Egypt’s main opposition bloc on Tuesday followed the lead of President Mohammed Morsi’s chief political rival, Mohamed ElBaradei, in calling for a boycott of parliamentary elections schedule to begin in April and stretch on until June. “The NSF (National Salvation Front) has decided to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections because we were not consulted about the election law, and also because all our demands have been ignored,” said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the coalition, at a televised Cairo news conference.
The NSF comprises a host of liberal and secular groups that have experienced little boost in their political clout since the fall of Western-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak. They view the new constitution promulgated by Morsi and his conservative and ultraconservative allies (and approved by the public in a referendum many saw as flawed in December) as fundamentally compromised, and are convinced the new elections are being rushed to cement the power of the Islamists, who have dominated every poll since the 2011 revolution.
The embrace of the boycott (the NSF’s internal vote was apparently unanimous) speaks to the desperation of the opposition and the fact that Morsi, perhaps because of increased pressure on his right flank from Islamist rivals, has done virtually nothing to assuage their concerns of creeping authoritarianism. What remains to be seen is whether the opposition can keep itself relevant and visible without membership in parliament, where the media will inevitably congregate. The most obvious method (one various factions have been employing essentially since the first anti-Mubarak actions in Tahrir Square) is the street protest, which we will surely see more of in the coming weeks. But as the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has shown by its refusal to participate in recent parliamentary elections there, boycotting an election is a tremendous gamble. If the incumbent regime appears to receive a groundswell of democratic backing (as reflected at least in part by participation figures, which will inevitably be disputed), protesters risk isolation from the mainstream of Egyptian society, which by now is reaching a tipping point in terms of the broader public’s willingness to tolerate upheaval and violence. The conservative majority may prove willing to countenance a more-repressive government in the name of stability (it’s not as if such a popular calculus is unprecedented).
But if the opposition’s boycott is a risky move, the alternative is even less inviting. Not only has Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood (and its Freedom and Justice Party in particular) proven its staying power as an electoral behemoth, but still-more-conservative Islamist parties appear to be growing in strength as well, suggesting the new parliament could be the most extreme yet. Liberal voices will be conspicuously absent, but their very presence might have provided a stamp of approval and license for the West to continue a fairly close collaboration with Morsi. Which suggests that disassociating themselves from a government that may overreach (again) in the coming months could prove a savvy move for ElBaradei and his followers.
In the meantime, the opposition has its work cut out for it: remain visible and continue garnering sympathetic coverage from Western media outlets that have so far regarded Morsi and his Islamist movement with a healthy skepticism. That should keep membership on the rise. Right now, the NSF needs bodies. The more mayhem the better, especially with a largely secular military that not so long ago was seen as an obstacle to democracy growing impatient with Morsi’s ability to unite the country. For Egypt’s liberals, military intervention might — perverse as it sounds — redound to their benefit.
The elections this spring will happen slowly, on a region-by-region basis, which Morsi says is essential to ensure broad participation and accurate vote-counting by the young democracy’s limited electoral infrastructure. Of course, the drawn-out process also opens a generous window for extensive and aggressive pushback by those left on the sidelines.