As Egypt’s military and Muslim Brotherhood face-off in their intensifying power struggle, is a Third Way emerging?
The largely secular and liberal groups that initiated the political transition have since been sidelined, complaining that the democratic transition has been stymied by the armed forces or hijacked by Islamists. But the Third Current, a new initiative emerging from within the ranks of liberal and leftist groups, aims to provide an alternative to Islamist rule and the authoritarian old guard.
Egypt “desperately needs” a political force that can compete with the Islamists, says Amr Hamzawy, a founding member of the liberal Egypt Freedom Party:
Hamzawy, who dismissed accusations that political polarization was deepening, said he would prefer that the Brotherhood refrain from forming a coalition government as Morsy had promised. Better, he argued, that the Third Current be an opposition to evaluate the performance of the Islamist government.
The group, formally known as the Popular Front to Support the Civil State, has reportedly pledged that “all forces and figures in the third current will go on working for the continuation of the revolution’s aims and the building of a modern democratic state based on the principles of equality and the rule of law”.
The new coalition comprises political parties and civic groups ranging from the liberal Constitution Party and the Free Egyptians Party, to the center-left Social Democratic Party and the leftist Tagammu Party and Popular Socialist Alliance.
The initiative was n large part inspired by the strong electoral performance of secular leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi (above) in the first round of the presidential elections in which he came third with almost five million votes:
Sabbahi paved the way for the Third Current when he openly called for boycotting the elections in the run-off between Morsy and former Mubarak affiliate Ahmed Shafiq, deeming the race between Islamists and the ousted regime “a fight to which Egyptians do not belong,” …..He described his vision for the current as a movement “with development, economic and social tools, with a popular base so it can participate in local council, parliamentary and presidential elections.”
Secular groups were dismayed that the Brotherhood supported the military’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, highlighting the illiberal commonalities shared by both blocs. So the Third Current will seek to monitor the performance of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, acting as a watchdog in defense of democratic standards and institutions.
“If Mursi starts reneging on his promises and on the rule of law and the constitution, or acting against what we believe in terms of the Egyptian identity, we will definitely change from a civil movement into an opposition and a fierce one,” said Naguib Abadir of the liberal Free Egyptians party:
Of paramount importance will Mursi’s choices for cabinet positions, currently the subject of intense negotiation. But even if he manages to put a competent team together, Abadir says it is the actions of the government that will shed light on Mursi’s intentions.
“You can have someone good, but if decisions are forced upon them, they may not have the power to oppose the overall direction he wants to take the country,” says Abadir.
Analysts believe the alliance could provide a formidable electoral challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood and former regime elements in future polls.
“Their chances of success in the upcoming parliamentary elections are very high,” says Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed.
“However, that success will depend on how far they coordinate with each other in preparing electoral lists of their candidates. In deciding on which constituencies to stand in, the members of the current should put aside their differences and bear in mind the strength of each candidate, regardless of other considerations.”
But other analysts believe the current is too ideologically diverse to provide a coherent political alternative
“I don’t think the so-called Third Current is a genuine attempt to create a counterweight to the Islamists,” said Khalil al-Anani, an analyst of Egyptian politics at the UK’s Durham University. “It’s just a combination of desperate and apathetic parties and politicians who cannot compete with Islamists in the political arena.”
Other analysts question whether Egyptian liberals have the strategic patience, commitment and organizational prowess to build sustainable grass-roots structures.
“The liberals do not want to go out in the streets in the heat; they do not want to stain their shoes with the mud of Egypt’s streets. They do not want to work on the streets and build real political calibers across the country like the Islamists,” said Zeinab Abul Magd, a professor of history in the American University in Cairo..
The dilemma facing Egypt’s civic groups is that their political and organisational structures are rigid hierarchies, which require a large strong base for stability, writes analyst Samer Soliman:
Civil forces start off like pyramids with relatively broad bases (for example, the experiences of the Wafd and Tagammu parties in the 1970s), then soon the grassroots leave the party and the party structure changes from a pyramid to an obelisk whereby the number of leaders at the top are the same as the members at the base. …Innovative organisation is key if civic forces want to reserve a leadership role for themselves on the political scene. …. Intellectual and political agreement is not enough to produce strong organisations and alliances; the bigger issue today is how to create flexible and sturdy structures capable of accommodating the activities of tens of thousands of politicians.
“The incredible thing right now is that modern communication tools for the first time in history enable us to build organisations with a large degree of internal democracy,” Soliman argues.
The Third Current can reconcile its leftists and liberal components by taking a centrist position on economic issues, says analyst Bassem Sabry:
Realistically, that would allow it to more freely push for both modern market-based and social-solidarity policies, both of which are direly needed in a country with significant number of impoverished, unemployed and underemployed citizens. Pragmatically, occupying the center would also allow the movement to continue to absorb many subsidiary groups, and survive being a bloc of wide ideological variety for a longer time.