An Islamist power grab has given Egypt's secular opposition an opening to shape their country's political future.
Egypt's Tahrir Square is once again making headlines all over the world. Protesters have filled Cairo's downtown to the brim twice in the past week -- just as they did last year, during the heady 18-day revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. This time around, however, the square was packed with Egyptians opposed to a power grab by the country's Islamist movements.
The message was clear: There are movers and shakers on the Egyptian political scene, and they are not Islamists. At long last, Egypt's non-Islamist opposition has a chance to get in the driver's seat -- building a powerful political machine of their own and changing the direction of their country.
How did it come to this?
On Nov. 22, President Mohamed Morsi issued a constitutional decree that turned Egypt's balance of power on its head. Two of the declaration's six articles may ostensibly address the demands of Egyptians: One orders a retrial of those implicated in the killing of protesters during the revolution, and another sacks the prosecutor general -- a remnant of Mubarak's regime. Both actions, however, only served to sugarcoat the rest of the articles, which effectively transform the president into an omnipotent leader.
The declaration not only gives Morsi, a longtime leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, the authority to issue any necessary decision or legislation without overview from any other branch of government, it paves the way to set up revolutionary courts. This "revolutionary protection" law essentially gives the president the power to put on trial anyone deemed to be enemy of the revolution, state, or regime. The ambiguity of its language is dangerous -- as tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians saw immediately.
The response was an immediate uproar by Egypt's infamously fragmented opposition -- and within a few hours, that well-known fragmentation was giving way to unity. The Nov. 27 marches and protest in Tahrir were the largest since the revolution's heyday, and were followed by another huge protest on Nov. 30 after Morsi refused to retract his decree. Disturbingly, many Egyptian provinces have also seen violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the Brotherhood. Clashes led to the burning of several offices belonging to the Brothers' political wing, and the death of a few protesters from both camps.
Many skeptics, including the Brotherhood, are convinced that the current unity between Egypt's opposition forces will be short lived. This could not be further from the truth.
Emergency constitutional decrees and similar measures are in themselves not foreign to democracies, and have been exercised successfully across the globe at numerous points in history. Egypt, however, is different: Egyptians well remember the country's disastrous experience with them during the previous dictatorship. Lest we forget, a major motivator for last year's revolution was the long-standing emergency law, which was in effect for 30 years straight and suspended Egyptians' constitutional rights. In fact, this was one of the common grievances that all factions of the revolution could agree upon.
But since Mubarak fell, Egypt's fractious non-Islamist groups have had a hard time maintaining that unity. Unlike the decades-old institutionalized Muslim Brotherhood and the hard-line Salafi movements, these groups only gained the space to operate freely less than two years ago. They have had to learn how to structure their political institutions, build their ground operations, and develop their policies -- not to mention negotiate their electoral alliances and navigate the various crises of Egypt's post-revolutionary landscape.
Initially, these new parties splintered into many small groups, failing to provide a united vision for Egypt's future. They feared successful alliances, worrying it would dilute their influence and blur their ideological message. Today, these concerns do not exist -- instead, these groups fear marginalization and political annihilation if they don't unite against Morsi's power grab.
It's not only secular voices that are joining the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Many unaffiliated Egyptians who previously voted for Islamist candidates are bitterly disappointed by the performance of the short-lived Parliament, and by Morsi's inability to address the country's real problems in the first five months of his presidency.
What's more, the ranks of the opposition are increasing. Egyptians who had previously seen figures of the old regime as the sole bulwark against the Brotherhood, or Islamist radicalization of society more broadly, are slowly coming to the side of new opposition leaders like liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, or even former top diplomat Amr Moussa.
The Brotherhood and its politically-subservient Salafi allies, represented by the Nour Party, have strong-armed their rivals and excluded them from political decisionmaking. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution. The Brothers and the Salafis set the rules of the game in the assembly, and ensured that they occupy enough seats to make any debate futile. Many opposition members quit in protest.
Opposition parties are quickly learning that the Brotherhood and Salafis' behavior in the Constituent Assembly is not an isolated event, but a defining aspect of how they plan to govern Egypt. With religious rhetoric, military-like obedience from its members, and seemingly unlimited funds, the Brotherhood and Salafis' "Holy Alliance" has marched onward, convinced it has a mandate to impose its agenda and giving little thought to opposing points of view.
With all democratic channels of communication effectively shut down, the only venues left to the opposition are peaceful protests and civil disobedience. This dynamic culminated in the massive protests on Nov. 27 -- it was simply the only way for the opposition to break the political bottleneck and make its voice heard in the new Egypt.
Islamists were always bound to enjoy a political honeymoon after the revolution, but recent events show that initial support is fading. At first, the Brotherhood was ascendant not only because its political message was popular, but because it was able to present itself as the only organized alternative to the old regime -- a legacy of Mubarak's old divide-and-rule tactics. With or without Morsi, the non-Islamist opposition would have united as part of the normal evolution of post-revolution political development. The president's miscalculations merely hastened the process.
The watershed protests in Tahrir Square challenge the conventional wisdom of an Islamist tide washing across the region. Finally, there is late-blooming proof that the promise of the Arab Spring is real: We are not a homogenous entity demanding Islamist rule.
This is nothing less than a wakeup call for Egypt and the world. As the Egyptian opposition increasingly gets organized, the international community must better understand the evolving Egyptian political scene -- and make sure it is on the right side of history. Our revolution is far from over. Indeed, it may just be beginning.
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