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