Michael Wahid Hanna analyses the disparate array of non-Islamist political forces that have struggled to position themselves and ensure their relevance to the ever-changing politics of Egypt. He discusses several stages of fracture within non-Islamist parties, which have ultimately led to the demise of a genuine political opposition.

For many Western observers of the Egyptian uprising, Tahrir Square and the 25 January movement came to be associated with, and defined by, the telegenic faces of the young activists who captured international attention during the uprising’s heady early days. This was a function of the disproportionate role these activists played in the early stages of an unexpected mass mobilisation that led to the fall of the regime of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, and of the welcome optimism they provided. Perhaps most importantly, though, was the contrast they provided with the Islamist actors who would later come to dominate the post-Mubarak transition. While the seductive narrative of youth activism was overly simplistic, it spoke of a deep hope in the West that the uprisings would lead to inclusive and open governance.

These early impressions and expectations would later colour reactions to the serial political failures of non-Islamist groups. At root, the apparent dominance of Islamist currents in the nascent political order heightened frustration with the performance of the country’s non-Islamists.

On one level, this was understandable. More balanced electoral outcomes would provide a more sustainable path for transition. Furthermore, the historical unease with Islamism in the West compounded this sense of disappointment. For years, academics and analysts assumed that more open politics would lead to Islamist political and electoral success. In fact, the prospect of an Islamist takeover was a key defensive mechanism for the Arab authoritarian order – with the implicit message being: it is either us or them. And, of course, the performance of non-Islamist political actors, factions and parties was disastrous in terms of execution and results. Unease over the trajectory of non-Islamist politics and their perceived incompetence pushed Western governments into bolstering support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which appeared to many to have inherited Egyptian politics and established the foundations for prolonged electoral supremacy.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

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