When a controversial constitutional draft went to a vote earlier this month, the Egyptian opposition was, as usual, in disarray.
It waffled for weeks between boycotting the referendum and calling for a no vote. When it finally chose the latter only days before the first round of voting on Dec. 15, it was too late to overcome the Muslim Brotherhood and their salafist allies’ strong campaign for a "yes."
But the backlash facing President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for rushing the constitution through without input from the opposition has given his opponents new hope for electoral success.
“The divisions are a thing of the past now and we have Mr. Morsi to thank for that,” says Mostafa El Guindi, who was an independent member of the now-dissolved parliament and played a role in organizing the main facets of the opposition into a new coalition, the National Salvation Front.
“The marriage between ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi is now fact,” he says, referring to two politicians with often clashing policies. That the Nobel prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, and Hamdeen Sabahi, the leftist candidate who came in a surprising third in June’s presidential elections, have come together shows the strength of the determination to create a united front against the Brothers.
This gives the opposition new hope heading towards parliamentary elections which, according to Egyptian law, must happen within two months of the approval of the constitution.
Rejecting political games
But there are also those who say the opposition has only itself to blame for its failure to chip away at the electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Many people wanted to vote no in the referendum about the constitution, but they were looking for a good reason to do so,” says Fady Ramzy, who runs the think tank Messry. “The problem is that the opposition doesn’t have a political product to sell. They should have spent their time convincing people that this constitution is [a waste] for any number of reasons, and that we should do a better job. Because what we have now is just a bunch of nice words with no mechanism to hold those in power to the promises contained in the constitution. Instead, the opposition chose to make a lot of noise about the influence of sharia in the new constitution.”
Mr. Ramzy’s assertion was echoed by voters in some of the districts in the Nile Delta last week. Most Egyptians voting "yes" cited a desire for stability as their main reason, while most "no" voters had very specific reasons to be against the constitution. Among them were the absence of a minimum wage in Egypt –wages are instead linked to productivity – or the fact that free health care is subject to a "certificate of poverty," which many see as humiliating.
Not a single voter cited the role of sharia, or Islamic law, as a reason to vote either for or against the document, despite the fact that both sides had campaigned mainly on this issue.
“The religious factor is decreasing with every election,” says Ramzy. “People realize that political games are being played with religion, and they are starting to refuse being put before the choice of voting for or against Islam.”
Disillusioned by democracy's slow pace
There is also a growing belief that Egypt’s chaotic path since the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011 was perhaps an inevitable one.
For all the criticism of the opposition, “it is unreasonable to expect Egypt to have a healthy political landscape just two years after the fall of a dictatorship,” political activist Alfred Raouf says.
“We need at least five years to get to that point, especially with a Muslim Brotherhood that is not really intent on having a diverse political landscape, but rather wants to take the place of the NDP,” he says, referring to Mubarak's former National Democratic Party.
Writing in the Egypt Independent this week, Mr. Raouf said that even if the revolutionaries had been the ones to assume power, they would have "quickly oppressed the people." What happened instead – military rule followed by a landslide for the Muslim Brotherhood – “seems to most people like a catastrophic outcome to a very hopeful revolution," but is actually "the best course for the revolution,” Raouf wrote.
Nevertheless, Raouf, a founding member of ElBaradei’s Dostour (Constitution) party, sees an opportunity for the opposition to make inroads in the next parliamentary elections, even if the current opposition coalition dissolves before then.
Mostafa El Guindi believes the opposition has a chance to win a majority in parliament. But Raouf is more conservative. “I think we have a good chance of getting 45 percent of the seats in parliament, up from around 30 percent, provided there is no rigging,” he says.
What worries him most is voter turnout, which is lower with every election or referendum.
“It suggests that people no longer believe in democracy because they don’t see it helping them in their daily lives.”