Opposition calls for boycott of elections in Egypt

Muslim Brotherhood leadership says it will decide next week on whether to participate in parliamentary poll.

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CAIRO // Twenty current and former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political opposition group, have released a statement urging the organisation's leadership to boycott parliamentary elections next month.

The petition adds to the continuing confusion surrounding the Brotherhood's position on a nation-wide vote that many Egyptians expect will be rigged by the ruling party. Last month, senior members of the Brotherhood told reporters that the organisation planned to field more than 150 candidates in the parliamentary poll.

Members of the organisation's leadership have since stated that the Guidance Bureau, the group's executive office, and its Shura Council, a deliberative body, will make a final decision on participation in the coming weeks. But Tuesday's statement represents a very public departure from the Brotherhood's characteristically unified voice.

While the officially outlawed opposition group of ten quietly manages discord within its ranks, the decision by some members to release an independent, dissenting policy position to the media speaks to the increasing openness within Egypt's most powerful political opposition force.

"It's not new, but it is the first time to see it in relation to the elections," said Amr Hamzawy, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

"To put out a statement which contradicts the movement's line confirms the developments we have been seeing in the last two or three years inside the [Brotherhood] movement: there is dissent, there are conflicts and people get conflicts and conflicting views and opinions to the public space."

Not always, however, with the blessing of the Brotherhood's orthodoxy. Hamdy Hassan, a member of the group's parliamentary bloc in the People's Assembly, said the signatories should have privately pushed their position through the group's established channels of power. "I don't know why these people decided to go public. We're not used to that, this is new for us," said Mr Hassan, who added that the petition's signatories may have reached out to the media because they were already "frozen", or marginalised, within the Brotherhood.

"If there are 10 people who support the boycott, there are a thousand respectable members who are with the elections. They should not have gone to the media without discussing it with us," Mr Hassan said. For his part, Mr Hassan said he supports recent statements by senior Brotherhood members to participate despite fears of government manipulation. Fielding candidates in the November vote will actually force the government to expose its own electoral meddling when it finally releases its nakedly fraudulent results, said Mr Hassan.

"The common people have decided long ago not to participate in the elections. This is a sickness, a bad sickness, and the only way to cure it is to participate and to show how this corruption has taken control of the government," he said. "It's the only way to reveal the lack of integrity in the elections instead of not participating and giving the government the chance to run them and make whoever they want win."

Mr Hassan's views run counter to those of the Brotherhood's recent - and some say unlikely - political partner. Brotherhood members have spent the summer working alongside supporters of Mohammed ElBaradei, a presidential hopeful and the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to gather signatures for Mr ElBaradei's petition to amend the constitution in favour of democratic reforms. Early last month, Mr ElBaradei, a political independent who has enjoyed surprising levels of popular support since he returned to Cairo from Vienna in February, urged the country's ideologically fractured political opposition parties to boycott the People's Assembly polls.

So far, few of the established parties have heeded Mr ElBaradei's call, preferring instead to compete in elections that many observers say will be decided on the ruling party's terms. But with one fifth of the seats in parliament, the Brotherhood has far more to lose from a boycott than any other opposition group. Yet that is precisely why a Brotherhood boycott would make such a strong statement, say supporters of withdrawing from the vote.

"You free Egypt by boycotting parliament, and the whole world will understand that there are no free elections," said Kamal el Helbawy, a former Muslim Brotherhood representative in Europe who spoke from London by telephone on Wednesday. Mr El Helbawy rejected Mr Hassan's accusation that the signatories were all marginalised members of the organisation. Instead, he and the statement's other signatories urged the Brotherhood's leadership to put the interests of the Egyptian people ahead of those of the organisation itself.

"Entering this election could result in gaining a few small goals but missing the big goal," read the statement, which also referred to the election as a "charade". "Participating in these elections would be like putting a knife to the necks of the people who are looking for change."