When President Mohamed Morsi granted himself sweeping new powers last November, he unwittingly accomplished something no one had yet achieved. He managed to bring Egypt’s fractious and disparate political factions together around a single cause: bitterly opposing him and his Muslim Brotherhood. 

The National Salvation Front (NSF), a diverse umbrella group of opposition forces, now stands as Morsi’s primary foe—and likely the main benefactor of the wave of anti-Brotherhood anger still coursing through the country. But with fast-track parliamentary elections indefinitely delayed and Egypt settling in for a simmering and politically raucous summer, the NSF faces questions about its internal decision-making, long-term viability, and whether it genuinely speaks for the revolutionary street.

Essentially an all-star team of Egypt’s anti-Brotherhood forces, the NSF brought together Mohamed ElBaradei, third place presidential finisher Hamdeen Sabahi, and former foreign minister Amr Moussa along with post-revolutionary forces such as the Free Egyptians, the Social Democrats, and a few Mubarak-era secularist opposition parties. Upon its formation, there were faint echoes of the Kefaya movement‑‑a similarly diverse and feisty 2005 activist collective that rallied around the core issue of opposing Gamal Mubarak’s ascension to the throne and helped in many ways to set the stage for the revolution. 

Riding a wave of bitter antipathy toward the Brotherhood and Morsi, the NSF fought hard to defeat the new constitution which Morsi’s power play had been designed to protect. In the end the document passed in a referendum by 63.8 percent, but Morsi’s opponents could still point to the low 32.9 percent voter turnout as evidence of widespread lack of faith and enthusiasm in the entire process.

Still, some prominent NSF members regret the unwieldy decision-making that preceded the vote, as the NSF’s internal structure made it hard for the group to coalesce around a unified strategy. Mohamed Abu al-Ghar, the head of the Social Democratic Party, said the NSF flip-flopped until the last minute between those who wanted to boycott the referendum completely and those who favored participating and mobilizing for a no vote. In the end the group decided to participate, but the final decision didn’t come until about 36 hours before the polls opened. Abu al-Ghar said that the NSF could have swung another 10 percent toward a no vote “if we had another one or two weeks to properly campaign.”[1]

If Abu al-Ghar’s prediction is accurate, then that constitutes a major distinction—one that could have pushed the constitution’s approval rate into the mid 50 percent range and forced Morsi to admit that the document does not reflect any kind of national consensus. 

NSF decision-making boils down to an inner circle of about 15 party representatives.

“They sit and they talk and they disagree. Sometimes there is shouting. Sometimes there is bickering,” said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesperson for the NSF and a longtime Egyptian journalist.[2]

Abu al-Ghar said that all issues are decided by consensus. “Until now we still have never taken a formal vote,” he said.

When a 6 March court ruling delayed parliamentary elections—originally scheduled to start 22 April and run through all of May—it temporarily deferred a similar “sit out or fight” dilemma. To the surprise of many in the opposition, the NSF had announced in February that it would collectively boycott those elections unless an extremely unlikely list of demands were met.

“It wasn’t a boycott,” says Abu al-Ghar. “We announced that to run in these elections, we required certain conditions.”

These conditions included the rewriting of a biased electoral law passed by Morsi’s government that included some blatant gerrymandering in the Islamists’ favor. Another demand was the appointment of a “neutral government” to oversee the elections. What that meant in practice was for Morsi to replace the prosecutor general, interior minister, minister of local administration, minister of supply, and minister of youth with technocrats acceptable to the NSF. It’s genuinely difficult to imagine Morsi conceding on even half of those posts. Such an action would have meant a massive loss of face at a time when he was struggling to look strong.

Those seemingly intractable issues became moot with the court-ordered delay. Now the earliest possible date when elections could realistically be held seems to be in September or October. But the way in which the NSF’s decision-making core arrived at the decision to boycott speaks volumes about the group’s internal dynamics and cohesiveness. 

For starters, it seems that a healthy contingent of the NSF member parties were heavily against boycotting. Multiple interviews with senior NSF officials reveal a wide gap between the pro and anti boycott camps—and a lingering belief among some of the anti-boycott parties that they were railroaded into a strategically dubious political stance.

Wael Khalil, a veteran socialist activist and member of the leftist Popular Alliance Party (an NSF member), said he hated the boycott decision, calling it “very naïve” and “the work of amateurs.” He added: “I think [the NSF] would have done well in April elections.”[3]

Hussein Gohar, head of foreign affairs for the Social Democratic Party, said he personally was “totally against the boycott” and added that the NSF’s internal decision-making structure is confused and confusing. “Unfortunately nobody is driving the bus.”[4]

To outside observers, the decision to boycott was, to put it kindly, an extremely curious one given the political playing field at the time. The Brotherhood and Morsi, by all accounts, had suffered a huge loss in prestige and popularity. Morsi’s late-November power play and the subsequent railroading of a divisive constitution had spawned tremendous amounts of bad blood and animosity—all with the backdrop of a deepening economic tailspin.

That powder keg exploded further with the late January anniversary of the revolution and the multiple death sentences handed out in the verdict on the February 2012 Port Said soccer disaster. All told it sparked a wave of widespread intermittent clashes that essentially continues unabated as of this writing in early April.

Mohammed Sherdi, a longtime opposition politician with the NSF-member Wafd Party, said the verdicts and the heavy handed security response had turned all three major Suez Canal cities--Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia—hard against the Brotherhood and their other Islamist allies.

“Politically it will reflect in the elections for sure,” Sherdi, a native of Port Said, told me in February—before the boycott was announced. “None of the Islamist politicians will be able to show their faces in the streets.”[5]

That’s why, for some in the NSF camp, the timing was perfect for the coalition to strongly contest the parliamentary elections. Even if the parties didn’t break the combined Islamist majority in parliament, they could have established a respectable opposition bloc and started playing on-the-ground politics.

So how did the boycott manage to become official NSF policy?

“It all started with ElBaradei acting on his own,” said Gohar, referring to a 23 February tweet from ElBaradei that essentially forced the issue of a boycott onto his NSF partners. In Arabic and English he announced that he “will not be part of an act of deception.”

After that, it quickly became a public issue of honor and loyalty to the martyrs of the revolution. With new casualties and martyrs being added daily, the pro-participation camp feared being turned on by the radicalized street. The pro-boycott camp “started pushing and nobody really wanted to be the bad guy or be perceived as the traitor,” Gohar said.[6]

Part of what also seems to have driven the boycott charge is a sense of personal outrage among the NSF leadership at the way the Brotherhood had been handling itself.

“I feel cheated, not just disappointed,” said Dawoud. “The Brotherhood doesn’t want to change Mubarak’s state. They just want to inherit and adopt it.”

Both those who supported the boycott as well as those who opposed it spoke angrily about a string of Brotherhood broken promises and a general pattern of deviousness. Several said they felt that they had personally been lied to by Morsi or his representatives; in separate interviews three different NSF members pointed to a decisive late October 2012 meeting with Morsi and his senior advisors. According to these attendees, the president flatly told them, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to push this constitution [to the referendum stage] unless there is consensus.”

Hence NSF leaders may have let their sense of personal outrage lead them into a strategically questionable stance.

“It was simply an emotional and stupid position. I think [ElBaradei] did it without consulting anybody,” Khalil told me. “ElBaradei is self-righteous. He’s sincere; he doesn’t want anything for himself. But he doesn’t care what anyone thinks if he thinks he’s right.”

Abu al-Ghar said his Social Democratic Party favored contesting the elections, but he respected the collective NSF decision. He said his party and some of the other NSF parties are already preparing for the parliamentary elections in the fall in the hope that Morsi will meet their terms and the boycott will be lifted. Both Abu al-Ghar and Dawoud, the NSF spokesperson, emphasized a core belief among the pro-boycott camp: that under the current circumstances the Brotherhood would successfully rig any parliamentary election.

“Without these changes, we’re just going to be deceiving the Egyptian people,” Dawoud said. “It would be giving a stamp of legitimacy to a fake process.”

Abu al-Ghar said the Islamists—if they retained the current election law and cabinet makeup—could successfully swing the votes as much as 10 percent in their direction. But critics of that stance say it wildly overestimates the Brotherhood’s ability to conduct such widespread rigging.

“It’s not an easy thing to rig an election,” said Khalil, who speculated that some of his NSF colleagues fear being exposed at the ballot box. “Part of them are [simply] afraid of th[e] challenge,” he said.

[1] Interview with Mohamed Abu al-Ghar, 25 March 2013.

[2] Interview with Khaled Dawoud, 28 March 2013.

[3] Interview with Wael Khalil, 24 March 2013.

[4] Interview with Hussein Gohar, 13 March 2013.

[5] Interview with Mohammed Sherdi, 1 February 2013.

[6] Interview with Hussein Gohar, 13 March 2013.