Egypt's Opposition Splits on Elections Boycott

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Members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood announce that the Islamist group will participate in next month's parliamentary elections

Mohamed ElBaradei's hopes of drawing attention to the sham of Egyptian democracy via a mass elections boycott were dealt a major blow last week, when the Muslim Brotherhood opted to take part in the polls. That's because the Brotherhood is by far the largest opposition group in Egypt, and the only one with a genuine grass-roots organizational base. Despite being restricted to running in just 30% of the 518 seats in parliament — and the expectation that direct repression and vote-rigging will deny it victory even in most of those — the Brotherhood's leaders believe they'll accomplish more by contesting the November elections than by staying out.

Accomplishment for Egypt's political opposition is, of course, a relative term — neither boycotting nor participating in elections notorious for intimidation and abuse of opposition parties, low voter turnout and vote-rigging is going to end the National Democratic Party's iron grip on power. For the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a banned organization that fields its candidates as independents, the elections are about a lot more than winning seats. "It's an opportunity to check in with their constituents, as well as potentially recruit [members]," explains Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University in Ohio.

"The Brothers actually run people who live in their districts, which seems very intuitive and makes a lot of sense, but the [ruling] National Democratic Party doesn't do this," he adds. "They roll in with the big 'We're going to make 7 million jobs' and 'We're going to expand civil-political rights' and all this stuff. They're hoping that somebody's going to latch onto something they say, but it's not directly speaking to a constituency."

So for the Brotherhood, contesting elections is part of a long-term strategy against a regime that has no intention of relinquishing power by allowing a free and fair ballot. Analysts speculate that the government won't tolerate a repeat of even the sizable minority win for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 race, when it captured 88 seats. Indeed, it's the repression that ElBaradei, the popular former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had hoped to expose by promoting an elections boycott. The Brotherhood and a cluster of Egypt's weaker opposition parties had initially considered the idea, but most eventually decided to take part.

Not surprisingly, the Brothers' decision has not pleased ElBaradei's supporters. "From our point of view, the position of the Brotherhood is a split for the ranks of the national force for change," says Abdelrahman Samir, an activist in ElBaradei's National Association for Change. He criticizes the Islamists for subverting the boycott call only "in the interest of strengthening their organization, and exploiting vulnerabilities to spread their ideas among the classes of people."

But Stacher questions the political logic of staying away from the polls: "The strategy of a boycott is all predicated on the idea that somebody on the outside will watch and see a boycotted authoritarian election and do something about it," he says. But the manipulation of the vote and the violence against opposition candidates have been widely exposed in previous elections to little effect. It's not as if there's widespread belief that Egypt allows genuine competitive elections. So the Brotherhood views its participation as part of a strategy to build up opposition forces and capacity.

"The goal is to push the regime into the corner," says Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood spokesman. He acknowledges that electoral fraud will restrict opposition gains in parliament. "But when we boycott, the regime can say that there was no fraud; that the election was free and fair," he adds. "When we participate, the regime has to face us."

That face-off is already well under way. The Interior Ministry has issued threats against any Brotherhood plans to use the group's traditional slogan, "Islam Is the Solution" — religious platforms are banned in Egyptian politics. University students across Egypt this week held protests to condemn administrative decisions to ban Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated students from participating in student elections. And el-Erian told TIME Wednesday that around 50 of its members have been arrested since the group announced its plans to participate in the elections.

"No matter what, they will take part because that gives them visibility," says Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. "I know that ElBaradei wouldn't want them to take part. They are accused of splitting the ranks of the opposition. But for the Muslim Brothers, this is the more suitable strategy because it's not just elections for them — it's something wider than that."

Indeed, the Brothers are the oldest opposition organization and have survived decades of battering by authoritarian regimes, building grass-roots support by promoting policy solutions rooted in Islam and by offering a range of social services to a population that has long complained of government neglect. Few analysts believe that the Brothers will win more than a quarter of their current 88-seat tally in November. But elections themselves, and whatever minority representation they secure in parliament, give the group another platform for its long-term strategy of building a popular power base.

That power base is what allows the Brotherhood, rather than ElBaradei or other emerging reformists, to call the shots in Egyptian opposition politics. "The Muslim Brotherhood will make their contacts; they will assert themselves. They're not thinking in the short term," says Kazziha. "This is a movement that has lasted now for almost 80 years while other movements have come and gone." ElBaradei, of course, has been back in Egypt for less than a year, and is a political neophyte.

And for their part, the Brothers say there are gains to be made from playing the game, even when the game is rigged. "The lesson is not to be absent, not to be out of the scene," says Erian. "We are living in this society. We are a popular power. We must represent our popularity as a whole and in the system."