Earlier this month, an opposition boycott of the upcoming Egyptian parliamentary elections began to seem like a real possibility. The prospect raised a number of difficult questions: Do boycotts work? And how does one go about organizing them? Any confusion was understandable; the last time Egypt’s fractious opposition boycotted en masse was nearly two decades ago.
After widespread allegations of fraud during the Shura Council elections in June, calls for a boycott intensified, with former IAEA chief and presidential hopeful Mohamed El Baradei leading the way. On July 7, Hassan Nafaa, the General Coordinator of Baradei’s National Association for Change, held an important meeting with Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie to discuss the idea further. The Brotherhood, whose default position has been to contest any and all elections, was surprisingly receptive, stating that it was ready to abide by a boycott if there was sufficient consensus. But building that consensus proved difficult, with the Wafd party, Egypt’s oldest liberal party, arguing, in somewhat tautological fashion, that a boycott made little sense because there wasn’t sufficient consensus.
Even the Brotherhood, after initially voicing support for Baradei’s call, started hedging. Saad al-Husseini, a member of the group’s guidance bureau, explained: “We won’t give up participation in the elections except in the case of a unified boycott, with guarantees that no other party will reverse its decision…The Brotherhood prefers entering elections and to not leave the political arena solely to the [ruling party].”
Boycotts are difficult to organize because it takes only one major party to defect. Obviously, when one party defects, other parties have an incentive to do the same. Everyone wants to be the only party participating in elections, but no one wants to be the only one boycotting.
But even when oppositions are relatively unified, as the Egyptian opposition was in 1990, boycotts remain a delicate, risky proposition. The Wafd, Labor, and Liberal parties, along with the Brotherhood, easily Egypt’s largest opposition group, held a joint press conference on October 20, 1990 to announce their decision to sit the polls out. Throughout the 1980s, they had dutifully played the role of “loyal opposition,” yet the regime repaid them by unilaterally instituting new electoral legislation and extending Emergency Law.
Today, the 1990 boycott is largely considered either a mistake or a failure, or both. In their book al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun wa al-Siyasa fi Misr [The Political Role of the Muslim Brotherhood under Limited Political Pluralism in Egypt], Hasanain Tawfiq Ibrahim and Hoda Awad write, “It is fair to say that the [Brotherhood’s] decision to boycott was historic, marking the start of a new phase in the relationship between Muslim Brotherhood and the regime.” This “new phase” was characterized by intensifying repression and a dramatic closing of political space. Indeed, regimes, and apparently President Hosni Mubarak himself, take boycotts rather personally. The Wafd evinced similar regrets. It had won 50 seats in 1984 and 35 in 1987, both strong showings. But after boycotting the 1990 elections out, it lost its only real public platform. It never recovered.
It is one thing to threaten a boycott and another to actually boycott. The threat is meant to pressure regimes and extract more favorable terms for participation. But the Egyptian government – schooled in the art of sowing division – is fully aware that there are few things more improbable than a unified boycott. So it did not make any concessions. The opposition backed down.
Looked at another way, though, the arguments for a boycott appear less compelling now than in the past. The opposition, while still plagued by internal rifts, is growing more confident. With Mubarak’s health deteriorating, reports of conflicts within the ruling party seem more plausible. And, for the first time, Baradei, despite a number of missteps, has at least allowed Egyptians to believe there is a real alternative to the succession of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son. Not surprisingly, then, the opposition is beginning to position itself for the transition to come. No one, apparently, wants to be left out when Egypt finally shakes its authoritarian past.