EGYPT's main opposition parties will boycott parliamentary elections set for Nov. 29, in a gesture that one observer here says has so far done little but ``stir up even more apathy.'' Announcing the boycott earlier this month, all major opposition groups accused the government of regularly rigging the ballot and refusing to accept safeguards necessary for free and fair elections. The government's contempt for other parties is undermining Egypt's multiparty experiment, they said.
The opposition cannot muster enough clout to force the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to heed the criticism. This highlights another feature of party politics in Egypt: The inability of most parties to develop loyal national constituencies that are also big enough to influence government policy.
``For 6,000 years,'' says a contributor to a recent opposition seminar, ``the Egyptians have looked to their pharaohs to provide good government, by which they mean water, shelter, protection, and in more recent times jobs and housing. They vote for the government, regardless of who it is, because the government is there. The opposition isn't.''
In the last elections, in April 1987, the governing NDP won about 70 percent of the vote, taking 338 seats out of a total of 448 elected places in the People's Assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood, in alliance with the Socialist Labor Party, became the largest opposition group, with 37 seats, and the Wafd Party secured 35 seats.
But the assembly was dissolved in June this year after the Constitutional Court struck down the electoral law on the grounds that it discriminated against independent candidates. Since then a new law has been issued which discards the party-list system of voting and makes all candidates run as independents.
Opposition parties argue, however, that this new law fails to provide for constitutionally-required judicial supervision of the polls, up-to-date electoral rolls, or for voters to produce identity cards and either sign or mark their names by fingerprint. In the absence of such constraints, the opposition alleges, poll officials stuff the ballot boxes with voting papers showing both an inflated turnout and a large measure of support for the NDP.
Despite claims to the contrary in pro-government newspapers, the boycott is being observed, many analysts say.
With the opposition parties staying away, however, national issues risk being pushed aside by more parochial ones brought up by independent candidates.
``The boycott means that there won't be national campaigns because most of the independents are thinking only of their own areas. So, there isn't as much interest [among the electorate] this time,'' says journalist Lamis Hadidi.
But perhaps there never was much popular interest in elections. ``You ask me about the opposition boycott, but the ordinary people have been boycotting parliamentary elections for years,'' says Adel Hussein, editor of Al Shaab, the Labor Party newspaper. ``Just look at the real turnout, not the figures produced by the Interior Ministry computer.''
His point is taken up by political analyst Mustafa Kamil al-Sayyid: ``Voter turnout rates in the towns are not more than 20 to 30 percent, and in rural areas are much less. Anything more is simply not credible.''
While many opposition figures complain that the People's Assembly lacks authority, they do not altogether scorn it as an arena in which to play a national role.
``It is important for President Mubarak to hold elections now - not just because he wants to be seen observing the constitutional proprieties,'' says Dr. Sayyid, ``but because he wants to show that, despite the Gulf crisis, Egypt is a bedrock of political stability.''
Political observers have criticized the boycott as a lost opportunity.
``It was not a sensible decision,'' says Sayyid. ``They should have taken their objections straight to the electorate.''
This is a particular dilemma for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is organized nationally and is seen by many observers as the most serious opposition group with which the state is now in contention to set the national political agenda. Many Muslim Brothers say they wanted to fight the elections believing that they could have done well, despite the best efforts of the electoral authorities.
That said, along the whole spectrum of opposition politics there is a growing sense that President Hosni Mubarak has lost his commitment to democratic politics and is using the multiparty system to cloak policy in a spurious legitimacy.
``The president looks at Eastern Europe, Algeria, and Jordan and wonders how he can stop it happening here,'' says a leading Muslim Brother, referring to Jordan's open parliamentary elections this year that allowed many Muslim opposition members to win seats. ``We look at these same things and ask: Why not here?''
Many analysts say, however, that the anti-government parties are no more committed to open democracy than government. Nor do they have the finances or organization skills to fight regular elections and to operate as modern parties.
If this is the case and, as many observers worry, an economic crisis in the near future forces Egypt to accept radical austerity, neither government nor opposition may have sufficient political resources to be able to maintain social stability.