In August 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War when the United States was embroiled in a deep and lengthy conflict, a young fighter with considerable renown and popularity across the world became persona non grata for refusing to take part in his “national duty” and go to the front lines. Muhammad Ali was a rising star in the boxing world when the draft called him to join the troops in Southeast Asia, but he broke with protocol when he declared that war is against the teaching of the Quran, and put himself on a legal and moral collision course with the state and the public. In doing so, he joined the ranks of a growing number of young men and women who took a stance against the war. In a state where their refrain was deemed illegal, they were publicly known as conscientious objectors. The term itself is ironic since it suggests one is just, upright, honest, faithful and devoted while standing trial for violation of the law.
Muhammad Ali was eventually absolved of wrongdoing and acquitted. He would also live to see his decision vindicated not just from a personal standpoint but from a collective national one as the country went through a re-historicization of the conflict in Vietnam.
Today, the Egyptian electorate faces a struggle not unlike that of the young boxer. With the majority not falling into the categories of Muslim Brotherhood supporters or former regime sympathizers, choosing between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsy in the second round has turned into a moral minefield. The unflattering choice of a complete monopoly by the Brotherhood of all but one branch of government versus the reconstitution of Hosni Mubarak’s old guard have catapulted a third and increasingly popular third option onto the scene — the boycott option.
Not unlike conscientious objectors, the boycott camp has been subjected to perhaps the most vicious attack from both sides of the election spectrum as they are described in the same vernacular as those who reneged on the military draft. As is the case with all election boycott campaigns, observers are always met with fervent accusatory defamation, from claims of disloyalty and lack of patriotism to “dishonoring one’s country." In the case of revolutionary Egypt, intentionally not voting or voiding one’s vote is seen at best as a deplorable act akin to leading the country into a dark abyss, and at worst desecrating the memory of the revolution’s martyrs.
Not seeing one’s candidate in the run-off is rarely justifiable grounds for a boycott. And in the case of the run-off between Shafiq and Morsy, this isn’t the thrust of the argument for Egypt’s boycotters. Instead it is a deep-seated conviction that the anomaly is not in the choices but in the structure of the system. What was built on a mistake can only be erroneous. In the end, this is an election devoid of legal legitimacy from conception to execution. Nevertheless, the Egyptian electorate has been forced to sleepwalk their way through the voting process as if walking the plank toward outcomes already vetted by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In the end, despite the likelihood of displeasure with the election outcome, we should not expect that either Shafiq or Morsy would create a cataclysmic change in the way politics in Egypt will function. The fear, concern, worry and absolute paranoia are palpable. Suspicions that Shafiq will prove to be a more diabolical dictator than his predecessor and use violence gratuitously or that Morsy will turn Egypt into Afghanistan are quite ungrounded. Both candidates are more likely to pragmatically oppose the continuation of revolutionary action and support a status quo that affirms stability at all costs.
For all intents and purposes, the election boycott doesn’t need a campaign to gather support. Egyptians have already been observing it. From the constitutional referendum vote in March 2011 until the presidential election in June 2012, the voter turnout across the country has steadily dropped despite the greater visibility of the campaigns and the rising stakes. Although the boycott in Egypt won’t achieve remarkable success, such as Jamaica’s in 1983 when the voter turnout was a laughable 2.7 percent (which kept the incumbent party in power for several years), elections under military rule have already lost their stamina.
We must come to terms with a new reality: that revolutionary Egypt is simply ungovernable. The country is no longer what Mubarak touted as a “nation of institutions.” With institutional failure came self-government — Egyptians often say “al-balad mashya belbaraka” (blessings are what keep the country going). The state has choked on both its own incompetence and the revolution, and Egyptians have taken it upon themselves to reconstitute their own state outside of power. The best example of this is that the seven-month disappearance of the police force in Egypt did not result in a complete collapse of the public order. Whether Egyptians go to the polls or avoid them in these days is not a testament to their enthrallment with the process or their faith in the system, but rather a performance that fails to hide their displeasure with those they elect. Now that the SCAF has effectively repossessed the reigns of legislative power in the country, the last nail has been hammered into the coffin of any electoral legitimacy under the junta. A word of advice for Egypt’s next “elected” president: Whether or not we dip our fingers in the dye today, we are all conscientious objectors.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University