In recent weeks, Egypt has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. As the two year anniversary of the revolution which ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak arrived, riots erupted in many parts of the country. More than 1000 were injured and more than 70 killed in protests against the Muslim Brotherhood and police brutality.
It is against this backdrop that president Mohamed Morsi has called early elections, which will take place in four stages between April and June. The first stage was originally scheduled to take place over Easter weekend, but has been moved forward to the 22 April after outrage from Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.
Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood party dominated the last national election, has only been in office since June 2012. This new election has been called because Egyptians voted in December in favour of a controversial new constitution, which requires that the process begins within two months.
The administration hopes that the election of the new parliament – which will convene on 6 July if all goes according to plan – will help to stabilise Egypt both politically and economically, ushering in the next stage of the transition to democracy.
However, not everyone sees it that way. Mohamed El Baradei, a former UN nuclear agency chief, Nobel Laureate, and key opposition figure, has called for a boycott of the polls. He has warned that elections could risk bringing even greater chaos and instability, and could even result in military intervention. Speaking to the BBC over the weekend, he said: "We need to send a message loud and clear to the people here and outside of Egypt that this is not a democracy, that we have not participated in an uprising two years ago to end up with a recycling of the Mubarak regime. Torture is still there, abduction is still there, a lack of social justice is still there."
El Baradei is a founding member of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition of non-Islamist parties. He has said that he hopes that others in the NSF will follow suit with a boycott. The group is meeting on Tuesday to make a decision. While it remains undecided, El Baradei has stayed vocal in his opposition to the election, tweeting "Today I repeat my call, [I] will not be part of an act of deception." Last week, El Baradei's ally Hamdeen Sabbahi withdrew his leftwing Popular Current party from the elections citing similar reasons.
It is possible, though by no means certain, that the NSF will decide to uphold a boycott. Many within the group fear that loopholes in the new electoral legislation introduced by the current regime will allow the results to be rigged in favour of Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The new constitution itself has also been a source of controversy, with liberals, secularists and Copts raising concerns that it does not represent minorities nor protect key freedoms. This was blamed on the Islamist-dominated assembly that wrote it.
For its part, the FJP has accused the NSF of boycotting elections simply because it lacks support. Certainly, Islamist parties have had the most success in every national election since Mubarak was ousted. In the last election, the FJP won 43 per cent of the seats in the lower house, the People's Assembly, and 59 per cent of the seats in the Shura Council. A recent poll showed that Morsi's approval ratings remain at 53 per cent. Essam Erian, a senior member of the FJP, has said that the polls will be legitimate as they will take place under "complete judicial supervision" as well as being monitored by the Egyptian and international media.
The pros and cons of a boycott are still being worked out. "The last thing we need is to enter a new cycle that further polarises and splits the country," Shadi Taha, a leader of the al-Ghad al-Thawra party, told the Associated Press. Others have pointed out that a boycott is one sure fire way to ensure that the next parliament is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, ultraconservative Salafists, and former members of Mubarak's government, who are now allowed to stand.
An effective opposition boycott would seriously damage the election's credibility. But the opposition is certainly not speaking with one voice, and the outcome of discussions on the merits of a boycott will be a test of El Baradei's political strength. Indeed, the election would be similarly illegitimised if it is marred by widespread fraud. Opposition parties must consider whether it wants to stand outside the political process altogether, implicitly stating that the revolution is not finished, or whether it wants instead to seek change through the ballot box.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.