housing, healthcare, transportation, education and basic commodities at affordable prices, as well as providing an income for all. They see the state as a producer and a provider, not as an intervener in more-or-less independent markets. This statist approach applies also to non-economic sectors: for them, the state should be leading and shaping the political, social and cultural lives of its citizens.  

Oppositional groups also share the military’s view of Egypt’s place in the world. This includes a chauvinistic attitude toward regional partners and claims of regional hegemony. It also includes an essentialist view of the world as composed of “east” and “west,” whereby a glorious and innocent east was brought down by a treacherous west, bent on subjugating and controlling it through conspiracy and betrayal. In keeping with this worldview, they — much like the ruling military — view international organizations and globalization dynamics as tools of western infiltration that should be resisted, mainly through a coordinated front of Arab and Islamic countries and south-south partnerships.

The aim here, obviously, is not to discuss such a worldview, but rather to emphasize the similarities between the ruling military and the oppositional groups in the way they perceive politics, the state and the world. What the opposition wants is not to replace this worldview, but to enact it.

Second, oppositional groups are incapable of mobilizing support in any sustainable manner. They have spent their political careers justifying this inability, either by government repression or by ignorance and apathy of the people. They failed to build on the widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the ruling regime in the wake of the 1967 defeat and the collapse of its promises of social, economic and political development. And, even when the people took to the streets in revolt, both in 1977 and in 2011, oppositional groups lagged behind, and ultimately failed to turn these protests into a formal political power.

As a result, when the repression machine was reactivated in July 2013, there was no oppositional group confronting it, only disparate individuals who were easily evicted. Even the Islamists, who place great importance on their organizational capabilities, could not maintain power in the months that followed.

Oppositional figures dislike this line of analysis. They point to the sacrifices made in the face of formidable state repression. Is this any different from the military’s dislike of criticism and pointing to the sacrifices made in the face of formidable adversity? While partly true, these justifications do not alter the reality at hand, which is the chronic inability of the opposition to sustain public mobilization and, consequently, to exercise any significant leverage over governance.

Third, oppositional groups are incapable of moving beyond politics-as-protest to begin formulating alternative public policies that provide the basis for better governance. So far, they have focused exclusively on calling for radical change, expecting it to come about through “political will” alone: removing corrupt officials, changing government programs and priorities and replacing the ruler. Ironically, this is exactly the same method the military leadership is following in order to “reform” the state. In other words, the opposition is as oblivious as the military to the gravity of Egypt’s state failure.

Let me reiterate for clarity: Oppositional groups have nothing to propose but the same objectives every Egyptian is dreaming of — a functioning state with an effective administration, a thriving economy, decent services and a respect for rights, freedoms and the rule of law. But how do we achieve these objectives? How do we move from a state with an annual budget deficit of almost 10 percent to a state that provides decent services? Oppositional groups give no answer to this. Instead, they restate their objectives and demands, then call for replacing the ruler as the ultimate solution.

But the vast majority of Egyptians do not need an oppositional group to articulate their rights and dreams. They know them all too well. What they have been clamoring for is someone who can make them happen; an individual or group that demonstrates an ability to bring about these dreams, not to describe them. This is what they thought they found in 2011, and they were utterly disappointed. And this is why they threw their lot behind the Muslim Brotherhood and then the military. So far, no group has showed it is up to the task.

Fourth, too many in the opposition subscribe to a zero-sum view of politics and reject the idea of bargaining and compromise. None has formulated plans for how to bargain with their rivals or prepared their supporters for such compromises. On the contrary, they continue to feed the illusory dreams of an overwhelming victory that will enable them to realize their objectives fully. The Islamists are perhaps the worst offenders; everyone else saw what was in store for them had the Brotherhood stayed in power. But they are not the only offenders. Neither liberals nor leftists have a vision of compromise with Islamists, the military or with the remnants of the old regime. Each group continues to believe in its self-righteousness and harbors dreams of eradicating its rivals.

This means Egypt’s political problem is not only the absence of a democratic framework, but also the exclusionary attitude of its political players. Even if we manage to create a democratic political framework in Egypt, say through a new constitution, it is almost certain that the ruling group (whoever this is) will manipulate it, twist it, and violate its spirit and letter in order to eradicate its rivals (whoever they are).  

These four assumptions suggest that the military and the opposition are branches of the same tree: one is rooted in power and exposed to the sun, and the other is shrouded in melancholy and depression. If the sun were to shine on the opposition, however, its behavior is unlikely to be different.

This leads us to a troubling conclusion. When state failure erodes support for the ruling military and it feels the need to retreat from politics, oppositional groups will not provide a good alternative. Whether they get to power through a power-sharing arrangement or another public uprising, oppositional groups are unlikely to provide the answer to Egypt’s protracted challenges.

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Ezzedine C. Fishere