CAIRO // When the new Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman announced on Monday that he had been charged with the task of “opening a dialogue with the opposition, it raised an interesting question: did he even have any idea whom he should call to start negotiations?
The very concept of an Egyptian opposition has been radically redefined amid the fast-moving events of the past week. The steadily mounting protests have been marked from the very start by a sort of diverse, leaderless ethos that bypassed party affiliation and ideology.
One telling detail: not a single flag or banner flown by the crowd over the past seven days has borne the name of an opposition party or group – not the established political parties such as the Wafd party and not movements such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The last time there was any sign of party affiliation was on the very first day of the protest, the Day of Rage on January 25, when about 150 people from the Wafd Party marched together in Cairo waving party flags.
Parties such the Wafd, which has a proud history dating back to resisting British occupation in the 1920s, have in any case long since lost most of their credibility with the Egyptian people. In modern times Wafd has come to be regarded by many here as a co-opted and marginalised element – timid, toothless and content with the power and influence that come from securing a handful of parliamentary seats
All official parties in Egypt must receive a licence from the government-controlled Supreme Council For Parties. Essentially, they must ask permission from the government to oppose the government. Ibrahim Eissa, a maverick newspaper editor who was abruptly ousted from his position as head of Al-Dostour newspaper last autumn, gleefully dismissed them all as “a domesticated opposition”.
On Friday, when citywide mass protests succeeded in defeating the interior ministry’s riot police and taking control of Tahrir Square, one matronly and veiled woman in her 50s said: “We don’t have an agenda. We only want the fall of the regime and all of its symbols. We are not the Brotherhood and not the Wafd Party. We are simply against oppression and corruption.
Throughout his three decades in power, Hosni Mubarak's government has systematically weakened all the opposition parties. Emergency laws have been invoked to restrict party activities and a committee run by the interior ministry has prevented parties from obtaining licences, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Professional unions, civil rights organisations, the judiciary, newspapers and other groups have participated in the opposition movement. Here are some of the people and groups who may play prominent roles in the days ahead:
The 68-year-old former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mr ElBaradei returned to Egypt in 2010 after a career that included a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. A lawyer by training, he threw himself into the political arena, saying Egypt needed an overhaul and an end to the authoritarian rule of a military man such as Mr Mubarak. He disappointed many democracy activists by spending much time outside the country in recent months, but returned on Thursday and stated he was ready to take any role in a transitional government and later addressed protesters at Tahrir Square.
Mr Badie, 66, became leader of Egypt's biggest opposition group last year. The Brotherhood is run on a collegiate basis, with a number of figures who often speak in its name, such as Essam al Erian or the London-based Kamel el Helbawy. But if it were to enter into talks with the government, it would be on the authorisation of its "murshid 'aam", or general guide, Mr Badie. He is seen as a conservative, in the typical mould of Brotherhood leaders, who was reluctant to challenge the authorities for fear of provoking more repression. The government says the Brotherhood is a banned organisation but allows it to operate within limits.
A liberal politician and trained lawyer, Mr Nour was Mr Mubarak's rival in the 2005 presidential election but suffered for his impertinence. He was jailed after conviction for submitting forged documents when setting up his Ghad (Tomorrow) party. He was released after serving more than three years of a five-year term. The law as it stands bans him from any political office for at least five years after the end of his original jail term, which would rule out running in elections in September. Mr Nour served previously as a parliamentarian for the Wafd party, which he left.
The secretary general of the Arab League was a popular foreign minister under Mr Mubarak, celebrated for his populist pro-Palestinian rhetoric during years of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. His move to the Arab League, a conservative organisation that backs existing Arab rulers, has tarnished his image somewhat but he has been cited in the past by many Egyptians as someone they would support as president. He has been vocal since the protests began, saying on Sunday he wanted to see multi-party democracy in Egypt.
Egyptian winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999, Mr Zewail said last year he had no political ambitions. However, newspapers said on Monday he would return to Egypt to work in a committee for constitutional reform including Ayman Nour and prominent lawyers. Al Shorouk newspaper published a "letter to the Egyptian people" in which he proposed a "council of wise men" to write a new constitution.
A popular Arab nationalist politician who leads the Karama party that has never achieved formal licencing from the government. Elected to parliament in 2005, Mr Sabahi considered running in the presidential elections that year after Mr Mubarak introduced amendments under pressure from Washington but later changed his mind. He was expected to attempt a bid for the presidency this year.
The respected trade union leader George Ishak founded the Kefaya movement in 2004 that galvanised protests against Mr Mubarak's rule in 2005 around the idea of rejecting his son Gamal as a future president. The movement, which appealed to middle class professionals, subsequently lost its momentum amid internal dissent but when protests began last week Kefaya appeared to play a role in mobilising them.
The Wafd party, with its roots before the 1952 military coup, has traditionally been the bastion of liberal democrats in Egypt. But it is seen as having been co-opted by Mr Mubarak's government in recent years. The leftist Tagammu has played a similar role. Magdy Hussein, leader of the Islamist Labour party, is a popular opposition figure who has frequently been in and out of jail.