Marc Lynch

Will Egypt’s Activists Boycott the Election?

Will Egypt’s Activists Boycott the Election?

Egyptian activist groups have called for another "million man march" on Friday, September 9 in an attempt to "correct the course" and to revive what they see as a flailing revolution.  Friday is shaping up as a significant test of the continuing power of the activist groups after a summer where they have struggled. The exuberantly successful mass demonstration of July 8 gave way to an unpopular Tahrir sit-in and a disastrous attempt to march on the Ministry of Defense.  Recent calls for protests have produced small turnouts. Friday is therefore being widely taken as a test of the continuing relevance and power of the activists. 

But in some ways the turnout on Friday is a sideshow compared to the decisions to be made about the upcoming Parliamentary elections now scheduled for November.  It’s no secret that many activists are deeply disenchanted with the SCAF-led political process.  They see street protests as the source of their power, and understand their identity as the "soul of the revolution." They have done little to prepare for elections and don’t look likely to win.  Some view the coming elections as themselves counter-revolutionary since they will likely produce a Parliament dominated by Islamists and ex-NDP fulul.  When I was in Egypt in July, I already began hearing whispers that activists might boycott the elections.  Those are now spilling out into public.

Will activists actually boycott?  What would happen if they did? I think that it is distressingly likely, and growing more so, and that it would be a disaster. An activist boycott probably would not be joined by the major political parties, and probably wouldn’t affect the overall turnout or results. But it would have a disproportionate impact on the  perceptions of the legitimacy of the election, especially in the West, and would seriously  undermine hopes of achieving a democratic Egypt. I am putting this out here now mainly to draw attention to the risks, provoke some public discussion… and, hopefully, to be proven wrong. 

Most activists are deeply and vocally disenchanted with the course of post-Mubarak Egypt. They complain bitterly about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, most potently about the use of military trials for protestors and their own harsh treatment at the hands of security forces. There’s a lot of evidence that they have lost support from the wider public in recent months. They have nevertheless scored notable successes through actual or threatened street protests, on everything from the Shafik government to the SCAF’s dramatic reversal on the question of Supra-Constitutional principles, especially when they seem to command widespread popular support. 

Friday’s protest seeks to recreate the success of the July 8 protest, which rallied many Egyptians behind a growing sense of frustration, recaptured the spirit of the early days of the revolution, and put real pressure on the SCAF. But that high point soon faded in the controversies over the Tahrir sit-in, the violence at Abassiya, the Islamist July 29 counter-demonstration, the pre-Ramadan clearing of Tahrir, and a nasty SCAF-led campaign against their alleged foreign funding.  When I was in Cairo in late July, I struggled to find anybody with positive things to say about the Tahrir sit-in, and found deep frustration across the political spectrum with the activists. The September 9 "course correction" rally hopes to recapture the magic of July 8.

We will see on Friday whether the groups which have endorsed the demonstration succeed in bringing large numbers out to Tahrir or in driving the SCAF to offer political concessions.  Despite all of their struggles, they might. There’s certainly plenty of frustration, serious labor unrest, dismay with the SCAF’s erratic decision making, and fears of rising Islamist power.  That anger may well trump the popular disenchantment after the Tahrir sit-in and the nasty official campaign against foreign funding being used to tarnish their image. The Muslim Brotherhood and most other Islamist groups have announced that they will stay away this time, unlike in May, setting up a competitive dynamic which could galvanize participation by their opponents.  Either way, the turnout and the SCAF’s response will dominate Egyptian political discourse and shape the perceived balance of power for the next few weeks.   

While there are a lot of different demands in circulation, the seven demands presented by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition seem representative. They largely avoid questions of religion and the constitution. Three focus on issues which only really speak to the protestors themselves:  ending military trials for protestors, abolishing "repressive" laws outlawing protests and demonstrations, and cracking down on the baltagiya (thugs) who harass protestors. As intensely as such issues are felt by the activists, it isn’t clear to me that most ordinary Egyptians care. Another calls to banish NDP leaders from political life, which is understandable from a revolutionary perspective but rather undemocratic.  And then there’s a demand for minimum and maximum wages which many Egyptians likely do find appealing but sits awkwardly and alone amidst the other six non-economic demands.

There’s a real and troubling tension between the two demands which address elections. One demand calls for the SCAF to rapidly hand over power to an elected civil government. Another calls for a completely new elections law, which makes sense given the oddities of the current law although perhaps is premature given that the new election law hasn’t yet been issued.  But the two demands contradict each other. A timetable for a rapid return to civilian rule through elections should be a top priority; it also seems to be exactly what the SCAF is doing, to the point of rejecting repeated calls from the West and from some Egyptians to postpone elections to give secular and liberal forces more time to organize. Devising a new election law, on the other hand, would take time and would almost certainly require postponing the elections currently scheduled for November. Like the earlier activist campaign for "Constitution First," the effect of this demand would be to extend rather than end the rule of the SCAF. 

That ambiguity goes to the heart of the potential for an activist boycott.  The idea of an election boycott began to rise as the realization set in that they won’t win elections just through claims of revolutionary legitimacy.  It is not clear that they believe that successful elections would serve their interests, advance the revolution, or fit their identity. The kind of Parliament likely to be returned by the coming elections, even if completely free and fair, will likely involve heavy representation for Islamists and ex-NDP remnants (the fulul).  Would participating in such an election only grant legitimacy on a system which does not deserve it?

Each leak about the upcoming election law generates outrage over rules which allegedly favor Islamists or established parties.  That said, whatever law is ultimately adopted, few activists seem to have done much to prepare for the elections. I’m not sure why, but I haven’t heard much about their equivalent of the Islamists out all over the country distributing food and holding public events and organizing for the vote.  Maybe they don’t have the money, maybe they don’t see the point, maybe they mean to do it but haven’t found the time, or maybe they just don’t see elections as the right way to assert themselves in today’s Egypt.    

Revolutionaries are not necessarily democrats, despite the generic label of "democracy activist" preferred by the American media. Many of them simply prefer street action to institutional politics. It’s not just what they do, it’s who they are.  Protestors protest.  It’s much more exciting than preparing draft laws for consideration in committee meetings. Many of the Tahrir activists view themselves as the soul of the revolution, standing above politics.   Maybe they feel that joining in the elections could implicate them in a system which remains counter-revolutionary at its core and take away their ability to mobilize the streets. They have seen, over the course of a decade and especially from January 25 through this summer, that street politics works.  Would a small Parliamentary bloc really compensate for the loss of the Tahrir gambit?

So there’s all kinds of reasons that they might choose to boycott. But it would be a disaster if they did, for themselves as well as for Egypt.  If they seek to deprive the election of legitimacy, their prominence in the media will ensure that the international narrative will become one of failed revolution.  That will hurt Egypt both at home and abroad.  It will keep Egypt locked in political crisis, and make it much more difficult to forge a broad consensus on a new constitution and to establish enduring democratic principles.  It will weaken international support for the new Egypt, and sour potential investors and tourists on its prospects.  It will also hurt them by putting them outside of the newly emerging institutions and less able to influence the shape of the new constitution or vital new legislation. 

In short, an election boycott would be a disaster. But they might not see it that way for the reasons outlined above — especially if they see the elections consolidating a new system which doesn’t live up to their hopes for the revolution, or have an appropriate place for them.  Precisely because others see it as more disastrous than they do, threatening a boycott will look like an attractive option for pressuring the SCAF. Once those threats are made they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy as groups are trapped by their rhetoric.

That’s why I’m bringing it up now — to try to pre-empt that process by opening debate on it now.  In other words, I’m putting the potential for activist groups to threaten or to actually boycott the elections on the radar.. in hopes that it won’t happen. So let’s go prove me wrong! 

UPDATE: I have "Storified" some of the unfolding Twitter debate about this post here – check it out, and chime in!