Why I am boycotting Egypt's election

With millions of Egyptians set to head to the polls on November 28, one blogger and activist argues that the only way to protect the ideals of the revolution is to boycott the election. A boycott is a vote against Egypt's military rulers and an important step in the road to democratic reform.
Tarek Shalaby
21 November 2011

Finally, after nine months have past from the promised six-month transitional period, we are about to embark on the road to democracy with a handful of elections carrying us through till early 2013 (that’s right; the six-month transitional phase will translate to about two years).

On November 28, millions of Egyptians (including those abroad) will queue up in front of local schools to take part in what seems to be the first free and fair elections in the nation’s history. Ballots will be counted in districts all over the republic to determi the country’s first batch of democratically elected members of parliament. Looks like the struggle is paying off after all.

That is why we need to boycott the upcoming elections.

There are many reasons why I think that, just as March’s referendum was a vote for or against SCAF, boycotting November’s elections is supporting the continuation of the revolution, while partaking, regardless of the chosen candidate/party, is opting for reform.

The people demand the downfall of the regime

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appear to have been in power since February 11, but the army, as an entity, has enjoyed overwhelming power since the coup d’etat of 1952, in fact it has long been an economic giant. Whether one points to its vast lands, factories in the different industries, manpower forced to work at little or no cost, there is plenty to prove that SCAF has enjoyed more than the average share of the power pie. More importantly, it has always been an integral part of the old regime. I won’t go into why I’m against SCAF, that’s beyond this argument.

The issue here is that SCAF is putting together this limited infrastructure of ‘democracy’ for us to play in. While we fight on whether we want Egypt to be secular or Islamist, SCAF is happy with the conditions that accompany the 1.3bn dollar package from the US. While we prepare for free and fair elections, SCAF detains activists to add them to their list of 12,000 civilians tried by the military.
The fact of the matter is, taking part in the elections would be collaborating with SCAF to ‘overcome’ the current phase and start working towards a democracy. While there is nothing wrong with working with the army in transition, taking part in the elections would give legitimacy to SCAF and their actions. We would be saying that everything they have done so far, although not perfect, is acceptable. On January 25th we took the streets to completely overhaul the corrupt, inhumane regime. This means settling for nothing less than a real change. If the entire army remains as it has been for 60 years, then we need to clarify that we deserve better. Thus, boycotting. Power to the people.

It is comforting to believe that the army will hand over the power to a representative government as soon as we see the elections through. That is very naive, to say the least.
 We can only predict SCAF’s behaviour by studying their past. That, and their motives. But given how the SCAF leaders have always been an integral part of the old regime, and that unveiling any of their activities would be a direct threat to each of them, it is rather obvious that they would like to protect the status quo.

Thanks to the army, Egypt has remained a military dictatorship for 60 years. The emergency law has always existed in different shapes or forms, and while it is easiest to blame the police for abusing it, it is really the army that controls it. In fact, by the end of the Mubarak era, press had opened up to allow direct criticism of government officials and indirect bashing of the president himself. However, it was dangerously frowned upon to mentioned anything relating to the military. In conclusion, if it wasn’t for the army’s backing, Mubarak’s regime would’ve lost its grip.

Since February 12, an argument has been ignited in which some have exposed SCAF’s blatant efforts to protect the status quo, while most were blinded by the fairy tale of a knight in shining armour looking to take Egypt forward. Evidently, the following have proved otherwise:

  • About 12,000 civilians have been forced to go through military trials, most of whom are unjustly behind bars as we speak.
  • One of the SCAF officials admitted to having conducted ‘virginity tests’ against a group of female protesterss in Tahrir Square. In countries without military dictatorships, that is called sexual assault…it’s a pretty big deal.
  • Media censorship has been horrendous, to say the least. Independent papers like Al Masry Al Youm and Shorouk showcase disgusting propaganda headlines on their front pages. Journalists get called in at the military prosecution‘s whim for questioning practically anything relating to SCAF. TV owners are pressured to fire their presenters for criticizing the military, just to stay out of trouble. It’s so bad, that Yosri Fouda had to resign in protest in order to bring attention to the issue. If that’s not enough, if your channel’s caught filming any of the protests with a military presence, you can be shut down, or put up with this:
  • But censorship on its own is not enough. That is why SCAF makes sure to publish communiques against the revolutionaries, or make TV announcements to turn the people against Christian protesters:
  • No matter how peaceful the protest is, as soon as the numbers grow, the army immediately uses force to break it up and detain those involved. Beating we can handle, army vehicles on the other hand…
  • No SCAF personnel in the right state of mind would transfer all of the power and authority to a civil, democratic government. There is absolutely nothing to suggest they are willing to collaborate, all to the contrary. SCAF, fully backed by the United States, has been the biggest counterrevolutionary force hindering our efforts. How on earth can we justify accepting their offer for elections once their intentions became so crystal clear?

Bread, freedom and social justice

If it’s unrealistic to believe that the revolutionary demands can be met, then it is a cracking joke to think that things can remain the way they are.
We simply cannot build a new regime when we’re nowhere near done overhauling the old one. The ‘political game’ at the voting booth is played when we’ve achieved our basic demands. Diplomacy, especially when carried out via a government that has very limited power, will never bring change. It will be basic reform at best. And I didn’t take to the streets to make some amendments here and there.
 If all we were after were free and fair elections, why did we remain at the square after Mubarak’s second speech? He had clearly indicated that he would not be running, nor would his son, and after everyone had seen the effect of taking to the streets the elections would have most probably been valid. And if it’s about taking Mubarak to court, that could’ve easily happened with our first democratic government. We remained at the square because the regime had lost all legitimacy. We remained because we wanted to take matters into our own hands and wanted no favours from anybody. We remained because we weren’t asking for much, and we weren’t going to be appeased by anything short of it. That is why the struggle continues.

 We are not in a weak position, and there’s absolutely no reason to give up and think we should hang on to whatever we can get. We took to the streets seeking bread, freedom and social justice – is this too much to ask for? Why settle for any less? What do citizens of the ‘developed’ world have that gives them the right to demand basic rights, while we scrap for whatever SCAF are kind enough to let us have?

 When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’. Assuming SCAF will transfer all power to the government is going to leave us all looking like asses. It’s naive and completely unfounded.

When will I be willing to vote?

We all want to be able to take part in proper elections. If SCAF were to do the following, I’d be the first in line to take part:

  • Release those unjustly detained and put the rest through civil prosecution
  • Bring an end to any sort of censorship imposed on the different media outlets, as well as indictment propaganda against any critical voices
  • Allow protests to take place without the use of force
  • Vow to become but another entity in a government led by an elected president and legislated by a parliament representing the people, and in no way a separate entity. This would eventually mean complete transparency. (I’d take their word for it and give them the benefit of the doubt)

If we allow SCAF to exit the spotlights before any of the above demands have been met, we would be letting them slip away and hide behind a powerless government in no way responsible for the real damage (a la Essam Sharaf now). That is absolutely unacceptable.

 Not to mention…

Just as we thought SCAF wouldn’t dare dodge free and fair elections:

  • Remaining figures from the old regime are running in districts all over the republic, with enough money and power to help them win
  • As opposed to having small constituencies that better represent the people, different areas that might not even be adjacent have been merged together to dilute political representation
  • No one has a clue where to vote, how to vote, how the lists vs independent candidates system works, or anything at all. These are probably the most confusing elections in recent history
  • No actions have been taken to assure proper monitoring, avoid rigging, protect voters from harassment, and prevent bribes and the deployment of thugs.

Weak. Very weak.

Common criticism

I’ve recently come under fire for openly opposing the participation in the upcoming elections. The following are some of those points put forward, with my answer to each one.

If you don’t vote, you will allow Feloul (remnants of the old, defeated regime) to win

This is based on the assumption that the elections are legitimate, which they’re not. It doesn’t matter what happens since SCAF will continue in its attempt to protect the status quo

If you don’t win, Islamists will gain control

First of all, unlike many around me, I don’t get the image of American-portrayed Taliban whenever the word ‘Islamists’ comes up. More importantly, I’ll save my reaction for when we have real elections where the members of parliament aren’t useless jackasses like Essam Sharaf

Boycotting marginalizes your voice. Vote to be heard

Boycotting means voicing my disagreement with the current regime and how it is running things. My voice would only be wasted if it went to a party that doesn’t stand a chance of winning against an ex-NDP who will give SCAF all the leeway necessary. Or an honourable and respectable candidate who finds himself in a completely powerless position and takes decisions equivalent to changing Egyptian timing, leaving all calls related to foreign policy in the hands of SCAF

If you boycott, you won’t make a difference. If you vote, you will

If one vote of mine is insignificant when I abstain, why does it suddenly become a deal-breaker if I were to vote? It is one vote either way, and this is how I choose to make a difference

It’s too late to boycott

It’s too soon to have elections. No one has a clue what on earth is going on anyway. I doubt anyone knows who they’re going to vote for, so it’s fine to decide to boycott now (not to mention that I had decided to boycott a couple of months ago)

You can’t have everything, let’s get what we can

This defeatist argument is completely beyond me. Why the hell did we all take to the streets, with many of us dying in the process, if we didn’t think we can go all the way? And we’re not after ‘everything’. In fact, it is extremely easy to meet the revolution’s basic demands and grant the Egyptians basic human rights. And don’t be naive enough to think that any significant change will happen from within after elections. 
What difference will it make? Just take part and don’t choose a candidate.

There’s a fine for those who abstain.

If I participate but vote blank, I would be legitimizing SCAF’s elections but voting against the candidates themselves. While I’m not exactly fond of many of those running for seats in the parliament, my main objection is with the system itself. And if I’m forced to pay a fine for abstaining, then I’ll do it: it’s a very small price to pay for doing what I believe in (now’s not the time to battle for my right to abstain)

Take part, and then join demonstrations and strikes

Who would I be demonstrating against? It doesn’t make much sense to collaborate with SCAF, vote in their elections, and then take to the streets complaining of how they’re handling matters. After elections, we will have people who are powerless, yet for some reason accountable for all of our problems. It will be their responsibility to face the music when SCAF inevitably makes the decisions that are in no way favourable towards the people

Boycotting, if not by a majority, is useless

On a personal level, I would never forgive myself for legitimizing SCAF and their fake elections, even if I were the only one to do so. Generally speaking, any voice abstained reduces the participation and gives more credit to the subsequent argument against the system.

We took to the streets seeking change, and that is our only option. The revolution continues, and justice will inevitably prevail. Y hasta la victoria siempre!

Tarek was arrested and held for several days in May by the Egyptian Army for taking part in anti-junta protests. He maintains a regularly updated blog.

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