Egyptian Elections: Choose None of The Above
By: Sarah El Sirgany
Published Thursday, May 31, 2012
An election boycott campaign against the remaining two candidates presents voters with a third option, as Egyptians refuse to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and ex-prime minister Shafik.
Cairo - A day after the results of the first round of the presidential election were announced, the ground floor of the Journalists’ Syndicate was buzzing. Unlike the arguments blaring through the capital, the crowd wasn’t concerned with comparing the two candidates that made it to the runoffs. The keyword that evening was “boycott.”
“If you are here, it means you chose to boycott. We are here to discuss suggestions on how to do so,” journalist Rasha Azab told the crowd as the final snippets of sunlight filtered through the glass panels of the syndicate lobby on Tuesday.
Stickers blazoned with the campaign’s title, “Muqateoun” (Boycotters), were passed around. It wasn’t a place to discuss the pros and cons of the boycott; it was time for action.
A day earlier, the Presidential Election Committee (PEC) declared the winners of the first round: The Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s Mohammed Mursi with 5.7 million votes, 25 percent, and ex-Air Force general Ahmed Shafik with 5.5 million, 24 percent.
Having the two most polarizing candidates as winners left voters grimacing at having to choose between an Islamist or military state. The campaign that materialized later on Tuesday aims to present a third option.
The campaign aims to attract voters who participated in the first round but were disappointed with the results, capitalizing on a budding, un-politicized call to boycott the runoffs. The activists at the campaign’s core stress that they reject the entire electoral process, although some quietly admitted that their position might not have been as strong if the results were different.
“We are not boycotting because of the candidates, but due to the electoral process as a whole,” said Mariam Kirollos, who co-organized a debate before the first round to discuss the boycott. Sitting on the steps outside the syndicate for a short break, with evident frustration and confusion, she echoed many of her colleague’s rejection of an election under military rule.
For the campaign and some of the candidates, the reported violations and irregularities heighten concerns about the integrity of the first round.
"I don't think the mistakes and errors and improprieties that we have witnessed in the last few days will have a negative impact on the runoff," former US President Jimmy Carter told reporters in Cairo last Saturday. He, however, stressed that the Carter Center report about Egypt’s election won’t be complete, because observers weren’t allowed to monitor the entire process.
It was the first time for the election monitoring group to work under such constraints in 25 years in business, he said.
Former Brotherhood member and candidate Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh was more critical on Monday. “My patriotic conscience doesn’t allow me to describe this election as integral,” he said before the results were officially announced.
It was, however, the PEC’s conference on Monday that was cited repeatedly by Muqateoun members as evidence of fraud. The committee gave little explanation for rejecting seven appeals and didn’t provide details about their nature. The PEC’s decisions are immune to court appeals.
The PEC’s earlier decision to refer to the constitutional court a law that would have barred Shafik, the last prime minister appointed by ousted president Hosni Mubarak, provided a solid argument against its neutrality. “There’s a plan to exterminate the revolution,” said activist Salma Said. “It’s enough that the military has endorsed a candidate,” she added, referring to Shafik.
The campaign discourse isn’t just about “rejecting elections under military rule, but also about questioning its integrity and against attempts to divide Egyptians along sectarian lines,” said Said. Accusations of supporting candidates based on faith — Muslims with Mursi and Copts with Shafik – have been hurled across social media.
The campaign also aims to capitalize on the recurring trend of lower turnouts in runoffs. In the third phase of the staggered People’s Assembly elections, 62 percent of voters made it to the polls. In the runoffs of the same stage only 37.1 percent showed up. The trend was almost identical in all rounds of the parliamentary elections.
The first presidential election after the uprising that toppled strongman Mubarak featured lower turnout than the parliamentary elections, 46 percent as opposed to 60. More than half of 50.9 million eligible voters either felt that none of the 13 candidates on the ballot represented them and their aspirations or that they had no stake in the process to begin with.
While the politicization of debate across the country would suggest that the uprising has quashed the apathy that dominated Egypt under Mubarak, the decreasing turnout could signal a reverse of the trend.
That’s probably why when it was time to vote on which path to take — to invalidate the votes or boycott the process — the attendees of Tuesday’s meeting chose the latter. An even lower turnout, including those uninterested, would send a stronger message, they said.
Taking the Boycott to Court
Invalidating the ballots would mean an official count of those rejecting both candidates. For a group with zero trust in the integrity of the process, they have no guarantee that the PEC would release the correct number of the invalid ballots.
Mostafa Hussein, a psychiatrist who voted in the first round for Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third, envisioned a perfect and unlikely scenario of 5 million invalid votes. “This means that whoever wins will be like the emperor with no clothes.”
Ibrahim el-Seoudy, lawyer and founder of the Lawyers for Justice movement, agreed. Invalidating ballots would send a stronger message. On Monday, he set up a Facebook page to promote his idea. He didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting and is yet to coordinate his efforts with other similar movements.
“It would be better if we could coordinate with Muqateoun; we don’t want to repeat the story of Hamdeen and Abul-Fotouh,” he said, referring to the two candidates many blame for not joining forces before the vote.
He bases the idea, which has been gaining momentum on social media, that the PEC wouldn’t rig the elections in Shafik’s favor. “If we believe otherwise then there would be no point in doing anything.”
“My problem with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis has been that in any argument they would end it saying 70 percent chose us [in parliamentary elections]. Thirty percent of invalid votes would change that,” he explained. “It will be a precedent and a slap on [the candidates’] faces.”
He insisted that lowering the turnout won’t challenge the process. The elections of the upper house of parliament saw a 6.5 percent turnout in the first stage. This didn’t affect the legitimacy of those elected, el-Seoudy said.
Without a precedent for such a move, it is difficult to measure the level of rejection, especially for lawyer Ramy Ghanem, who wants to take this attempt of de-legitimizing the process to court. The other option would be independent registration or official proxies.
A legal case challenging the legitimacy of the elections that could go to the constitutional court would only be viable if campaign participants registered their names and ID numbers on one database in significant numbers. That would be the only official approach, albeit near-impossible.
But “official” isn’t the path the boycotters aim to take. The campaign is rooted in the spirit that fueled mass protests in Egypt a year and a half ago, when street action challenged the status quo and its proclaimed legitimacy.
Like the street action, which has resumed on a small scale since the results were announced, the campaign started from individual efforts. Many of the organizers boycotted the parliamentary elections individually. Aside from a couple of debates and anti-elections banners raised in past demonstrations, there have been no coordinated efforts until last March, when “el-Mahrous” movement came to life.
The title mocks the upcoming president by playing on a popular description of Egypt, “el-Mahrousa,” (The Protected). El-Mahrous joined forces with others and on Tuesday an action plan was developed.
Following two hours of brainstorming, they split into three groups: one responsible for organizing daily rallies, another for research and media and a third for graffiti. On election days, June 16-17, the group have agreed to protest near polling stations in the morning. At 2pm they plan to head to Tahrir Square for a mass protest.
As the smaller groups fine-tuned their plans, the overall strategy was still being drawn, specifically discourse and alliances. With just two weeks left, a grassroots movement, modeled on the “Kazeboon” campaign that aimed to reveal military violations in ad-hoc street screenings, has little time to reach all the neighborhoods across the country. Alliances are crucial.
One action is to reach out to the candidates who lost, mainly Sabahi (4.8 million votes), former Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh (4 million) and labor rights lawyer Khaled Ali (134,000).
None have made any endorsements of Mursi or Shafik. Meetings between these candidates and political groups are held behind closed doors and little other than general statements about unity and commitment to Egypt is released.
In a televised interview on Tuesday night, Sabahi said he won’t choose between Mursi or Shafik. Keeping true to a promise he made to his supporters earlier this week, he didn’t tell them what to do.
Muqateoun wants a clear endorsement from these candidates. While it’s not guaranteed they would have enough influence on their supporters to steer the vote, the endorsements would balance funding and time limitations facing the campaign.
Another effort goes into convincing blocs that have been a vital part of the uprising not to vote. Here, the idealistic side of the revolution collides with the pragmatic part. Friends that stood side by side at the front-lines are now locked in a feud.
Muqateoun activists stress that both candidates are bad news, each representing a different type of repressive regime. Others, while admitting the problems with both, see a slight difference and want to keep the worst candidate out.
The Revolutionary Socialist movement, which boycotted the parliamentary elections (November 2011 - February 2012), encouraged its followers to “actively participate” to prevent the remnants of the old regime from gaining the presidency. Following the results, it reiterated its position against the “oppressive” nature of Shafik’s platform and endorsed Mursi. In return, it demanded that the MB form a coalition government headed by a non-MB member, take Abol-Fotouh and Sabahi as vice presidents, agree on a civil inclusive constitution, and adopt a labor union law the enshrines plurality.
The clear endorsement was a shock to many who expected the movement to boycott the vote. Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat announced his resignation from the movement as a result. On Tuesday, he was moderating suggestions of boycott strategies at the syndicate.