The intellect of political boycotts in the Arab world

Abdel Monem Said

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Would you choose to participate or boycott a political process relevant to general elections in an Arab country or relevant to a party whose interests do not match yours? This question is always on the table for discussions. It is also the topic of many television talk shows because its answers are either black or white.

The common belief that participation grants legitimacy to a party or a cause or processes is not procedural on its own and it is also not a policy that falls within the context of alternatives, possibilities and impossibilities.

Balance of powers

Boycotting however is different because little notability is displayed by the legitimacy grantor who prevented a party or a cause from being represented. But boycotting implies there is a fake belief that there are no other alternatives and that the status quo will not change and if it ever improves, it will do so by taking the path the boycotting party wants. When decisions to participate or boycott are made, the balance of powers among the participating parties and what each is capable of are not taken into consideration. Even when they are taken into consideration, the capabilities of the opposing parties are underestimated and the belief that the people will support the party making decisions reigns.

Reality however is more complicated. For example, the Arab decision to boycott Israel was based on an influential economic power that can pressure the East, the West and of course Israel to eventually have all of the latter submit to the Arab will. But the result the Arabs aspired was not achieved. The Israeli loss was possible from the Israeli side, and the latter had the opportunity to launch a campaign opposing Arabs in all international arenas.

During the 90's, an inconsiderable movement in the Arab world was established calling for reviewing this boycott decision. This call was suitable in the world, the region and even in Israel to the extent that achieving a two state solution was near. But a group that does not represent a Palestinian majority objected because it believed that such a move would grant legitimacy to the Zionist scheme that can only be confronted by armed struggle and boycotting.

Participation and engagement thus fell and the supporters of boycotting won and got their armed uprising. All forms of dialogue ended. But the end was tragic because of the expanded settlements and the real occupation that the Israelis do not pay for neither financially nor politically.

‘Arab initiative’

The Palestinians were divided whether they were outside Palestine or whether they were all together behind the walls of siege. As the attempt to reconsider boycotting ended and as the uprising reached a bloody dead end, the "Arab initiative" deal was not enough to address the situation so the situation turned the other way around and thus Israel became the party boycotting.

Discussing the concept of boycotting and participating is now part of Egyptian politics. The question is will the opposition participate or boycott? Although all features have been revealed, no one knows if the balance of political powers was taken into consideration. But everyone knows a lot about the kind of legitimacy that will be granted if participation takes place.

The strange part is that no one wants to study the very same experience that occurred in the past when Egyptian parties boycotted the parliamentary elections in 1990. The result back then was that the national party filled the vacuum without opposition of any kind. No one heard of the opposition again until national dialogue in 1994. This was enough for the opposition to participate in elections. But it almost gained nothing to the point that no one even remembers who was present and who was not. Only the Muslim Brotherhood learnt the lesson and participated in all elections either gaining a little or a lot. The brotherhood's task of being politically present and of creating alternatives for citizens did not change. The time has come for power to be in its hand and to do what others did before it.
Truth is the issue of alleged legitimacy never worried anyone who possesses authority or power or who can whenever he wants convey this legitimacy as legal or as political.

The intellect of boycott has a huge tendency to deny reality. With denial comes another problem which is placing unspecified goals with unspecified capabilities. Amid the objective gap between both, there are noble slogans that are practically empty. Most probably, the lack of capabilities is compensated by making abstract expressions about "the people" and "the masses" who may support the other party like what happened in many elections and referendums or who may take their own special path which is distant from all parties and they end up living in a state of chaos or in a state of self-destruction that may drag the entire country towards the abyss.

Exaggerated beliefs in Egypt

The Egyptian opposition's common belief for example is that few tents at Tahrir Square are in essence part "of the ongoing revolution" that toppled a regime before and that can topple another. This belief contains a lot of exaggeration and sometimes absurdity when what is happening in Tahrir applies to what is happening in Port Said and Sinai. "The masses" in all cases have their own logic that cannot only be manipulated by parties that have interests similar to the opposition's but that can also be manipulated by extremist groups or individuals. For example, I do not think that the Western "Harlem Shake" performed in front of the Brotherhood's headquarters in Mokattam is part of the political movement seeking to build a liberal democratic society in Egypt.

What is strange is that those stirring the issue of participation and boycotting lose the case the minute they bring this issue up because the political logic makes participation an axiom. The case would have been different if it was linked to monitoring, supervision and the elections' integrity, and the opposing party with the permanent ability to win elections would be the one shifting to a state defending its ability to prevent tampering with results. At this point, there are many questions regarding the regime's competency. The masses do not overlook a regime that forges elections. They also do not overlook a regime if it does not have the competency and the ability to protect the country from aggression, division, poverty and that does not run the state's affairs. Participating and boycotting are part of political games but a party that misses a game never wins anyway.

This article first appeared in Asharq al-Awsat on March 6, 2013

(Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.)

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