CAIRO - Egyptian human rights activist and visual artist Aalam Wassef’s latest YouTube video (below) depicts a soldier standing next to a ballot box. With every ballot put into the box, the soldier grows bigger; but in the euphoria of voting, no one notices - until finally they do, but it is too late. The soldier crushes the people with his massive boot, then a logo pops onto the screen: “Boycott the Elections.”
Egypt’s presidential runoff election, slated for June 16-17, pits Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi against former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in what many pro-revolutionary liberals, leftists, and secularists consider a lose-lose scenario. They fear Morsi will impose an Islamic state and strip Egyptians of their personal rights, and that Shafiq, who has not hidden his admiration for the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, will spearhead a return to the old regime.
Aalam Wassef’s YouTube video:
But boycotters are disillusioned with more than just the lackluster list of candidates. A growing number of Egyptians believe that the elections mark not an important milestone but rather the latest stumbling block in what they call Egypt’s mismanaged and undemocratic transition.
They cite the lack of a permanent constitution outlining the president’s powers and methods for holding him accountable, an elections commission lacking transparency and accountability, and a climate in which the military’s control of state institutions and the media allows it to manipulate the elections in order to preserve its own political and economic interests.
And so, not wanting their vote to lend legitimacy to either the candidates or to the transition process at large, a growing number of Egyptians are looking to a “third option”.
The boycott campaign calls on voters to avoid the ballot box on June 16-17, although organizers emphasize they do not want Egyptians to simply stay home on election day. Rather, they are encouraged to go out into the country’s streets and fill its squares in protest.
Another initiative called ‘Vote Invalidators’ aims to go above and beyond a traditional boycott by having voters go to the polls to submit invalid, or “white” ballots. Videos and posters circulated by the campaign show voters how to invalidate their ballots by marking the box next to both candidates’ names, then writing “null and void,” “the revolution continues,” or a similar phrase in order to confirm the voter’s intent to spoil his or her ballot.
At a news conference sponsored by the ‘Vote Invalidators’ campaign, organizer Mohamed Ghoneim said that the main difference between the two initiatives is the level of agency involved in each act of protest.
“It is difficult to differentiate between those boycotting in protest of the elections and those who are simply staying at home,” he said. Their intentions may be further masked by the fact that runoff elections typically see a reduced turnout. Only 46 percent of registered voters participated in the first round; that number is expected to be much lower in the second round.
However, because the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission will announce in its final count how many invalid votes were cast, “[Invalidating your vote] is a clear way of saying, ‘I don’t agree with either of these choices,’” said Ghoneim.
Several attendees at a ‘Vote Invalidators’ news conference on Sunday said they had boycotted the first round of elections, but now wanted to take the extra step of going to the polls to invalidate their ballots. Others voted in the first round but were disappointed that their candidate of choice did not do well; now, they are determined to vocalize their opposition to the elections in the second round.
Although boycott campaigns existed under Mubarak and during the various polls since his ouster, they had limited success. In order to broaden their base of support, organizers have come up with innovative strategies to latch onto grassroots organizations, presidential campaigns, and political parties in order to capitalize on their well-established field organizing.
“We’re not just sitting in rooms, talking to each other,” said Ghoneim. “We’re going out into the streets to convince people.”
Partners include the National Association for Change, a large pro-democracy coalition founded by former presidential candidate Mohamed el-Baradei, and the Military Are Liars campaign, which hosts screenings of military abuses around the country in an effort to counter what they consider to be state propaganda.
It is also taking advantage of the ground organizing of several presidential campaign machines, including those of the third- and fourth-place candidates, the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Although Sabbahi’s Karama Party supports the boycott, Abouel Fotouh himself pledged support for Morsi.
The campaigns have also set up a hotline to which voters can send text messages reporting whether they have boycotted or invalidated their vote, and the name of the governorate in which they are registered to vote. The resulting database could be used in a future legal challenge of the election’s legitimacy, Ghoneim said.
Limits of the boycott
Despite activists’ innovative tactics and growing ground campaign, many Egyptians remain unconvinced.
Khaled, a taxi driver, voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi in the first round. He does not like Shafiq or Morsi; he believes the former is no better than Mubarak and that the latter is too conservative for Egyptian society. But asked whether he plans to boycott the runoff, he said no. “It is our responsibility to choose,” he said.
Others repeated this logic. Mahmoud, who works at a café near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, also doesn’t like the two choices in the runoffs. “I voted for Moussa the first time,” he said, referring to the former head of the Arab League who took just 10 percent of the vote in the first round. But he is not boycotting either. “There are two faces on the ballot. We have to choose one of them.” So for his part, Mahmoud is voting Shafiq - a man he says has good political experience that will serve Egypt well domestically and internationally.
Although displeased with the runoff choices, many Egyptians do not see an alternative to the election. Some have proposed that instead of holding the runoff, an interim presidential council should be established to manage the country’s affairs. But detractors say these calls are too little, too late.
The difficulty of convincing large swathes of the Egyptian public to boycott is highlighted by the persistence of divisions among activists over the best route to take.
A prominent example is that of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of Egypt’s most well known pro-democracy movements. Recently, it declared its support for Morsi; but just recently, an April 6 breakaway group called the Democratic Front declared its support for a boycott. Some accused Ahmed Maher, the leader of the original April 6 group, of supporting Morsi in return for a seat on the 100-member constituent assembly tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution. Others attributed the division to the classic failure of liberals to unify.
However, these divisions bring up important questions about the limits of compromise - when it is it best to play politics, and when it is best to reject the game outright.
House of cards
It is difficult to predict how many will boycott or invalidate their votes until election day. Ghoneim predicts a wild range of anywhere from one to ten million people.
Dr. Amr Hashem Rabee, a researcher with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, doubts that the number of boycotters and vote invalidators will be significant, but says that even if they are, it is unlikely that the election results would be nullified.
But Ghoneim argues that the strength of the vote invalidation campaign is that high invalidation rates would prevent the new president, whoever he may be, from claiming a strong electoral mandate. “Say the number of invalid votes is close to the number of votes for the wining candidate; that would be an indication of the strong opposition awaiting him when he takes office,” he said at the news conference.
In the meantime, ‘Vote Invalidators’ organizer Ghada Shahbander cautioned that “[the elections] are a house of cards that might collapse.”
After the two controversial Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) rulings, it seems her prediction is coming true. The SCC decided that the notorious Isolation Law, which was meant to ban high-level members of the Mubarak regime from public office, is unconstitutional. Thus, Shafiq—who many hoped would be disqualified - will still compete in the runoff election.
The SCC also ruled that the law governing last November’s parliamentary elections is unconstitutional, which means that parliament will be dissolved. By extension, the recently formed Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution, will also be dissolved. These developments, many observers believe, pave the way for the ruling military council to take over parliament’s powers and the constitution-writing process - evoking Aalam Wassef’s YouTube video in which the military boot stomps out any semblance of a democratic process.
Hossam Baghat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, is thought to have summed up the sentiments of many in his tweet: “Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup. We'd be outraged if we weren't so exhausted.”