CAIRO (AP) — A coalition of eight Egyptian opposition parties and some 150 pro-democracy public figures called on voters Tuesday to boycott the March presidential election, saying it amounts to an "absurdity bordering on madness" and arguing that the handling of the vote by authorities resembled "old and crude dictatorships."
The incumbent, general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is virtually certain to win a second, four-year term in the March 26-28 vote, sweeping aside a face-saving, would-be candidate whose last-minute participation spared the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election yet drew a torrent of criticism and mockery on social media.
The call for a boycott by the Civilian Democratic Movement came just days after five opposition figures, including a 2012 presidential candidate and two top campaign aides for now-arrested presidential hopeful Sami Annan, called on voters to stay away from ballot boxes and on Egyptians not to recognize the vote's outcome.
The ideology of the eight parties is rooted in the 2011 uprising that toppled the 29-year regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They also supported the massive June 2013 protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, which paved the way for the military's ouster of him the following month. Now, they and others are sidelined by el-Sissi, who has in the last four years been focused on containing an insurgency by Islamic militants and reviving a battered economy, while overseeing one of the largest crackdowns against dissent in the country's living memory.
The parties have limited support on the ground, in large part due to restrictions on their activities placed by security agencies. Their call for a boycott, however, carries symbolic significance and could invite protest votes by the many Egyptians victimized by the soaring prices caused by el-Sissi's ambitious economic reforms or encourage voters to stay home, an easy option given that the incumbent is certain to retain his job until 2022.
The parties said their young members came up with the slogan "stay home" for their boycott campaign. Speakers for the parties did not say what they intend to do to make their call for a boycott effective, but they are helped by the country's track record of extremely low turnout for referendums or elections whose outcome is a foregone conclusion. El-Sissi, for his part, has in recent weeks repeatedly urged Egypt's estimated 60 million registered voters to cast their ballots, suggesting that he needed a high turnout to accord his election credibility.
After a string of would-be challengers were arrested, forced out or quit the race, the prospect of a one-candidate election had cast a dark cloud on the election, something that el-Sissi's campaign said the president should not be blamed for.
Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little known politician and a staunch supporter of el-Sissi, submitted his documents to be a would-be candidate Monday, just minutes before the election commission's deadline. Moussa is the leader of the Ghad, or Tomorrow, party, which does not have a single seat in parliament.
Many Egyptians saw his attempts to portray himself as a genuine rival to el-Sissi as a hard sell. He told a news conference Monday night that he did not intend to be a "prop" in the election and that his participation was not a "courtesy." He said his party had decided weeks ago to field a candidate, but changed its mind when former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq declared his intention to run. "What could we do when two peaks like el-Sissi and Shafiq are fighting it out," he said. The party went back and decided to contest the election when Shafiq dropped out, he claimed.
Moussa was until just days ago a staunch supporter of el-Sissi'e re-election, repeatedly stating that the president's track record qualifies him to be at the helm for four more years. "It is not right for us to surrender to what has become an absurdity bordering on madness," Abdel-Geleel Mustafa, a veteran opposition figure, told a news conference at one of the parties' headquarters in Cairo.
Hamdeen Sabahy, who finished a distant second behind el-Sissi in the 2014 election, called on other pro-democracy groups to join the coalition. "Come and let us stand together. This is a moment when the people will make their say known and, God willing, the say of the people will prevail," he told the news conference.