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Few opposition parties heed call of Egypt's most visible reform leader to boycott election.
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.