February 6, 2011

Egypt’s Opposition Needs Transitional Umbrella

From Al Jazeera:
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has cast doubt on the government's willingness to follow through on promised reforms, following talks with authorities aimed at ending the country's political crisis.

One of the group's leaders told Al Jazeera that the Muslim Brotherhood does not trust the government to make its proposed changes - a development that came as pro-democracy rallies continued across the country on Sunday - the 13th day of protests in Egypt.

Tens of thousands of protesters observed a "day of the martyrs" in Cairo's Tahrir Square - the focal point of the protests - calling for an end to Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Al Jazeera correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who was at the square, was arrested by the military on Sunday afternoon, prompting calls from the channel and international media-rights groups for his release. He was released nine hours later.

The army fired tracer rounds into the air at a cordon they had set up near the Egyptian Museum, an Al Jazeera correspondent in the square reported late on Sunday evening. An army tank also moved towards the 6th of October bridge, where protesters often gather, he said.

Both Muslims and Christians held prayers at the square for the victims of the uprising.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters also gathered in the cities of Alexandria and Mansoura, while thousands more protested in Mahalla. In other parts of the country, banks and shops began to reopen as normal life appeared to be resuming.

Egyptian state television said Omar Suleiman, the country's newly appointed vice-president, began meetings with prominent independent and mainstream opposition figures on Saturday to go through the options, which center on how to ensure free and fair presidential elections while sticking to the constitution.

The Egyptian president, in a televised address on Tuesday, said he would not seek re-election in September but refused to step down immediately, saying he feared "chaos.”

Brotherhood talks

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) played down Sunday's meeting with Suleiman, saying that it was not prepared to drop its central demand of calling for Mubarak to resign as president.

"We cannot call it talks or negotiations. The Muslim Brotherhood went with a key condition that cannot be abandoned ... that he [Mubarak] needs to step down in order to usher in a democratic phase," Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a member of the MB, told Al Jazeera.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, cautiously welcomed the inclusion of the MB in talks, but said the US would "wait and see" what results the dialogue yields.

The MB, which is formally banned by whose activities are tolerated, was one of several groups taking part in those talks. Other participants included members of secular opposition parties, independent legal experts and business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, attendees said.

A representative of Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition figure, was also in attendance.

ElBaradei, however, told the American television station NBC that he had not been invited to the talks. He criticized the negotiations for being "opaque", saying that "nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage".

The MB's Fotouh described the meeting as testing the waters for what concessions the government was prepared to make.

He said he "did not see any ... seriousness so far. They [the government] have failed to take concrete measurement on the ground.

"If they were serious, the parliament would have been dissolved, also a presidential decree ending the emergency law".

He said that articles 77, 78 and 88 of the constitution should also have been amended by now.

Fotouh was referring to an article of the constitution covering presidential elections, which now effectively puts Mubarak's governing NDP party in a position to choose the next president, and another that allows the president to run for unlimited presidential terms.

He said the Muslim Brotherhood "does not seek power" and will not be fielding a candidate for president in elections. He asserted that the organization was not prepared to step back from its demand for Mubarak's departure, saying that if it did, the move would be a "betrayal of the martyrs who have died in the these protests.”

A detailed analysis is forthcoming, but Egypt’s opposition has no time to waste in forming an umbrella group. While a multitude of factions possess similar demands - and all agree that Mubarak must leave sooner than later - generating a focal point has proven elusive in the heat of battle. Hassan Nafea, the former coordinator of Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Association for Change (NAC), said an informal meeting to establish a shadow government left him anxious of the future.

"I discovered we cannot have a common position on how we should handle a transition period," he said. "This happened prematurely for the groups."

Developing that common position should become priority number one for the opposition. Mubarak and Washington are now attempting to speed up Egypt’s transition - essentially declaring in progress - to keep negotiations in their favor, hoping to split the demands of protesters away from oppositional representatives. This gap must be bridged, and a transitional front may be the means to do so.

An attempt is already in progress; the Brotherhood made sure to drape itself in the people’s demands. Ali ElBaradei, Mohamed’s brother and spokesman, told the BBC, "This movement has always been in the hands of the people. Nobody controls the street.” Yet Egypt’s leading opposition must find a way to control the street. One 10-member council recently fitted five youth groups under their banner, "Coalition of the Youths of Egypt's Revolution," to relay their positions to those negotiating with the regime.

"None of those who attended represent us," said Khaled Abdul-Hamid, one of the group's leaders. "We are determined to press on until our number one demand is met.”

The April 6th movement, another key instrument in Egypt’s Friday of Departure, has assumed a similar line in refusing to negotiate until Mubarak agrees to resign. All of these groups must be brought into the fold, connecting Cairo and Alexandria’s streets with the highest oppositional authorities. Lacking a unifying transitional figure, the opposition is now trying to concoct a transitional front with executive powers to negotiate the peoples’ demands.

A seven-person council could include ElBaradei, Arab League chief Amr Moussa, several other political and business representatives, a delegate from the Muslim Brotherhood, and two representatives from Egypt’s grassroots movements. Direct inclusion of Egyptian protesters would keep the council connected to the streets, as well as increase the opposition’s credibility in the streets. And Egypt’s more youthful elements would receive political and legal guidance from the council, synthesizing the wider opposition’s passionate demands with their representatives’ constitutional battle against Mubarak.

The council would function as a hierarchy into the opposition's various quarters, then dissolve and allow each party to run for election independently.

As a first order of business, this front must hold its red line to dethrone Mubarak. So far this doesn’t seem to be a problem except for the timing. Mohammed Mursi, one MB official who attended the talks, predicted, "Unless he moves fast to meet people's demands there is no point in the dialogue... All those attending the meeting agreed the protesters have a right to stay where they are without anyone assaulting them. People want real change, a change that includes the president, his government, his party and his regime.”

Careful not to lose his tenuous credibility, ElBaradei also assured protesters that, "Mubarak is a symbol of an outgoing regime and people have no credibility. If he doesn't leave, you know, the regime would retrench and then come back, you know, with vengeance."

Egypt will only witness true reform if Mubarak and his allies don't lord over the transition process.

But to get everything they want, the opposition must secure the release of political prisoners before going forward with negotiations. As stated above, Mubarak is still trying to negotiate on his terms - in power, with Suleiman as his front, his “supporters” on dial, and many opposition figures locked up. The 30-year old leader of April 6th, Ahmed Maher, has been arrested and tortured, so little wonder that he relates to Wael Ghonim.

Ghonim, Google’s head of marketing in the Middle East and North Africa, went missing on January 27th and has been named April 6th’s symbolic spokesman. The Coalition of Youth also made his release a core demand. Perhaps parts of the opposition don’t want these figures to be released, lest they absorb power, but Egypt’s opposition would benefit in the long-term with its charismatic faces up front.

In short, the opposition must gather its full strength and form a cohesive unit before engaging the government on its ground. The Muslim Brotherhood, ElBaradei, and Egypt’s various political players were wise to fill the vacuum and put their demands on the table.

There they must stay until Mubarak transfers power on their terms.

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