Story originally published by GlobalPost on September 21, 2010:
CAIRO, Egypt — In an already tumultuous election year, which has seen frustrated Egyptians take to the streets in protest over everything from low wages to police brutality, the country’s most prominent reform activist is attempting to stage what could be its largest political demonstration yet.
Earlier this month, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt in February after serving 12 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called on his supporters to join an organized boycott of Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November.
“If no one participates in the elections, except for [Egypt’s ruling] National Democratic Party, Egyptians would be telling the system that ‘you do not represent us and this is not a true democracy,'” ElBaradei said at a recent gathering of supporters.
ElBaradei went a step further on his Twitter feed, calling for civil disobedience and demonstrations, adding that a boycott would “unmask [Egypt’s] sham ‘democracy.'”
The former diplomat’s call to action comes at a critical time for Egypt.
After nearly three decades of rule, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak is now 82 years old and in a protracted battle with rumors over the state of his health, most recently in March after a month-long hospital stay in Germany. Having never appointed a vice president, questions over Mubarak’s plan for succession are growing louder by the day.
The commonly held belief here is that the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, is being readied for Egypt’s top post.
As a first response, ElBaradei said he aims to unite Egypt’s divided opposition parties, which are all seeking the same constitutional reform, for the boycott.
But the likelihood ElBaradei can persuade all the different parties to participate appears to be slim. And in his efforts, ElBaradei runs the risk of further fracturing an already disparate opposition before the decisive presidential poll in 2011.
Any broad coalition of opposition in Egypt would have to include the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic party that was officially banned in 1954 because it supported Islamic law. The Muslim Brotherhood surprised the Mubarak administration in 2005 when it took one-fifth of parliament by running as independents.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood has helped ElBaradei collect more than 700,000 signatures for a national petition for constitutional change in Egypt, the Islamic party also espouses an agenda and an ideology that could work against a liberal, secular figure like ElBaradei.
“Liberals or seculars don’t have numbers. They have ideas, international respectability, and some gravitas among the higher levels of Egyptian society. The Muslim Brotherhood has numbers but it’s got none of those other things,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at George Washington University.
Meanwhile, in the nearly two weeks since ElBaradei first announced plans for a boycott, few of Egypt’s major opposition groups have agreed to heed his call. Experts, academics and some political groups here say ElBaradei will face a difficult, if not impossible, task in trying to coalesce the nation’s various political factions into a single, unified front come November.
“He may create a partial impact in the Parliamentary elections, but ElBaradei won’t be able to lead a complete boycott of all the opposition parties,” said Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. “Many of the bigger opposition groups are most likely willing to go ahead anyway, despite the fact that they have a lot of criticisms about the electoral process.”
Part of the problem for ElBaradei is a growing disenfranchisement with politics among the electorate. Years of autocratic, one-party rule have left many voters — and opposition members — disillusioned and cynical of the political process.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat established the nation’s first multi-party political system in 1976, but in practice the National Democratic Party has faced scant competition in more than three decades.
With Sadat’s assassination by Islamic extremists in 1981, Egypt instituted a draconian emergency law that has been used to suppress political opposition ever since. Opposition political parties are subject to stringent electoral regulations and, in some cases, harassment and even arrest.
Voter intimidation and allegations of ballot-rigging have been rife during the past several election cycles, most recently during the June election for Egypt’s upper house of parliament.
“Over 40 years, the NDP has only gotten stronger, and the opposition has gotten weaker,” said Abdul Rahman Yusuf, a spokesman for the ElBaradei movement. “If we all stand united in protest, only the NDP will win, exposing the political problems facing Egypt. A boycott can only make the opposition groups stronger.”
But some opposition groups believe the boycott could actually damage the reform movement. They say it would be more effective to play the game from within.
Osama Heikal, deputy editor of the official newspaper for New Wafd, or Delegation Party, which orchestrated a boycott in 1990, said he hoped the party would participate in the upcoming election.
“Although Egypt’s political scene is stagnant, the parties that have boycotted in the past have also lost a lot. Even a limited number of seats is better than having no political role at all,” he said.
Tagammu, a leftist party that boycotted Egypt’s 2005 presidential election, has also rejected ElBaradei’s call. Instead, the party will field about 85 candidates in November, according to Refaat El-Saeed, the party’s chairman.
“Boycotting only works if all parties boycott. We don’t believe that to be the case this time,” said El-Saeed. “Sitting by as an outsider for five years [before the next parliamentary election] would be very difficult.”
Some analysts, who also don’t think ElBaradei has the political chops to pull off a total boycott, said that at the very least his standing internationally could help draw attention to the country’s reform efforts.
The administration of President Barack Obama has remained largely silent on the pro-reform movement in Egypt — its most crucial diplomatic ally in the Middle East and one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid.
Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a boycott, even a partial one, might be the best option available.
“It is better for them to make the point that the political conditions are unjust, unfair, and not competitive enough,” Hamzawy said. “Maybe to get more international attention, the shock of a boycott would showcase how the Egyptian government has been rigging the elections.”