To boycott or not
The withdrawal of the liberal-oriented Wafd Party from the Coalition of Egyptian Opposition Parties (CEOP) has lent impetus to the debate over whether opposition forces should boycott next October’s People’s Assembly elections.
In a statement issued on Saturday the Wafd said it had withdrawn from the coalition, which includes the Tagammu, the Nasserist, and the Democratic Front parties, in response to criticisms levelled at the party by Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the chairman of the Democratic Front. Harb had warned that the Wafd’s refusal to boycott the poll would lead to rifts within the ranks of CEOP.
“I hope the CEOP’s members will heed the call of Mohamed El-Baradei, the former director of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], and boycott the elections, isolating the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and placing pressure on the regime to democratise,” El-Ghazali said on 5 July.
In response, the Wafd Party launched a scathing attack on Harb, accusing him of attempting to impose his views on CEOP members.
Wafd spokesman Mohamed Mustafa Sherdi argued that “election boycotts have invariable proved catastrophic to the opposition and a blessing for the ruling NDP.”
“The Wafd Party had 34 parliamentary seats in 1987. Then it decided to boycott the 1990 elections. Five years later, in 1995 elections, it won five seats,” said Sherdi. “During the same period Harb was reaping the fruits of his long-term membership of the NDP. He was promoted to the ranks of the NDP’s powerful Policies Committee, led by Gamal NDP, and appointed by President Hosni Mubarak to the Shura Council.”
“There is no alternative to participating in parliamentary elections to confront the ruling NDP and break its monopoly on political life.”
“The Wafd’s withdrawal from the CEOP is not final,” Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, Wafd;s secretary-general, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I think that Harb’s views on an election boycott are personal. He was not trying to impose them on the Wafd or any other CEOP member.”
Abdel-Nour strongly opposes any boycott. “It is the worst strategy for any party, even when the guarantees required for ensuring the integrity and transparency of elections are still lacking in Egypt. All the precedents confirm that election boycotts result in isolating the opposition rather than the NDP.”
His views about an election boycott, says Harb, were not intended to be directed at the Wafd.
“It seems odd that the Wafd Party in particular should have reacted so quickly, and in such an angry way,” says Harb, adding that serious discussions are under way in his own party about whether to withdraw from the CEOP.
“Many of our members believe that the Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserists are keen to toe the NDP’s line, as seemed to be the case with the Shura elections. If it is so, and they cannot extricate themselves from NDP influence, then perhaps it is better to withdraw from the CEOP,” said Harb. “The opposition parties that claim a boycott of the elections would be counterproductive do so to hide their real motives, a reluctance to antagonise the ruling NDP.”
Harb’s Democratic Front boycotted last month’s Shura Council elections, preferring to coordinate with the National Assembly for Change (NAC), founded by El-Baradei to campaign for political reform and democratisation.
President Mubarak, empowered by the constitution to appoint Shura councillors, included members from the Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserist parties for the first time on the list of appointees.
“These three parties willingly participated in the Shura Council elections although they were marred by serious irregularities. Their reward was to allow some of their candidates to win in fraudulent polls, and for others to be appointed by presidential decree,” charges Harb.
The reaction of the Tagammu and Nasserist parties to the Wafd’s withdrawal from the CEOP has been supportive of participation in elections.
“The Tagammu is firmly against boycotting the elections. This is our long held position,” Hussein Abdel-Razeq, a member of the Tagammu’s Higher Council, told the Weekly. “In 1990, when all the other opposition parties decided to boycott the People’s Assembly election, the Tagammu contested the poll. Continued presence in parliament is a matter of life and death for opposition parties.”
Tagammu spokesman Nabil Zaki says the party plans to field 43 candidates in the forthcoming election and “preparations are underway to help these candidates win seats”.
“The Tagammu will, however, continue coordinating with the CEOP in placing pressure on the regime in order to ensure that the elections are marked with integrity.”
The Nasserists, too, are in favour of participating in October’s elections.
Ahmed Hassan, secretary-general of the Arab Nasserist Party, told the Weekly that “the party plans to field 40 candidates or more”.
“We are not in favour of boycotting the elections even if we know that they lack the necessary guarantees of integrity,” said Hassan.
President Mubarak’s decision to appoint Hassan to the Shura Council sparked divisions within the ranks of the Nasserist Party.
Political pundit Amr Hashem Rabie believes “the Wafd’s withdrawal, if final, will lead to the collapse of CEOP”.
Rabie believes that, despite the fact that “the ruling party is keen that old opposition parties participate in elections in order to isolate El-Baradei”, an election boycott will only serve the interests of the NDP.
The position of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood on the boycott call remains ambiguous. While some leading members say the boycott is still under discussion, others have come out in favour of contesting October’s elections.
“The decision whether to boycott or to participate rests with the Brotherhood’s leadership, and not with NAC,” says Essam El-Erian, a leading Brotherhood official.
The group’s MPs are keen to stand in October’s elections. Saad El-Husseini, Brotherhood MP for Gharbiya, told the Weekly that, “a parliament without Brotherhood MPs only serves the interests of the NDP.”
On 7 July the Muslim Brotherhood launched a website, tawkatonline.com, in support of El-Baradei’s manifesto for political reform. Ikhwanweb, the official Brotherhood website, announced that it had collected 3,000 signatures in support of the manifesto in a single day.
“Our goal is to exceed the benchmark of one million signatures in favour of supporting El-Baradei’s campaign seeking to compel the ruling regime to respond to change and democratise,” said the movement’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei.