Egypt's regime is unpopular, but so is the opposition

| Jun. 2, 2013 | Cairo, Egypt

Published by USA Today
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In the crumbling, graffiti-covered streets surrounding Tahrir Square, teenagers hack away at the pavement, breaking it up for rocks to hurl at police.

Gangs of activists wearing ski masks and armed with gasoline-filled bottles run through the maze of streets surrounding the plaza — where the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was born — while denouncing the government of President Mohamed Morsi.

"Morsi has destroyed the country," says Essam Esawi, 28, in Tahrir Square. "I don't have food to eat. I don't have work to do."

Hatred for Morsi's regime and his party — the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood known as the Freedom and Justice party — is exhibited throughout the capital. But political rivals of the regime have had little success, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to enjoy majority power in the parliament despite its low poll ratings.

Morsi's job approval rating is at an all-time low of 47% according to a March poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research.

In addition, Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court — the highest court in the country — ruled Sunday that the Islamist-dominated legislature and constitutional panel were illegally elected. The ruling also said the legislature's upper house, the only one currently sitting, must be dissolved when parliament's lower chamber is elected later this year or in 2014. The constitutional panel was dissolved after completing the charter.

It was not immediately clear whether the ruling on the 100-member constitutional panel would impact the charter it drafted. The constitution was adopted in a nationwide vote in December with a relatively low turnout of about 35%. But even if it does not, the ruling will question the legitimacy of the disputed charter pushed through by Morsi's allies.

Meanwhile, Morsi's opponents have yet to settle on which candidate to rally around or what solutions to offer to address the country's ills.

"We were too lazy in unifying our parties and nominating our leader," said Emad Gad, vice president of the Social Democrats, at his office near Cairo's bustling railway station.

More than 20 disparate parties came together in November under the banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a "coalition of parties from the far-left to the far-right," according to Gad, whose own party is liberal. The group is headed by the former head of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.

A Nobel winner, ElBaradei has failed to garner much support from parties allied under the NSF, or among the public at large, and public disagreements among the opposition are common. Economic views range from the hard left to free-market values.

Some members call for a "civil state" based on citizenship, democracy and social justice. Views on welfare, education, workers' rights and foreign loans vary wildly.

Even if the opposition is able to organize and consolidate both its policies and parties, there is little hope that it will resonate with the mainly rural, religious populace, experts say. Most Egyptians are poor (nearly half live on about $2 a day) and the literacy rate is low compared to the rest of the region.

"The problem for the liberals is that they don't have a clear vision for the future of the country that is appealing to the people," said Mustapha Kamel El-Sayyid, a political science professor at both Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. "Of course people care about political freedoms, but this isn't enough."

Magued Osman, director of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, said that 39% of people polled in a recent sample had not even heard of the alliance. The NSF's support in Egypt's rural areas — where the Muslim Brotherhood dominates — is weak.

"What we are seeing is that the NSF's message is reaching the highly educated," he said.

While Gad believes that the majority of protesters in Cairo are NSF supporters, Wael Abbas, a blogger and human rights activist who was an important player in the overthrow of the Mubarak government, is not impressed with the group that claims to represent him.

"The NSF don't represent anything in this country," Abbas said. "These guys hold conferences and meetings in air-conditioned rooms. They don't have popularity among the people."

On the nearby Qasr El-Nil Bridge, which leads from Zamalek, a wealthy former colonial playground, to Tahrir Square, activists ask marchers to sign the so-called "rebel" petition in an effort to get more than five million signatures expressing no-confidence in Morsi in time for the first anniversary of his coming to power on June 30.

"The revolution didn't achieve its goals so we're continuing it," said Ashraf Bedawi, a 24-year-old student collecting signatures on the bridge.

Only 30% of people say they will re-elect Morsi, down from 66% in September, according to Osman. And the rebel petition has collected 2 million signatures so far, activists say. Despite the numbers, the Muslim Brotherhood does not appear worried about its opponents. The petition, it points out, is not binding in any way.

"The campaign is no more than a public survey," said Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy in a statement.

It is not only the Muslim Brotherhood that the NSF must contend with. Islamists known as Salafists, who adhere to the Wahabist teachings that informed Osama bin Laden, appear to be gaining in popularity among Egyptians who want a religious state.

"The hatred that the NSF has toward the Muslim Brotherhood has blinded them to the desires of Egyptians," said Kamel Abdul Gawad, a leader of the Al-Watan party, a breakaway from Al-Nour, the largest Salafi group.

The protesters of Tahrir Square are unsure where to turn.

"The days of Mubarak were better than this," added Esawi glumly, not far from the burned-out shell of the former regime's party headquarters.

Nermin Defrawi, a 55-year-old housewife, said: "If this is the result, the revolution was a mistake."

Contributing: The Associated Press