As Egypt’s first democratically elected president nears the completion of his first year in office, there is growing resentment among Egyptians about his tenure. The dismal economy has grown worse, sectarian tensions are greater, and government services have declined – something many people thought would have been impossible.
Indeed, many here feel that Mohammed Morsi’s time in office represents the dashing of hopes for the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and was supposed to give rise to a better Egypt.
A Pew Research poll released last week found that only 30 percent of Egyptians believe the nation is headed in the right direction, compared with 65 percent during the 2011 uprising. The number is back to the levels of Mubarak; in the year before his ouster, only 28 percent of Egyptians thought the country was headed in the right direction.
Yet no one here is talking about a potent challenge to the Morsi presidency, despite the failures of his first year. The opposition National Salvation Front, comprised of more than 40 organizations that have sponsored innumerable protests to Morsi’s actions, is no better, say most Egyptians.
Many say the group is too large, represents too many opinions and is too inexperienced to launch a formidable challenge to Morsi. But observers, opponents and analysts also agree that the opposition faces a challenge that also plagues Morsi – how to function in a democratic state.
Just as Morsi, who rose to prominence through the secretive Muslim Brotherhood religious society, has used presidential power as a blunt instrument against his opponents, the opposition has yet to adjust to challenging a democratic leader instead of a 30-year despot.
“The opposition is making the same mistake . . . of simply hating someone rather than coming up with a strategy. They have replaced Mubarak with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Khalid Ismail, a businessman who was active in the anti-Mubarak movement.
While opponents call Morsi undemocratic, they often adopt undemocratic tactics to fight him. Many voice their frustrations by calling for a usurping of the June 2012 election that led to his presidency. Some call for a return to the military rule that governed the country between Mubarak’s fall and Morsi’s election victory.
They’ve started a petition calling for his removal over the economy’s failings. They’ve offered a contradictory view of elections, calling for delaying parliamentary elections because of problems with the election law, while demanding early presidential elections, under the same election law, in hopes of removing Morsi from office.
Still others, including the National Salvation Front, are considering whether to boycott the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for fall.
In some cases, opponents confront those supporting Morsi with violence.
“All these inconsistencies have affected the opposition’s popularity,” said Manar el Shobagy, an associate professor of politics at the American University in Cairo and a former member of the Constituent Assembly that was charged with writing a new constitution.
Ahmed Maher, who leads the 6th of April movement, one of the largest of the so-called revolutionary organizations that led the protests that toppled Mubarak, is among those who is trying to create a viable opposition movement. He concedes his movement is disorganized and that his followers don’t know how to work as an opposition in a country where recent elections have been, by all accounts, fair and legitimate.
Part of his job, he said, is to educate his members about how to operate in the new Egypt. When members propose getting rid of Morsi or for the military take over again, he said, he answers with questions.
“Ok, we get rid of Morsi. Who comes next?” Maher, 32, explained. “A military coup? Is that a revolution? Is that democracy? They killed your friends.”
A viable opposition is years away, el Shobagy said, as a new generation learns that working in opposition goes beyond protests and demonstrations and must include the hard work of building a grassroots organization of supporters.
That step is especially critical for the upcoming parliamentary elections, when the opposition must field hundreds of candidates in scores of districts, not just one for the presidency.
Maher said he is trying to create such a grassroots organization, but often his followers are more interested in the quick rush of taking to the streets than the laborious effort of building a movement.
“We will work together for two weeks so well. Suddenly, there is a protest and everyone runs to it,” Maher said. “It’s easier and a lot more fun, especially when there are clashes. People like the adrenaline.”
The result, Maher concedes, is an opposition that can’t even begin to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, he said, has 100 members in every neighborhood reaching out to Egyptians, while Morsi’s opponents might have no more than five. The National Salvation Front “is not a real alternative,” he said.
The Pew Research numbers reflect that frustration with the Front. While 63 percent favorably view the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely affiliated with Morsi, only 52 percent feel the same for the National Salvation Front.
To be sure, opposition groups had little opportunity to organize a grassroots movement under Mubarak. Such efforts were illegal and quickly suppressed. And the opponents have historic justification for questioning election laws, which under Mubarak were designed to maintain the status quo, rather to represent the will of the electorate.
But Ismail and el Shobagy agree that the opposition also has made a series of critical mistakes that have contributed to its being seen as not ready to challenge Morsi.
For one, many of the younger groups that helped topple Mubarak ceded authority to an older generation of leaders who’d spent their lives opposing a system that no longer exists.
“You don’t need the experience of the older generation who breathed authoritarian rule,” el Shobagy said.
Mohamed ElBaradei, 70, is now a leading figure in the National Salvation Front and defends the party’s practices. In an interview with journalists last month, he said that the opposition would win seats in Parliament because of Morsi’s failing rather than any platform the opposition might run on.
“My feeling is that right now if we go into elections, there is a good chance that we will get, if not a majority, a good chunk of the Parliament, not because our ingenuity, but because the Brotherhood messed up so badly that again people will say, in my view, ‘Anybody but the Brotherhood,’ because they haven’t delivered,’” he said.
But evidence of that seems slim. Talk to ordinary Egyptians and their conclusion is often “we don’t want any of them.”
“They are all the same. Who is looking out for the good Egyptians who cannot eat, who cannot survive in these difficult circumstances?” asked Mohammed Mustafa, 30, a tour guide turned taxi driver because the number of tourists has fallen so dramatically. “It will take years before we have such a person.”
Like many Egyptians, Mustafa said that whoever leads Egypt must be guided by Islam, but opposition groups have yet to determine what role Islam has in their movement. The same Pew Research poll, conducted among 1,000 Egyptians in face-to-face interviews from March 3-23, found that 58 percent of Egyptians want laws that adhere strictly to Islam. Most of the opposition is secular.
Maher said the next face of the opposition could be one-time presidential candidate Abdel Moniem Abou Fatouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who is quietly employing Brotherhood tactics to build a grassroots movement. And Maher said he, too, is trying to start a new youth coalition.
The upcoming parliamentary election “is for me training for future elections,” Maher said. “The big problem with the opposition is that we don’t have grassroots. We need time.”