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Egypt's opposition needs grass-roots ties to the people

The Muslim Brotherhood goes and talks to Egypt's farmers and the urban poor. Until the Tahrir Square activists do the same, they will never be a real political force.

Egypt is a confusing place these days, although to many who knew it under the stifling Mubarak regime, even that is progress.

Elections get called and then the date gets changed; Mohammed ElBaradei and his moderates threaten a boycott. Mohammed Morsi, the polarising president, calls for a dialogue. And all the while clashes continue between the authorities and activists who feel that their revolution is being stolen by a Muslim Brotherhood bent on domination.

How are outsiders supposed to know what's going on if a prominent political street artist who was active during the revolution now sighs: "I need some time to think of what to do next. I'm not sure what to do with the situation."

One thing is clear: the story is not yet finished and the activists who drove the revolution in the first place are not giving up. That said, chances are slim that they'll be able to regroup effectively and in time for the crucial parliamentary elections that are coming up.

The contradictions were all too apparent in Cairo one Friday this month. Two girls in headscarves sat at their laptops, intently staring at their screens and deftly moving their fingers over their touchpads to produce a series of screeching sounds and thumping rhythms for a motley audience, at a dimly lit new experimental music venue in downtown Talaat Harb Street.

Through an open window the chants of protesters on Tahrir Square, literally a stone's throw away, wafted in and meshed with the performance, at times making it unclear which was which. Protest and new artistic vigour, headscarves, computers and hipsters, they all exist side by side in Egypt - as do despair, frustration, hope and idealism.

Many of the secular activists who fanned the revolution, and who helped lay the foundations for it by exposing the brutality of the Mubarak regime and the police, are dejected about the way things have turned out. They place almost equal blame on the Muslim Brothers, whom they accuse of pernicious lies and manipulation, and on the raft of vainglorious opposition leaders who failed to unite and offer a real alternative.

Some have concluded that violence is the only answer, as it will keep the Muslim Brothers aware of the depth of resistance against their vision, and will keep what's left of the opposition mobilised.

Opponents of the Brotherhood also keep telling themselves that the population is increasingly disillusioned with the government because it is not delivering on stability, reforms and, most importantly, the economy.

The elections may prove that this hope is in vain. Based on past performance, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organised political force with a natural following that can get out the vote. It's a safe bet that this will hold true again and that many Egyptians, weary of the power struggle, will empower the Brotherhood to form a government in the name of stability.

The secular activists are right when they say that the Brothers have broken almost every promise they made when they joined the revolution, after an initial hesitation. They fielded more candidates for the first parliamentary elections than they had promised, sought the presidency even though they had said they would not, and rammed through a flawed constitution.

Worse, they deploy thugs to disrupt opposition demonstrations, just as the old regime did. Nobody doubts that the Brothers have cut a deal with the army, in which they almost seamlessly replace Mubarak and his cronies.

Yet it would be a mistake to write off the Brotherhood and with it Egypt's revolution. The Brotherhood cannot be blamed solely for finding itself now in a position of dominance. Not only was the opposition disorganised, but so were the activists who had helped to spark the revolution. They are a disparate collection of individuals, often ill-versed in the art of politics.

What the period since Egypt's revolution shows is that much-praised media activism, social and otherwise, is no replacement for old-fashioned boots on the ground organisation-building.

Several months after the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak, many of the young activists from Tahrir Square were doing amazing things, organising in collectives to produce films and documentaries. My question then, and now: that's all fine, but who goes into the neighbourhoods and villages to set up a grassroots opposition movement? Who reaches out to the unions and the farmers?

The Muslim Brothers, much more than the young activists, are present in the poor neighbourhoods of Cairo and in the farming villages and industrial towns of the Nile River delta. The Brotherhood is handing out food and sometimes money when it is electorally expedient, and provides services that the government does not and in which the opposition and activists show little interest.

When it's so easy to grab almost all the levers of power, it is hard to blame the Brotherhood for doing so. A counterweight is badly needed but violence is a dead end that will only alienate the population, turning it away from politics or driving it further into the arms of the Brotherhood.

The international community can help, not only by imposing conditions on aid to the Brotherhood-dominated government, as it is doing, but also by imposing conditions on aid to the opposition and the activists. They must unite, organise and reach out to all layers of society. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.


Ferry Biedermann was based in the Middle East from 1999 to 2010, as a correspondent for The Financial Times and other newspapers. He now writes for The National from Europe

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