An Election Dilemma for Egypt’s Opposition:To Boycott or Not?

An Election Dilemma for Egypt’s Opposition:To Boycott or Not?

All opponents of Egypt’s decades-old authoritarian government know that the country’s elections are a sham of democracy, but they’re divided on how to respond to November’s parliamentary elections. Earlier this month, the popular former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who returned home to lead the National Coalition for Change, called for an opposition boycott of the poll. Staying away, say ElBaradei’s supporters, is the best way of challenging the legitimacy the regime claims from staging elections whose rules are rigged to keep it in power. But Egypt’s largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, isn’t so sure.

Boycott advocates hope that a mass stay-away would expose the election as little more than a facade of democracy, and pile pressure on Cairo to open up democratic space ahead of the presidential election slated for next year — and amid the efforts of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak to anoint his son Gamal as his successor. A boycott would also enable a rare show of unity for a largely divided, and still weak, opposition. (Read about how Egypt is ready for change.)

But despite some initial enthusiasm for ElBaradei’s message, the Muslim Brotherhood has wavered on the question of boycotting the poll, and is tending toward rejecting the idea. The Brotherhood captured 20% of the seats (which amounted to 52% of those in which its candidates, who ran as independents, were allowed to contest) to emerge as the largest opposition bloc in the 2005 parliamentary race. The smaller opposition Wafd and Tagammu parties have already said they will field candidates. And Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s liberal challenger who finished a distant second in the 2005 presidential race (the Brotherhood did not participate), has declared that his Tomorrow party will boycott the vote, but that some of its members may still run as independents — which makes a mockery of the boycott idea. (Watch TIME’s 10 questions video with ElBaradei.)

Skeptics question the value of even a successful boycott. "It’s one thing if really strong opposition parties boycott. But it’s another thing if very weak opposition parties boycott. And these are generally weak opposition parties," says Harvard professor of public policy Tarek Masoud, pointing to a 1990 election boycott that accomplished little. "They should be trying to get some traction with the Egyptian public that is generally quite skeptical of them." Masoud says the call for a boycott is also the latest disappointment in what has generally been a "lazy" strategy by ElBaradei. The Muslim Brotherhood gained force and legitimacy by participating, says Masoud, and the other groups should learn from it. "What Egypt really needed is for someone like [ElBaradei] to throw himself into this and really put himself at risk and spend most of his time in Egypt campaigning and engaging in grassroots protests."

Others wonder whether eligible voters, most of whom don’t show up at the polls, will even be aware of a boycott call. But analysts and opposition members argue the ruling National Democratic Party will sweep the majority of the seats no matter who runs, because the system is rigged in the party’s favor. The Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to record more gains in the face of a harsh crackdown on its membership. And voter turnout at the last parliamentary elections was dismally low even without any calls for a boycott. "Usually people don’t participate [in the elections]. They don’t need a boycott," says Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "You know, the Egyptians are very low in political participation in general. They discuss; they talk; but they don’t participate."

Whatever the decision about the parliamentary poll, opposition is growing to the prospect of President Mubarak installing 46-year-old Gamal as his successor. On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters gathered in Cairo and Alexandria to challenge any dynastic succession, the latest in a stream of demonstrations against the regime that have picked up pace since ElBaradei launched a nationwide campaign for change in February. The protests gathered momentum in June, after a young Egyptian man was allegedly beaten to death by plainclothes police. Still, the demonstrators rarely number more than a couple of hundred people, and the vast majority of Egyptians seem unmoved by their efforts. (Will the Islamists join ElBaradei’s efforts?)

In a dense neighborhood of central Cairo on Tuesday, residents peered down from balconies and rooftops as a cluster of protesters chanted "Down, down Mubarak"; held banners condemning hereditary succession; and burned photocopied pictures of Gamal. They were ringed by almost as many journalists and bloggers, and several times as many riot police and plainclothes men from state security who, at various intervals, shoved and beat some of the protesters. For the Egyptian opposition, it was a typically weak showing. Even the many Cairenes sympathetic to the demonstrators’ message remain unconvinced that activism will bring any results. And political participation can carry a high price. "Enough with Mubarak," says Abanoub Abdel Malak, an Ain Shams University student in Cairo. That’s how he and most of his friends feel about their government, he says. But to act on that belief by joining a demonstration? "No," he says with a hesitant smile. "We’re a little scared."