Exploiting the Muslim Brotherhood Meltdown

03/15/2013 09:05 am ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Several experts and commentators have attributed much of Egypt's economic and political turmoil to the ineptitude and intolerance of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. Yet Egypt's main opposition party, the National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition of liberals, leftists, secularists, moderate Muslims, business interests and minorities, has yet to visibly establish itself as a viable alternative and has been accused of being fragmented and "out of touch" with voters. Time is of the essence, however, because as much as the Muslim Brothers have illustrated their inability to govern, they have also proven quite adept at the art of political mobilization.

By every measure available President Mohamed Morsi's economic program has been an abject failure. Foreign currency reserves are currently at $13.5 billion, enough to cover only three months of imports in a country that relies on foreign sources for 70% of its food. Egypt is also suffering from skyrocketing inflation, reduced tourism revenue, capital flight, lack of foreign direct investment and high levels of unemployment.

The IMF has been prepared to extend Egypt a $4.8 billion loan if Cairo is willing to implement fiscal reforms, like eradicating fuel and food subsidies and raising consumption taxes. Critics contend such measures would devastate the two-fifths of Egypt's 84 million people who live near the poverty line, while financial experts believe it represents Egypt's best chance for recovery.

The Brothers realize enacting the IMF's austerity measures would be political suicide in light of pending parliamentary elections. The problem is nobody knows when these contests are to occur because Morsi's call for April elections was overturned by court decree.

Even more distressing than the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the elections is how President Morsi's rule by fiat -- including granting himself immunity from judicial supervision -- has gradually weakened the role of parliament. During a phone interview on Wednesday Professor M. Steven Fish, a political scientist from the University of California at Berkeley, said this type of concentrated power is always "poison for democracy."

The Muslim Brotherhood also rammed through an Islamist-drafted constitution that neglects the rights of women and minorities, which has further fueled violent protests. Security conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that the World Economic Forum recently rated Egypt as one of the most insecure places on earth.

Morsi's approval rating has understandably plummeted by 30 points over the past six months from a high of 79%, according to a recent survey. However, despite the Brotherhood's poor showing, the poll also had bad news for the opposition, given that 35% of Egyptians say they've never even heard of the National Salvation Front, while more than 50% of those who have don't support it.

One wonders why the opposition has been unable to make political hay of the rising public indignation in response to the incumbent party's utter incompetence. Many found it disappointing when NSF leaders claimed they would boycott the parliamentary elections unless Morsi met some of their demands, including the formation of a broad-based government, electoral law reform and constitutional revisions.

Professor Fish sees mixed motives in the opposition's call for a boycott. Despite the fact previous contests have been relatively fair many fear the Brotherhood could easily rig future elections now that it has the full resources of the state at its disposal. Hence, participating would risk lending legitimacy to a fraud-ridden process. On the other hand, opposition leaders might simply be afraid they can't beat the Brotherhood's well-organized political machine. Yet given the current economic crisis and political instability, the opposition could be underestimating its potential.

Issandr El Amrani over at The Arabist blames the NSF for simply criticizing Morsi without putting forth its own "serious, well-thought-out" proposals. Specifically, the opposition has failed to outline potential alternatives to the IMF's austerity measures or other solutions for improving Egypt's fiscal balance. He also mentions that "a growing disconnect with protestors, changing demands and lack of organizational savvy are causing the opposition to appear totally out of touch..." Amrani describes the NSF's political existence as "restricted to TV studios and press conferences."

Disunity is another issue that has plagued the opposition in addition to what appears to be a minor identity crisis. NSF leaders believe Morsi prevailed in the first round of the previous election because the opposition ran too many candidates instead of rallying around one. The NSF reportedly has major philosophical differences between its socialist and pro-business wings, according to Reuters, although they've vowed to stick together to avoid what happened last year. One can only imagine the mosaic platform upon which the party's chosen candidate will run.

Unifying behind a single leader, articulating a coherent economic strategy and improving grassroots outreach efforts would go a long way in boosting the NSF's chances in the next election, one would think. A good place for NSF candidates to start might be making sure all eligible voters actually know who they are and, once understood, what they stand for.

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