Egyptian opposition parties must focus on clear strategies built around key economic messages, and be pragmatic in order to move forward
The current Egyptian opposition has two main objectives: putting Egypt on the route towards genuine democratisation and stopping the project that it believes political Islam is leading in the country and that it deems perilous to the first objective.
The opposition has two macro options: to continue to resort to street pressure, or to work through the ballot box. The first requires an ability to mobilise millions of protestors, regularly and on demand, something the opposition will not be able to sustain. This tactic attracts media attention, especially internationally; lends credibility to the notion that wide segments of Egyptians are against the ruling party’s programmes and ideas; but, crucially, has so far resulted in minimal achievements for the opposition.
The opposition is increasingly sidelined, while the political process progresses – from the presidential election, to the handover from the military to the elected president, to the finalisation of the constitution, to the referendum on the constitution.
Indeed, the opposition is increasingly sidelined, while the political process progresses – from the presidential election, to the handover from the military to the elected president, to the finalisation of the constitution, to the referendum on the constitution. Plus, this tactic exacts severe damage on the economy, which is already in a critical phase.
Now, the Egyptian opposition faces an election that will form the country’s parliament for the next few years. This is the last, and most crucial, step for the opposition to become an integral part of the country’s political establishment. Missing, or losing, this step would marginalise it and in turn, will enable the ruling forces to create their own opposition, a process of gradual domination of the political scene. The result would be the stifling of several components of Egyptian society at a moment of a colossal political transformation.
The opposition can anchor its immediate work on five points. First, stop building your rhetoric around the legal aspects of the political transition and the process itself. A clear lesson from the past six months is that the opposition, despite various shows of force, will not stop the political process, and it is not obvious that wide segments of Egyptians want the process to come to a halt. Instead, work to achieve a significant presence in the coming parliament.
Second, work on maximising turn out. Half of registered voters did not participate in the presidential election in mid-2012, and two thirds did not turn out for the December 2012 referendum on the constitution. Several social and educational factors in Egyptian society limit the reach of political awareness and put a ceiling on political participation.
The upcoming parliamentary elections are the last, and most crucial, step for the opposition to become an integral part of the country’s political establishment. Missing, or losing, this step would marginalise it and in turn, will enable the ruling forces to create their own opposition, a process of gradual domination of the political scene.
Yet, it is abundantly clear that a significant majority of Egyptians is severely disenchanted. This is a grave disadvantage to the opposition. Political Islam, because of its ideology, history over the past century, and inescapable positioning has an upper limit on the percentage of Egyptians that will support it. And it is already deploying its resources to maximise the turnout of its constituencies. Across-the-board higher participation in the elections will significantly favour the opposition.
And as in the vast majority of elections worldwide, two factors incentivise the electorate to participate: having an economic stake in the game and strong perceptions round the platforms – and politicians - they are invited to vote for.
This takes us to the third point. Build your campaign not round a purely political narrative, and certainly not on legalese surrounding the transition process. These will continue to win, at best, a third of the voters.
Economics – the stake in the game – can rally a much bigger segment. Aiming to boil the ocean – grand plans to resuscitate the Egyptian economy – will almost certainly prove mere empty rhetoric, and will inevitably fall into the murky waters of macroeconomic statistics. These also do not win elections.
Instead focus on two, or maximum three areas of immense impact on the daily lives of the largest number of Egyptians: for example, food inflation, fuel subsidies, a selection of utilities – sectors that the vast majority of ordinary citizens have direct, immediate, and conspicuous stakes in.
The opposition can anchor its immediate work on five points.Most importantly, its campaign should be built around economics and follow Warren Buffet’s advice that the recipe for success is focus and discipline. With relatively limited resources, the opposition should channel all its deployable assets round the core of its campaign: the ‘solutions’ to two or three selected areas – and its positioning as ‘involved provider of practical solutions’.
Mobilise specialists that have already worked on these two or three sectors to provide workable, clear, and realistic solutions to these issues. Almost certainly the solutions would be long term, but will undoubtedly have quick wins in the short term. The opposition already has patent support from media channels with very large market share of TV-audiences.
This media support and clear ideas on issues that strongly resonate with ordinary people would alter the positioning of the opposition – moving it from a detached process-driven elite with legalese rhetoric, to a policies-driven player connecting with the two-thirds of registered voters who did not bother to turn out for the referendum on the constitution. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said: “good policies are good politics”.
Fourth, focus – rather than dilute – your human and financial resources. Do not distribute your resources on the various political, economic, social, and cultural issues that you believe are integral to your message to the people. Very few would stick with your intended audience and most would be lost in the current political and media chaos.
As Warren Buffet, the renowned investor, has repeatedly advised his managers: the recipe for success is focus and discipline. With relatively limited resources, the opposition should channel all its deployable assets round the core of its campaign: the ‘solutions’ to the two or three selected areas – and its positioning as ‘involved provider of practical solutions’.
Fifth, have a clear leadership. People, especially masses of undereducated, hardly-employed youth facing huge daily frustrations, will not be mobilised, let alone inspired, by committees comprising constitutional experts, political scientists, and retired politicians whose active lives are behind them.
A clear, credible leadership will focus efforts, rally resources, and give real momentum.
The current opposition does not only face a problem of missing charisma and highly inflated egos. There is diluted energy, incoherent communication, and management by consensus.
A very old Egyptian proverb says: “A ship of two captains sinks”; one with half a dozen will not attract many onboard. A clear, credible leadership will focus efforts, rally resources, and give real momentum.
The opposition has seven weeks to the most crucial step in the country’s current political transition. Pragmatism and playing to win are crucial.
Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2011). His work appeared in numerous publications, including in The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Guardian and The Washington Post