The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Mubarak Divides Egypt Opposition to Retain Hold on Power as Protests Fade

Posted by vmsalama on February 7, 2011

By Vivian Salama and Glen Carey

Bloomberg (click here for original story)

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who may have won concessions yesterday allowing him to serve the rest of his mandate, did so with the same tactics that kept him in office since 1981: Divide and conquer the opposition.

“The regime is really good at what it does,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It’s very good at dividing the opposition. That’s its skill and we’ve been seeing it for 30 years.”

Vice President Omar Suleiman and opposition groups agreed to conclude studying constitutional amendments by the first week of March and form a committee to oversee progress, according to a statement distributed in Cairo yesterday.

The opposition, which ranges from the Muslim Brotherhood, to the socialist Tagammu party, may struggle to gain a foothold in Egypt’s political system as years of government marginalization and internal divisions weakened them. The Wafd party, billionaire Naguib Sawiris and some representatives of the country’s youth also attended the meeting.

Concern that turmoil in Egypt would spread sent the Dubai Financial Market General Index down 4.3 percent on Jan. 30. Since then, the measure has recovered and was little changed today at 1,605.72 at 12:48 p.m. The cost of insuring Egypt’s debt for five years with credit-default swaps closed at 380 basis points on Feb. 4 after hitting 430 on Jan. 28, the highest since April 2009, CMA prices in London show.

‘Gaining Momentum’

Mubarak appointed Suleiman on Jan. 29, his first vice president since he came to power. Mubarak’s declaration Feb. 1 that he will step down later this year failed to appease protesters who want him to quit immediately, and prompted a call from President Barack Obama for the transition to “begin now.” Mubarak said he’ll stay on to ensure “stability.”

The protests, which grew from Jan. 25 to Feb. 1, were shaken on Feb. 2 after the army didn’t move to prevent Mubarak supporters from battling demonstrators, some of them charging into Tahrir Square on horseback. The two sides spent the next two days hurling rocks, bottles and concrete chunks at each other. About 300 people have died in the clashes, according to the United Nations.

Police last year detained hundreds of supporters campaigning for the Muslim Brotherhood in the run-up to a parliamentary election, in what the movement said was part of an effort to drive it out of politics. The Brotherhood said Nov. 22 that police had detained more than 1,200 of its supporters.

“Suleiman is gaining political momentum and enjoys a clear advantage in terms of his ability to negotiate favorable terms,” Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group in New York, said in a note to clients. He’s “already been successful in splitting off the soft Mubarak opponents.”

Armchair Interview

Sabra said Suleiman’s Feb. 3 interview with Egyptian state television, in which he sat in an armchair and said he had heard the protesters demands, may have led some to believe the government is serious about making changes.

“The protesters are amorphous,” Sabra said. “Suleiman is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy.”

In the same Feb. 3 address, Suleiman split the opposition by saying that talks would be held with willing parties and not the Muslim Brotherhood because of its reluctance to negotiate. The group later changed its stance and attended the talks.

Fragmented Opposition

Photo by Vivian Salama

Photo by Vivian Salama

Diluting the opposition’s influence are the many voices with which it speaks. On some occasions, the same party has held different views. Yesterday, for example, Mohamed Saad El- Katatni, a member of Muslim Brotherhood’s top executive body, said keeping Mubarak in power while changes are made is a “safer option” to win implementation.

Three hours later, Mohammed Morsey, another spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said they still wanted Mubarak gone. “We’re in the field, and we’re in the dialogue, there’s no contradiction,” he said.

Youth organizations, including a group called the April 6, initiated the original Jan. 25 demonstration that started the uprising. The speed with which the rally grew in size blurred party lines so that no single group speaks for the all.

“The opposition is fragmented,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of politics at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain. “The opposition is not the one who speaks for the Y2K generation.”

The agreement forged yesterday may not represent some of those who packed into Tahrir Square for a 13th day of protests.

No Alternative

“We all insist that there is no alternative to Mubarak stepping down,” said Ahmed Maher, who led a group of youth gathering in the square. “Those meeting with the regime do not represent us and they cannot move the people.”

In the last presidential election in 2005, Mubarak won 88 percent of the votes. Ayman Nour, who ran a distant second, was jailed in December 2005 for four years on fraud charges.

Mohamed ElBaradei, 68, the Nobel Prize winner who formerly ran the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, has emerged as a surprise face of the opposition. Still, having spent most of his adult life outside of the country, he has none of the organizational structure that other groups have.

“The opposition’s weakness was greatly caused by their inability to be united,” said Samer S. Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University in Washington. “The only thing that united them is that Mubarak must leave. Once they abandon that they risk basic goals that they want to realize.”



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