CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s leading opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said Tuesday he believes the Islamist president will eventually be forced to reach out to the opposition because his group is losing support and isn’t able to tackle the country’s myriad problems alone.
ElBaradei, speaking to a small group of journalists including The Associated Press at his home on the outskirts of Cairo, said members of the dominant Muslim Brotherhood “live in a delusion” if they think they can manage the country on their own, describing them as a “minority.”
He said that if the opposition were to enter elections now, it could win a large chunk of parliament, even a majority.
Egypt has been polarized for months between President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist supporters on one side and their opponents on the other. A rocky transition has been marred by protests which now regularly turn into deadly clashes, in addition to lawlessness and a mounting economic crisis.
ElBaradei and others in the opposition blame the turmoil on the determination of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, to monopolize power and push through its agenda. Morsi’s supporters have accused the opposition — including the National Salvation Front in which ElBaradei is a leading figure — of trying to cause instability to undermine the elected government and prevent Islamist rule.
ElBaradei dismissed comments by critics of the NSF, which groups liberals, leftists and some parties considered carryovers from the deposed regime of President Hosni Mubarak, as fearful of competing with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in elections. So far, in the string of elections since the ouster of Mubarak in 2011, Islamists have come out on top, but their margins of victory have narrowed over time.
The National Salvation Front had said it would boycott parliamentary elections that were supposed to start in April, accusing the Islamists of gerrymandering election districts to their advantage. But the election was put off indefinitely by a legal challenge over the law governing the vote.
“It is bogus to say that we don’t want to (compete), that we are spoilers … We do want to go into elections,” he said. “My feeling that right now if we go into elections, there is a good chance that we will get, if not a majority, a good chunk of the parliament, simply, not because our ingenuity, but because the Brotherhood messed up so badly, that again people will say, in my view, ‘anybody but the Brotherhood’ because they haven’t delivered.”
ElBaradei said the opposition is still considering whether to compete in the elections. The opposition has said it will decide whether to participate after the law is redrawn, and it called on Morsi to choose an independent prime minister and government to oversee the voting, and allow for a new attorney general to be chosen by the judiciary to replace the current one, a presidential appointee. A court has nullified the attorney general’s appointment, but he remains in his post.
ElBaradei said Morsi has failed to fulfill promises he made domestically and to the international community that he will work with his opponents. But ElBaradei said he recognized that the opposition parties didn’t muster the backing to force Morsi to reach out to them.
“We don’t have leverage, I can tell you that. I thought they (Brotherhood) have common sense. Our leverage is that we thought they have common sense, that they are a minority and they don’t have the qualified people to govern,” he said.
“They have been making all kinds of noises to everyone who visited and to us that they are ready and want to reach out to the opposition,” he said. “What we have seen in the last couple of weeks is a complete about face.”
Several months ago, Morsi invited the opposition to join a “national dialogue” initiative to discuss major issues, but the opposition shunned the talks, calling them window-dressing with no specific agenda or clear concessions, while the Islamists pushed ahead with their own decision-making. Since then, the dialogue initiative has faded.
Morsi and his supporters promote the parliamentary elections as a step toward bringing stability to the country. Under pressure of widespread calls, including by some Islamists, Morsi has promised a government reshuffle more than a week ago. It has not happened, and government officials have said it will be limited, with the prime minister keeping his post, despite opposition demands.
“They are drawing a line in the sand which is not very helpful,” ElBaradei said. “If there is no national partnership, I don’t see clearly at all in which direction we will go.”
He said a deeply polarized Egypt needs political consensus to tackle a burning economic crisis and to deal with an angry population that has lost hope in its political elite.
“I am shocked they can’t see the writing on the wall that this is not going to work. If you are in a hole, stop digging. In my view, they keep digging right now.”
Egypt’s economy has been hard hit by two years of turmoil following the ouster of Mubarak. The budget deficit is surpassing 10 percent of GDP, and foreign currency reserves have fallen to a critical level of just $13.4 billion, a third of the pre-uprising level. Also, foreign investment and tourism revenues are drying up as the country grapples with turmoil.
A crucial $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund has been delayed by months of negotiations over how Egypt will reduce its massive system of subsidies, and the lack of political and societal consensus on the reform program, which would bring in harsh austerity measures. Many economists and political observers believe the Brotherhood is wary of reaching a deal before elections, fearing that carrying out unpopular reforms would hurt it at the polls. Even so, presidential officials have repeatedly said a deal will be reached soon.
ElBaradei said while most agree on the necessity of austerity measures and the importance of the loan, “if the Brotherhood continues to follow a policy of exclusion, don’t expect the opposition to put their stamp on the loan.”
But he said he expects the Brotherhood to “have no other option but to turn around and come to reach out to a political consensus,” possibly by the end of the summer, given the economic and security situation.
While recognizing that his new party, al-Dustor, and other newly formed parties are cash-strapped, he said there is already work on the ground by party members to reach out to people, including offering limited medical convoys to disadvantaged areas, similar to the popular social programs of the Muslim Brotherhood.
ElBaradei said the United States was first happy with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood because it was a chance for them to work with a democratically elected Islamist group, one of the most important in the region, on issues of national security, pertaining to Israel, Iran and the Gulf. This, he said, has made the Americans “almost shy” to speak out against what he called Islamist domination of the political process.
He said now he believes Washington was in a “process of rethinking.”
“At the end of the day … nobody wants to see Egypt fall apart,” he said.