Ever since Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi polarized the country with his infamous constitutional declaration on November 22, 2012, Egypt’s leading opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), has wrestled with the question of whether to challenge the president by participating in or boycotting Egypt’s new institutions. Currently, the NSF is struggling to decide if it should contest upcoming parliamentary elections, which have been delayed in legal limbo. While overreach by President Morsi and his allies in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) might seem to justify a boycott, refusing to participate would be a serious mistake. For the sake of their political fortunes and the future of Egyptian democracy, Egypt’s opposition should compete in the elections.
When leaders in the NSF attempt to justify a boycott, they point to the fact that Morsi and the FJP have become increasingly authoritarian since November. They have a point. In the midst of economic emergency and political crisis, the legitimate concerns of the opposition and even those within the administration have been sidelined for the sake of partisan gain. Laws concerning elections, protests, and NGOs have been designed to disadvantage political opposition. Those who challenge the current administration—from opposition leaders to activists and entertainers—have been harassed by the state repeatedly.
However, despite these worrisome developments, it would be a mistake to think that Egyptian politics have settled back into their former authoritarian patterns. The president and his party are beset by rebellious state institutions, incompetence, competition from rival parties, and sliding support. By April, only thirty-seven percent of Egyptians said that they would vote to re-elect the president, down from fifty-eight percent in November 2012. In March, the Muslim Brotherhood lost control of student unions, the Journalist Syndicate, and the Pharmacist Syndicate. A recent study by the Rand Corporation concluded that support for the FJP has dropped across Egypt, leaving room for the secular opposition to make political gains at the Brotherhood’s expense.
Boycotting the elections, which the NSF had planned to do prior to the court-ordered delay, would mean throwing away this opportunity to weaken the FJP. Instead, the likely effect of a boycott would be to cement the very outcome that the opposition fears most, ceding control of the legislature to the FJP and permitting the party to consolidate its control of the government. By refusing to campaign, the NSF would also lose an opportunity to challenge the ruling party’s governing record and its commitment to holding free and fair elections. Additionally, the coalition would strengthen its reputation for ineffectiveness and obstructionism, which has developed out of its tendency to adopt maximalist positions in an attempt to discredit the legitimacy of Morsi’s government.
Even worse are the broader repercussions that a boycott would have on the prospects for democratic consolidation in Egypt. Writing about the Arab Spring in Le Monde diplomatique, Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui suggests that the fundamental question facing transitioning regimes in the Middle East is whether or not democracy can become institutionalized. He defines institutionalization as “the healthy convergence of politics around three arenas of competition: elections, parliaments and constitutions.”
In Egypt, the opposition is correct to point out that the country’s constitutional drafting process was seriously flawed, that the constitution contains troubling defects, and that the parliamentary elections will be imperfect, too. Flaws, however, do not have to be fatal. For all of the transition’s problems, Egypt has witnessed historic political argument amidst generally competitive conditions over the past several months. When the opposition responds to these developments by rejecting the legitimacy of the transition’s institutions and elections and choosing instead to participate outside of the new regime, they make the institutionalization of democracy in Egypt a less likely outcome.
If the NSF decides to participate, it will not win the elections. The coalition is still disorganized, financially poor, and ideologically fragmented. However, it is entirely possible that the NSF would be able to leverage anti-Brotherhood sentiment into a favorable showing in the elections, which could position the coalition to better influence government policy and develop a more effective political organization. Even more importantly, by committing to political competition within the framework of the new constitution, the NSF would contribute to the further institutionalization of democracy in Egypt.
NSF leaders still appear to be divided on the boycott, but it is not too late for the coalition to change course. If the parliamentary elections proceed, the leaders of the NSF should announce that they will contest the elections. Egyptians are tired of a government that cannot respond to the needs of its people, but the opposition must demonstrate that it is a real alternative. Saying “No” is not enough. For the sake of Egyptian democracy, the country’s opposition must compete.
Image taken by Scott Williamson during the June 2012 Egyptian presidential elections.