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Days after a respected think tank published a report recommending Egypt's opposition unite to take parliamentary seats from the ruling party, the majority of the Egyptian opposition movements and parties did just that.
With only four weeks to go before Egypt's parliamentary elections, 10 opposition groups put aside their political differences and their personal hostilities in order to win over seats from President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP is the institutional embodiment of the governing elite, which has ruled Egypt since 1952.
In its report published October 4, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a highly-respected Brussels-based think tank, recommended that the main opposition parties â€œcontest the legislative elections on a 'democratic unity' platform of political reform by forming a united block.â€ Four days later, leaders of parties as polar as the fiercely secular Tagammu and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood announced the formation of The National Front for Change, the goal of which is to mobilize Egyptians to vote.
"This is neither a concession by Tagammu or by the Brotherhood,â€ said Hussein Abdel Razeq, secretary general of Tagammu after the party leaders finally finished hammering out a compromise Saturday night. â€œDifferent ideologies and differences still exist, but we are in a stage in which Egypt needs an end to the monopoly of the National Democratic Party.â€
Success in the parliamentary elections is a must for parties to field a candidate in the next presidential race. Under new rules, a party must have at least 5 percent of the parliament seats, or 23 members, to have the right to run a candidate in presidential elections in 2011. Presently, the NDP has about 388 seats in the 454-member body. Tagammu has six seats, al-Wafd has four seats, and the Nasserites have one. The Muslim Brotherhood has 15, who are listed as independents because the party is outlawed. The others are independents who sympathize with the NDP.
The problem of the opposition, say analysts, is that it is weak. Despite discontent with Mubarak's regime, voter turnout was low in Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections last month. Only 22% bothered to go to the polls.
â€œThe elections showed the weakness of the opposition -- whether it's a legal opposition, the agitation movement, Kifaya or an illegal opposition to mobilize the public,â€ Robert Malley, director of the ICJ Middle East North Africa Program, told The Jerusalem Post.
The Front includes the leftist Tagammu party and Nasserites; the liberal al-Wafd party; the anti-Mubarak movement Kifaya (Enough); as well as political-parties-in-the-making such as the Islamist Al-Wasat and leftist al-Karama.
The coalition comes as a complete surprise. Writing in Cairo Magazine two days after the ICG report was published, Issandr El Amrani called the ICG suggestion of a block â€œan unlikely prospect at this point.â€
Despite its success, there were limitations. The Front does not include the party whose leader, Ayman Nour, won the second-most votes in last month's elections. The al-Ghad party was prevented from joining the opposition bloc because Noaman Gomaa, 71, who finished third in the presidential race after Nour, vetoed him out.
Egyptian political analyst Amr el-Choubaki called al-Ghad's absence a loss for the Front.
"The Front is a first step forward, but it includes the three core parties, traditional and problematic parties, who have generational, democratic problems and reflect the traditional and old in Egyptian political life,â€ he said referring to Tagammu, Wafd and the Nasserites.
As for the Brotherhood, it will maintain its own candidate list under the banner â€œIslam is the solutionâ€ but will coordinate with the Front on getting out the vote in those constituencies.
The ICG report, titled â€œReforming Egypt: In Search of a Strategy,â€ also recommended the Egyptian government legalize the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in 1928 but has been banned since 1954. It is believed to be the largest Islamist opposition group in Egypt and has remained a key player in Egyptian politics despite the ban and vilification in the state-run media.
Dr. Yoram Meital, director of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University, supports the idea.
â€œWhen you are talking about Muslim Brotherhood you are talking about political Islam, when you are talking about jihadists you are talking about militant Islam,â€ Meital said. â€œOne must differentiate. Yes, they share the vision of making Egypt an Islamic society and state. The difference is the method.â€
Legalizing the Brotherhood is key to political reforms in Egypt, he stressed.
â€œI think that if democracy and political reforms will continue in this part of the world there is no escape from giving Muslim brotherhood the right to participate in political elections. By ignoring them you actually strengthen them.â€
(AP contributed to this report)