Later this month, Egyptians will go to the polls to reelect Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to his second term as president. An all too familiar scenario is playing out: Sissi is the only viable candidate. His sole challenger, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, is the head of a party that had endorsed Sissi before entering its own candidate at the last minute. Other potential challengers were threatened, intimidated or arrested into withdrawing. The regime’s harassment and deterrence of potential opposition candidates do not always lead to calls for boycotting. This time, however, 150 opposition figures and seven political parties came together to denounce the elections as a farce and call for a boycott of the upcoming polls. As with most boycott campaigns, the opposition’s decision has roused its share of detractors who dismiss the strategy as ineffective and even a threat to Egypt’s security. The situation in Egypt raises a critical question: Do boycotts work?
Election boycotts stem from a wide range of factors, including — in the case of authoritarian states like Egypt — unfair electoral processes, bargaining failure and opposition perceptions of the regime’s stability and strength. Some boycotts achieve reforms, some are ignored, and some inspire post-election protests that may or may not leave the existing regime in place.
Figuring out when boycotts will and won’t work is not a straightforward task. In many cases, boycotters themselves vary in their demands and their perceptions of what success looks like.