In Egypt, the opposition is calling for a boycott of this month’s election. Will it work?

Volunteers help voters identify their polling stations in 2015 during the final day of the first round of parliamentary elections in Fayoum, Egypt. (Eman Helal/AP)
Volunteers help voters identify their polling stations in 2015 during the final day of the first round of parliamentary elections in Fayoum, Egypt. (Eman Helal/AP)

Later this month, Egyptians will go to the polls to reelect Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to his second term as president. An all too familiar scenario is playing out: Sissi is the only viable candidate. His sole challenger, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, is the head of a party that had endorsed Sissi before entering its own candidate at the last minute. Other potential challengers were threatened, intimidated or arrested into withdrawing.

The regime’s harassment and deterrence of potential opposition candidates do not always lead to calls for boycotting. This time, however, 150 opposition figures and seven political parties came together to denounce the elections as a farce and call for a boycott of the upcoming polls.

As with most boycott campaigns, the opposition’s decision has roused its share of detractors who dismiss the strategy as ineffective and even a threat to Egypt’s security. The situation in Egypt raises a critical question: Do boycotts work?

Do boycotts work?

Election boycotts stem from a wide range of factors, including — in the case of authoritarian states like Egypt — unfair electoral processes, bargaining failure and opposition perceptions of the regime’s stability and strength. Some boycotts achieve reforms, some are ignored, and some inspire post-election protests that may or may not leave the existing regime in place.

Figuring out when boycotts will and won’t work is not a straightforward task. In many cases, boycotters themselves vary in their demands and their perceptions of what success looks like.

Some regard depressed turnout as a sign that a boycott worked. Low turnout can challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process and in some cases can undermine the incumbent’s popular support. But neither may matter to the regime in power.

Boycotts that seek a particular outcome are easier to evaluate: Either they effect the desired change, or they don’t. The 2014 boycott of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, which protested unfair districting, did not achieve its goal and can thus be regarded as a failed effort.

In some cases, boycotts — or even just threats to boycott — can lead to change, as in Yemen in 2009 and Iraq in 2005. But change does not necessarily mean democratic reform. In fact, Emily Beaulieu finds that boycotts can lead to increased authoritarianism in some cases and democratic electoral reforms in others.

International pressure can have mixed results

Success can also mean drawing international attention and pressure on the regime to reform. But this also does not necessarily make for a successful boycott. Foreign actors can place pressure on regimes to enact democratic reforms, but international pressure cannot guarantee that an incumbent will respect new laws or prevent reneging.

In some cases, international support (or the absence of international pressure) can insulate regimes from the pressures of boycotts. This has been true of a number of election boycotts across the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. After Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential elections in 2005, George W. Bush lent legitimacy to the election by congratulating Hosni Mubarak on his victory.

It’s helpful to appreciate boycotts for what they are: electoral protests. In the run-up to an election, the decision to boycott and the expected outcomes of this protest are driven by the opposition’s belief in regime stability and the possibilities for reform at that particular moment in time. But even boycotts that seem promising prior to an election in the end may lead to nothing. Of course, if the opposition could know beforehand with certainty which strategies will work and which won’t, perhaps we wouldn’t observe so many failed boycotts.

The prospects in Egypt

On the one hand, the regime has gone so far as to charge some within the boycotting Civil Democratic Movement with “inciting to overthrow the regime.” Sissi was “visibly furious” and threatened strong action against boycotters, warning, “What happened seven or eight years ago will not happen again in Egypt.”

In contrast, support for Sissi appears strong. He has the backing of some 508 out of Egypt’s 596 members of parliament. On the international stage, Egypt’s foreign allies have said little about the upcoming elections, despite continued criticism from human rights groups. On his recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized the Trump administration’s strong support for Egypt and a “transparent and credible electoral process” and did not directly address the regime’s repressive tactics toward potential challengers.

Even still, the boycott campaign is urging voters to stay home and “participate in the rejection of the elections.” Sissi, meanwhile, has called on all citizens to vote and “choose whoever you want.” Also in response to the boycott, another group of parties, including the New Wafd Party, is expected to launch a campaign to mobilize voters to turn out.

While low turnout is not a new problem — or even a problem at all; it was officially reported at 23 percent in 2005 when Mubarak strolled to victory — the actions of the regime suggest at least some are worrying about the boycott’s potential effect. Lower than expected turnout raised doubts about Sissi’s popularity and threatened to undermine his legitimacy narrative in 2014, too.

Empty polling places and low turnout during the 2014 elections alarmed the government enough to extend the voting hours and the polling period to a third day and to declare a holiday for public and private employees.

Without even a semblance of competition, the March polls can hardly be considered a legitimate referendum on Sissi’s popularity. Together with the possibility of low turnout, whether because of the boycott or anger over harsh economic conditions, the elections could prove to be a flash point.

Pyrrhic Dilemma

A political cartoon published recently in an Egyptian newspaper expresses how boycotts are often perceived. In it, a man stands on a path that leads to two identical doors. One direction is the path of political participation, the other, boycott. The cartoon calls attention to the dilemma that opposition parties often face; namely that it is difficult to determine whether a boycott will pay off or leave the opposition even worse off. The potential effect of a boycott in Egypt is yet to be determined. Ultimately, the real test will begin the day after the election.

Gail Buttorff is a visiting assistant professor at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston and a contributing expert for the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

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