For the first time in decades, the Egyptian people have pressured the major political opposition groups to boycott the country’s parliamentary elections. The move denies the aging autocracy its traditional democratic fig leaf and is raising hopes that the government will eventually be forced to open the Egyptian political system.
After widespread fraud in the first round of parliamentary elections in late November, Egypt’s top opposition movements — the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular-liberal Wafd Party — both announced that they would not participate in the final elections on Sunday.
Both the Brotherhood and the Wafd had decided to run despite strong calls from prominent opposition figures and their own constituencies to boycott, but the mass riggings and human rights abuses that took place in the first round of voting late last month forced them to withdraw in protest.
The regime’s police forces attacked even a judge, Walid Shafei, who was performing his duty and reporting fraud in a district in Guiza. So far, 16 people have died in the violence, which Hafez Abu Seida, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, says now exceeds that of the 2005 elections.
The move will make Wafd ineligible to run in next year’s presidential elections, as candidates need at least one member of Parliament to qualify. The Brotherhood will be unable to run, regardless, as the government has never recognized it as an official political party. But if the regime refuses to allow popular opposition figures to vie for the presidency next year, it will face even more popular outrage.
Most Egyptians refuse to vote in sham elections even when they’ve gone through the troubles of registering to vote. According to official sources, in the 2000 and 2005 legislative elections, turnout never exceeded 25 percent. Independent observers maintain that real turnout is less than half that. The electoral commission reported that participation in the first round was 35 percent, a figure both the opposition and independent NGOs like the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development reject as unrealistic.
Under Egyptian law, candidates for parliament must win a simple majority of the votes in the first and second rounds to be elected. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the top two contenders run again in the second to determine the winner.
In the first round, the Brotherhood failed to secure any seats outright, but managed to keep 27 contenders in the running for the second round. The Wafd won the largest number of seats in the opposition — a whopping two out of 508. The party had initially won five seats, but the electoral commission decreased it to two after a review, with no explanation. In the end, the Wafd will have nine contenders in the second round.
The opposition deliberated for months before deciding whether or not to participate. Members of the Brotherhood were particularly vehement in their refusal to submit to a sham electoral process, but in the end, the leadership decided to run. Wafd’s general assembly saw a similar debate, with 43 percent voting to boycott.
The mass rigging in the first round shifted the balance in the opposition in favor of a boycott. Both Wafd and the Brotherhood had taken a lot of heat for their decision to participate, and their grassroots ultimately forced them to withdraw. Wafd party leaders made their decision last Thursday night, as throngs of party supporters rallied for a boycott. The socialist-leaning Union Party, which has thus far refused to withdraw from the race, is also under pressure from its constituents, and several members have resigned in protest.
The move may breathe new life into former IAEA director Mohamed El Baradei’s candidacy. Baradei’s earlier demand for a boycott had failed to catalyze the opposition, with only two minor parties, the Democratic Front and part of Ayman Nour’s Ghad Party, heeding his call. But in overplaying its hand in the first round of elections, the government has unwittingly unified the opposition.
In cracking down harder than it has in the past, the Mubarak regime has unwittingly brought Egypt’s Islamists, pro-democracy liberals and significant public figures together in a single protest action.
According to the Egyptian constitution, these smaller parties will be the only ones who qualify to run a candidate in the 2011 presidential elections. Though those elections will undoubtedly be rigged, as well, with no domestically credible opposition candidates running in them, the regime will have no claim to international legitimacy.
If the disparate opposition factions can stand together for long enough, in time, they will force the regime to begin the political opening Egyptians have so long hoped for.
Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.