Egypt opposition soul-searching after referendum

The constitutional amendments were widely approved despite intense campaigning against them by the opposition.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Limited influence. Egyptian opposition member and activist Elham Aidroos speaks during a news conference at the headquarters of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in Cairo, March 27.        (Reuters)
Limited influence. Egyptian opposition member and activist Elham Aidroos speaks during a news conference at the headquarters of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in Cairo, March 27. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Opposition activists are soul-searching after failing to influence voters during the referendum on constitutional amendments that, among other things, extend the current term of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for two years.

More than 88% of the 27 million voters who participated in the referendum voted in favour of the amendments, which would also allow Sisi to seek a third term. This means Sisi could stay in office until 2030, if he wins re-election in 2024.

Addressing professional union leaders and workers April 30, Sisi said he was happy about the results of the referendum. The opposition, however, is frustrated, defeated and uncertain about the future.

“I have a feeling that there is a pressing need for a paradigm shift or an epistemological break,” journalist Hani Shukrallah wrote on Facebook. “It’s no longer possible that we keep talking to each other, fighting with each other and vying for leadership over each other… inside our closed social, political, intellectual and cultural circles.”

Shukrallah’s comment was perhaps an eloquent description of the conditions of the opposition in Egypt today.

The constitutional amendments were widely approved despite intense campaigning against them by the opposition.

Partly reflecting the limited influence of the opposition, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood who actively campaigned against the changes, public approval of the amendments showed the difficulty of being in the opposition in Egypt, especially with reports about authorities allowing no expression of disapproval.

Some of those who campaigned against the amendments on the streets were arrested, opposition figure Alaa al-Aswani said. In a recent video, Aswani referred to a man who was arrested during the referendum for carrying a sign stating his disapproval of the constitutional amendments.

“We are losing hope and feel that nothing will pay off, regardless of the type of campaigning we do,” said Farid Zahran, chairman of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “There is a very limited freedom margin, while the government acts as if it does not see us.”

An opposition lawmaker was bullied, smeared and thrust into media and public scrutiny in April for saying he did not like Sisi. Some people called for stripping lawmaker Ahmed al-Tantawi of his Egyptian citizenship.

Such attitudes cause many Egyptian opposition figures to keep silent, rendering the opposition even weaker. However, the weakness cannot be understood without knowing Egypt’s recent history.

Opposition political parties complained for years under former President Hosni Mubarak that they had little freedom for action and communication with the public. When Mubarak was ousted, those parties were unable to establish a power base or win public support.

This gave the Islamists, mostly the Muslim Brotherhood, an opportunity to prevail because they were more organised.

“This is why I say the opposition needs to reorganise itself and reintroduce its programmes to the public,” said Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This will be more useful than blaming the authorities.”

This is also about more than just the failure of the opposition to appeal to the public or introduce itself in a convincing manner. There is also the issue of Sisi’s popularity.

Sisi became president in mid-2014 when the country faced bankruptcy, civil war and Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State terrorism. Almost five years later, the economy is recovering, the streets are more secure and the Brotherhood and the Islamic State are less of a threat, even though they are far from quashed.

In offering little freedom to his opponents, Sisi seems to have learnt from Mubarak, who allowed political activists to demonstrate years before the 2011 uprising that ended his autocracy, a senior official of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party said.

Mubarak realised that the same mistake caused the downfall of his regime when the activists mobilised the public against him in January 2011, the official, who requested anonymity, added.

Egyptians also seem to have learnt from the unrest and economic devastation that followed Mubarak’s toppling, conditions that were so bad that some people wished he had stayed in power.

This atmosphere leaves the future of the opposition in doubt amid fears that shrinking freedoms will affect Egypt’s socio-economic conditions.

“Political freedoms strongly affect economic conditions and social stability in any country,” said opposition lawmaker Ahmed al-Sharqawi. “The likelihood of social stability and better living conditions is stronger when there is freedom and a rule of law.”

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