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Why Uganda's Besigye failed to deliver Egypt-style protests after election defeat

Uganda's top opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, had hinted that the Ugandan people would rise up against 25-year President Yoweri Museveni after his latest disputed electoral win, but voters just shrugged.

By Max DelanyCorrespondent / February 22, 2011

A supporter of opposition leader Kizza Besigye displays his poster during a protest in the city of Kampala, Uganda, on Feb. 20.

Parisa Azadi/AP

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Kampala, Uganda

He had more than 43,800 hours to prepare for the all-important post-election press conference, but in the end Uganda’s main opposition leader Kizza Besigye fluffed his lines.

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On Sunday – just as Ugandans were waiting for the country’s electoral commission to announce the official results of the country’s presidential polls – Mr. Besigye faced the local and international media.

The results were already clear. With around 90 percent of the polling stations counted, veteran incumbent President Yoweri Museveni had nearly 70 percent of the votes. Now the focus was on the opposition to see how it reacted.

The elections were a “sham,” Besigye said. Bribery, vote-rigging, and intimidation were ubiquitous and he “rejected” the results. “We are not willing to put up with an illegitimate president,” he said.

So, what was he going to do about it? Call for street protests? Civil disobedience? Revolution?

Not quite. For the time being, Besigye said, he is still considering his options.

The only problem is that Besigye has had five years to consider his options. Ever since he lost to Mr. Museveni in the last disputed presidential election in 2006, he has predicted the fact that Museveni would fix last Friday’s polls.

After failing to get the results of the previous two elections overturned in court, he ruled out going the legal route this time. Uganda was ripe for an Egypt-style uprising against a decaying, autocratic leader who had been in power for 25 years, Besigye said.

So why did he let the moment slip? Even opposition activists admitted that there was only a very “finite window” of opportunity for Besigye to try and harness any public resentment Museveni’s victory might stir.

In the short-term, the failure of a much-hyped opposition plan to tally its own results had deflated Besigye. The government had disrupted the opposition's text messaging system to collect votes for a parallel count and arrested hundreds of opposition agents in the field, Besigye's supporters said. Still, it didn't seem like the opposition tried too hard to come up with a plan B.

But more profoundly, it seemed Besigye didn’t really believe his own claims that he could spark a revolution. After losing out twice to Museveni – whose personal physician and loyal ally he once was – this third attempt seems to have shattered him.

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