Players in Egypt’s Opposition Movement
Tens of thousands of protesters are filling the streets in Cairo today, responding to the call for a one-million strong demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak. While the massive uprising over the last two weeks has occurred largely without strong, centralized leadership, there are some key players participating in the movement as it goes forward.
ElBaradei is an internationally known former diplomat and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He held that position for 12 years, until November 2009, then returned to Egypt and focused on politics.
He founded the nonpartisan movement National Association for Change, and called for constitutional changes to allow a democratic succession to President Mubarak.
Both secularists and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood are endorsing him now as a leader in these demonstrations.
“ElBaradei has become the choice of the opposition partly by default,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment. “In other words, not so much because there is a lot of enthusiasm for him but because there really is nobody else. So there seems to be an agreement developing to let him become the spokesperson for the movement.”
“He is a man Egyptians admired,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. “He is somebody they can live with and who has credibility outside and a track record of being able to lead.”
But he has also been criticized by some for angling for a lead role when he has lived outside of Egypt for much of the last decade.
The Youth Movement
The young people of Egypt were the core driving force of these protests, turning out en mass to fill the streets and leading the call for President Mubarak to step down.
“It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” Mohamed ElBaradei told the New York Times last week before flying back to Cairo to join in the movement.
The demonstrations grew out of a response to the uprising in Tunisia and frustration with current policies and economic hardships.
“They banded together on the fact that they can see a world moving forward, and they know what forward means and they felt isolated and restricted and repressed from doing basic things in their country like assembly and expression,” said Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer of the Religion & Peacemaking Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It’s been very, very difficult for the average Egyptian. One out of five people can’t find a job.”
The youth movement in Egypt also has roots in demonstrations three years ago, in 2008. The government put down a textile workers strike, but young people organized through social media to support the strikers, creating the April 6th Youth Movement. The group helped lead the call for a “day of anger” on January 25, citing demands including raising the minimum wage.
Young popular film stars and even a televangelist have stepped forward to support the protesters as well, said Huda. Despite media coverage showing predominately young men in the streets, he says women are highly involved and several have leadership roles within the youth movement.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamic fundamentalist group outlawed in Egypt, yet it remains politically active, has backed candidates in parliament and provides many social services. The group had a sporadic history of violent tactics, U.S. Institute of Peace’s Huda said, but began preaching non-violence in the 1990s. The group was formed in Egypt more than 75 years ago in reaction to the rise of the secular state.
“They felt that their Islamic identify, culture, history was being compromised for the sake of independence and nation building,” Huda said.
One of the group’s goals is to make Egypt an Islamic state, but it has tempered its religious message in these protests. Even though it is the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood was slow to join the demonstrations when they first began. By the weekend the group was on board, and on Sunday group leaders indicated support for Nobel Peace Prize laureate ElBaradei as a possible transitional leader.
“I think [the Muslim Brotherhood is] going to want to have a significant role very soon,” Ian Lesser, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund told the NewsHour. “They do feel that they represent the strongest base of opposition in the country. And in many ways, that’s probably true.”
The group is acting carefully in an attempt to not scare off opposition allies, or alarm the international community, said Telhami.
“They obviously ideally would like to rule Egypt, that is what they envision, but they understand it’s a fluid situation and the international community might be worried about what they stand for,” he said. “They are assuming the organization they have will give them an upper hand somewhere down the road.”
The leader of the opposition al-Ghad Party, Nour came out in support of the protests quickly, then landed in the hospital on January 25 after a confrontation with the police. Nour ran, and lost, against Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate election in 2005.
He was later jailed for three years on forgery charges but released in February of 2009.
He is now part of the committee of opposition players organizing this week to negotiate with the government, he told Bloomberg News.
“I think that whether he has any massive popularity remains to be seen,” said Telhami. “But whether or not he seems to be capable to lead is going to be more important.”
The liberal opposition Wafd Party is also playing a part in the opposition committee this week. It released a statement Tuesday saying opposition groups were forming “a national front,” reported Al Jazeera. It is one of the country’s oldest parties and has a loyal following, but likely not the numbers needed to push to the forefront.
“It has had a solid constituency but is a relatively small party and doesn’t have broad public support at least that we know of,” said Telhami. “They have not been the key player in getting these demonstrations out.”