Arab political thinking seems to always turn to “boycott” as though it were a constructive concept that can resolves things in our favour because it supposedly pulls the rug out from beneath our opponents or those standing in the way of our interests. The “rug”, here, is “legitimacy”. Illegitimate groups think they hold the key to it if they do the rug-pulling in order to turn the tables in their favour.
The concept was displayed in its full glory when groups from the Egyptian opposition gathered together to declare a boycott against the Egyptian presidential elections. It is their way of protesting what they claim to be restrictions on the electoral process. They called on the Egyptian people to follow suit and not to turn out on voting day.
The boycotting groups appear to have only just awakened to the reality of the forthcoming elections, even though it has been common knowledge for three years that they would be held this spring since the constitutionally stipulated presidential term is four years, after which an incumbent president may run again for only one more term.
Nor was it some surprise that the electoral commission would meet before the end of the president’s term or that President Al-Sisi would field himself for a second term, armed with his popularity, dozens of achievements under his belt and an honourable record of action in defence of Egypt and its national interests.
Interestingly, none of these groups had a candidate of its own and even when they formed a coalition to rally behind a single candidate — Khaled Ali — their advise and pressure had been pushing towards boycott from the word go. More curious yet, these groups, which hail from various shades of Nasserism and Marxism, have recently adopted a liberal rhetoric. They all support freedom, human rights and the democratic process.
But, apparently not with everything that comes with these concepts, such as reaching out to, getting to know and including the people in whose name they claim to speak. This explains why these parties won only a scant amount of votes in the legislative elections, which some of them had boycotted as well. When Khaled Ali ran for president in 2012, he won only 114,000 votes out of the 54 million that were cast. When Hamdin Sabbahi ran against Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, he won only 750,000 out of the 56 million votes cast, less than the number of invalidated ballots.
Still, there are ways that the boycotters benefit from boycotting. It is a way to avoid having to stand up to the true test of public opinion. Also, in a country where the historical trend in society has been to refrain from going to the polls, the boycotters can claim — falsely — that their boycott had grassroots support.
The problem, however, is that boycotting harms the electoral process which, in order to flourish, requires an accumulation of electoral experience over time during which participation and voting become an ingrained custom in society. Worse yet, boycotting creates a vacuum that extremist groups rush to fill, using it to promote themselves and for recruitment purposes. In the end, therefore, no one wins except fascist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the process of developing and refining the institutions necessary for building democracy reaches a dead end.
What is amazing is that those liberals, through their boycott, have fallen into the lap of the Muslim Brotherhood in an implicit or even open alliance, as has occurred in previous occasions. Not surprisingly, in this case, the word “terrorism” is never uttered by the boycotters.
For a long time, the same notion has governed Arab thinking on the Palestinian cause and how to deal with Israel. Sometimes it takes the form of a campaign to boycott the US and US goods and products. Frequently we have seen it at work in international forums where Arab delegations would stage a walkout the moment the Israeli delegation appeared in a given session.
The effect was to give the Israelis all the space and time they needed to advance their ideas and arguments. Even after some Arab states signed peace treaties with Israel, leading the latter to withdraw from occupied territories in those states, the tactic shifted to boycotting normalisation. Not only has this never succeeded in liberating land or in regaining rights, it put the Arab minority in Israel under additional pressure and it augmented to the ability of the Israeli propaganda machine to deflect attention from its settlement expansion activities, which rapidly increased in pace and scope.
In a way, boycott stopped being one of the weapons of the struggle against Israel when it became an end in and of itself and a means to intellectually and materially terrorise others.
Only once did the Arab use of the boycott rest on an autonomous strength that ensured that the action affected the party that the Arabs wanted to pressure and influence. This was when the Arab oil producing states, led by Saudi Arabia, cut off oil supplies to the countries that supported Israel, especially the US and The Netherlands. The oil boycott during the October 1973 War was not a haphazard gambit. It was a strategy adopted in order to support a clear political position that, in turn, was grounded in military strength. The Arab oil boycott did not harm the Arabs or even the oil consuming countries.
Through the monthly five per cent reduction in oil production, the Arabs regained the right to set oil prices. As a result, prices quadrupled from around $3 per barrel to $12. The boycott made sense and had an effect because it took into account balances of power and because it was not randomly universalised — special policies were adopted for poor countries. More generally, it was not inspired by some thirst for revenge or an urge to vent rancour. It was a rational policy that aimed to restore Arab political rights.
The boycotters of Egyptian elections, as is the case of the boycotters of normalisation, do not have a strategy to attain certain political ends. Nor do they have a sense of the balances of power, whether the political balances of power at home or the strategic balances of power abroad. They also have no concept of how to build a strategic position and generate the circumstances that lead to democratic practices (in the case of Egypt) or to the liberation of occupied Arab land (in the cases of Palestine and Syria).
Both domestically and regionally, boycott, as practised, is a declamatory act as opposed to a process of policy building. The former is a way to declare a stance, whether for or against a particular policy or situation. The latter is a process of realising positive change. It is an approach based on a strategy and a plan for carrying it out. The declamatory act is often a form of bravado. Policy building is a process that is tested on the ground and assessable on the basis of its success or failure in realising its stated aim which, after all, is the most crucial matter.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly