For Egypt, Challenge Is Turning Opposition into Governance

The Egyptian revolution faces the challenge of using its momentum to change the political system.

In this Friday, July 13, 2012 photo, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi holds a joint news conference with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, unseen, at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt.
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A former United Nations correspondent, Leslie Pitterson is currently working on the production of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliepitterson.

Passionate chants rose over Cairo last week, as they had nearly two years before.

"The people want to bring down the regime!" Again.

President Morsi's recent move to expand presidential powers has brought together opposition from across the spectrum of Egyptian politics. From moderate Islamists to liberals, many activists have come together to protest the president's constitutional declaration giving the executive the ability to issue laws without judicial challenge.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Posters likening Morsi to his predecessor could be seen on walls throughout Cairo. As the The familiar smells of roasted yams and tear gas filled the air, screams of "Morsi is Mubarak!"could be heard. Voicing their outrage at President Morsi's recent expansion of power, protesters called once again for the end of dictatorship, for a better Egypt.

Over the weekend, Egypt's highest court suspended their work indefinitely as Islamist protesters took to the streets in support of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the constitutional referendum vote scheduled for December 15. And while the spotlight of this political showdown has been focused on the embattled president and his party, the coming days may be the most crucial test for the Egypt's liberal and secular opposition.

Since the fall of Mubarak in 2011, the liberal and secular opposition in Egypt have become increasingly fragmented. Earlier this year, when a military-backed court ordered the disbanding of the elected parliament, many secular groups cheered the decision due to the parliament's Islamist majority.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

Throughout Egypt's transition, the wide coalition that helped opposition groups to bring political change has been cast aside in the name of self-interest. The hopes of bringing reform and equal rights to the Egypt's marginalized, minorities, women, and girls have been shelved as the opposition has become onlookers to a change they set in motion.

While the opposition's lack of cohesiveness has hindered mobilization, the preservation instinct of the Muslim Brotherhood has certainly aided in leading Egypt into a constitutional crisis. As seen in Morsi's declaration and throughout the constitutional drafting process, the Brotherhood has often governed to consolidate its own political survival. After years of fighting for its political life under Mubarak's rule, that instinct is not surprising. But the task of the country's leadership is not to figure out ways to stabilize its power. It is to create democratic systems to diffuse the power that has historically been tightly clenched by those at the top.

[See photos: Egyptians Take Part in Violent Protests Against President Morsi.]

The unrest in Egypt is playing out what seems to be the emerging challenge of the Arab Spring: proving that the street can translate momentum into governance. In the coming weeks, secular and liberal opposition groups will need to come together to mobilize a "no" vote on the constitutional referendum instead of aiming for a boycott of the vote, which would further underscore their estrangement from the political system. In the coming months, they will need to build a political coalition to gain them the representation needed to affect change ahead of Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections. More than anything, they will need to accept the realism of democratic governance and prove their effectiveness beyond opting out of the process. At this critical time, they must show the world and the Egyptian people, their dedication to do the work of honoring the revolution.

Egypt's opposition leaders have already proven they can bring down a regime. Now, they need to prove they can help to build their country's democratic future.