Egypt's angry political groups say they'll boycott elections

CAIRO — In a major setback on Egypt's path to democracy, dozens of the country's political parties and movements announced Thursday that they'll boycott the first parliamentary elections scheduled since former President Hosni Mubarak's government collapsed seven months ago.

Forty-three political parties, ranging from the conservative Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood to the liberal Ghad Party of one-time presidential candidate Ayman Nour, said they'd take part in the boycott.

Calling themselves the Democratic Alliance for Egypt, the parties complained that a military council decree setting the parliamentary elections for Nov. 28 would benefit members of Mubarak's now-disbanded National Democratic Party.

The parties said they'd agree to take part in the elections only if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt by decree since Mubarak resigned Feb. 11, banned members of Mubarak's party from involvement in politics for 10 years, something Egyptian political groups have been calling for since Mubarak fell.

Also drawing the parties' objections was the military council's decree that one-third of parliament's seats would be reserved for representatives without party affiliation; another provision, the parties said, that would benefit former National Democratic Party members. The parties said they'd continue the boycott unless the military council agreed that those independent members could join political parties after they assumed office.

There was no reaction from the military council, which rarely comments publicly on its actions and generally communicates its decrees through the official MENA news agency and its Facebook page.

How Egypt should select a new government has been a subject of widespread debate for months, with much of the discussion focusing on whether the timing of the elections would favor Islamist parties or the liberal groups that took the lead in toppling Mubarak with 18 days of sometimes-violent street demonstrations.

The astonishing breadth of the coalition that called for the boycott reflected how deeply Egypt's political opposition has come to distrust the country's military.

Once hailed as the protector of democratic change, the military now is widely suspected of fighting to preserve the Mubarak status quo.

There were few defenders of the elections, which the council announced late Tuesday in its 199th decree since it took power. Only Egypt's Coptic Church and its leader, Pope Shenouda III, objected to the boycott, saying that by not participating, parties "would give a chance to the Islamic current to control the elections and further isolate the Copts."

But that stand didn't persuade even Coptic politicians, who said they supported the boycott call.

The Copts for Egypt Movement defended the boycott as the only way to pressure the military council "to give an equal chance to all political currents and to protest the weak performance of the government."

Hani al Geziry, the leader of the Copts for Egypt Movement, said he feared that the government hadn't taken the necessary steps to ensure the safety of all political groups and predicted "bloody events" during the run-up to the voting, which is scheduled from Nov. 28 to Jan. 10 for seats in the lower house of parliament.

Even members of the military council's panel that drew up constitutional amendments that passed overwhelmingly in a referendum in the spring said the council had acted improperly by not decreeing a ban on political activities by former members of Mubarak's party.

"This law has been a main political demand of the January 25th revolution," said Sobhi Saleh, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood who served on the constitutional amendment panel. "Passing it would reflect the government's respect for its people."

Under the military's decree, two-thirds of parliament would be elected according to lists drawn up by political parties. At least half the seats would be reserved for farmers and members of trade unions.

The decree didn't set a date for presidential elections and didn't say when the military council would surrender its authority. Last week, the council said that Egypt's emergency law, which allows the military to prosecute civilians in military courts for a wide range of offenses, would remain in effect until June, well after parliament is expected to hold its first session March 17.

Some of the political parties continued to call for nationwide demonstrations Friday to protest the elections decree, but the Muslim Brotherhood and several parties with links to the conservative Salfist strain of Islam said they wouldn't take part.

The April 6 Youth Movement, which led the demonstrations that brought on Mubarak's resignation, threatened to "escalate" its protests if the military council didn't lift the state of emergency.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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