Egypt opposition’s poll boycott gathers steam
Many opposition figures pull out of presidential election race they charge is parody of democracy.
By Riad Abu Awad - CAIRO
A growing number of major opposition parties and figures who had vowed to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in a September election are pulling out of a race that they charge is a parody of democracy.
"We had asked for radical changes to the constitution allowing for anyone to take part in the election, but the changes made do not allow for real competition," Rifaat al-Said, the leader of the left-wing Tagammu party, said at a press conference Tuesday.
Egypt’s first contested presidential vote is set for September 7 but opposition forces have charged that the conditions to run in the election bar any serious challenge to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
The 77-year-old leader, who proposed a constitutional change in February to allow for multi-party elections, is widely expected to seek and win a fifth mandate, after already 24 years at the helm of the country.
But opposition parties have argued that the date of the poll leaves little time to run a campaign and that the electoral law does not guarantee the transparency of the polling process.
"Because of this, Tagammu will not contest this undemocratic battle. We do not trust that this election will be fair. It will be just like another referendum," Said said.
Until now, Egyptians have only been able to say yes or no to a candidate picked by the NDP-dominated parliament.
"For the Egyptians’ own good, we refuse to be part of this but we will continue to campaign for real changes," Said added.
The Nasserist party, another of the main legal opposition forces in Egypt, said it would convene a meeting later this week to deliberate on whether to field a candidate, but left little doubt on its decision.
"It is not clear yet if someone will express the wish to run in the election but the majority of the party is against the elections," secretary general Diaa Eddin Daoud said.
The liberal Wafd party is expected to follow suit.
Prominent US-Egyptian rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim, who was one of the first last year to announce his intention to challenge Mubarak, said Monday he was pulling out.
He told reporters his decision was a gesture of "solidarity with the national coalition of democratic forces that are calling for a boycott of this political farce."
Ibrahim said he would focus his efforts on monitoring the polling, joining hands with civil society groups campaigning for the right to have independent election observers - a demand backed by Washington.
Egypt’s judges’ syndicate issued a report last month alleging that the May 25 referendum on poll reform was rigged and challenging official returns showing 80 percent of support for the controversial election ground rules.
On Sunday, leftist feminist activist Nawal Saadawi also announced she was pulling out of the race, charging the regime had conducted a campaign against her and criticising new political laws.
The wave of dropouts fuels boycott calls from other opposition groups, including the Kefaya (Enough) movement, which has spearheaded a string of unprecedented anti-Mubarak demonstrations.
"Kefaya is asking that all national and democratic forces announce their decision to completely boycott this masquerade and move at once to build an inclusive, national, democratic alliance ... that can realize the legitimate demands of the people in the face of despotism and hereditary rule," a statement said Wednesday.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition force, has also argued that restrictions imposed by the government excluded it from the race.
The prospect of a widespread opposition boycott of the September 7 election leaves Mubarak’s NDP with only two declared challengers so far.
The most high-profile opponent is Ayman Nur, a 40-year-old lawyer who heads the Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party.
He was slapped with a trial on what he says are trumped up charges of forgery aimed at discrediting him and hampering his campaign. He was remanded in custody earlier this year, drawing a sharp reprimand from Washington.
The other candidate who has officially announced his intention to run is Talaat Sadat. Despite being the nephew of former assassinated president Anwar Sadat, his Ahrar party is marginal and he is thought to enjoy limited support.