Boycott -- the "b-word" -- is all the rage among voters who feel stuck between two unpalatable choices. It's also a symptom of the leaderless revolution, writes Amira Howeidy
The number of voters boycotting the first round of the presidential elections because it was conducted under military rule could well be superseded by those boycotting the run-off. Boycott has turned into a rallying call of sorts, a loose movement most vocal on social media and with an organised core determined not to choose between Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi and Hosni Mubarak's ex-premier Ahmed Shafik.
In addition to boycotters are the "annullers". They intend to turn up at voting stations on 16 and 17 June for the run-offs, though only to spoil their ballots. Both groups have hashtags on Twitter where they've been lobbying intensively.
How seriously the wider electorate is taking them is anyone's guess, though on Tuesday 12 June military Jeeps equipped with load speakers roamed around Cairo urging people to vote, vowing the elections would not be rigged and promising that the "world" would applaud their fairness. The Jeeps appeared a day after results of the Egyptian expatriate vote began to be made public. At 300,0000, voter turnout was the same as the first round, and only 8,000 ballots were spoiled.
The Islamist/non-Islamist polarisation that has intensified over the past 10 days appears irrelevant to the boycotters who have attempted to capitalise on the moment by promoting a position that stems from the rejection of military rule and any voting process carried out under its auspices. A widely circulated online Q&A explaining the reasons why voters should ignore the poll argues that, far from falling, Mubarak's regime is now conducting elections which will be rigged in Shafik's favour. A mass boycott of the process would at least prevent the next president from claiming he enjoys a popular mandate. What the Q&A document doesn't explain is why the same didn't apply to November's parliamentary elections, also conducted under military rule.
While the more recent call to annul votes can be considered part of the boycott movement, it is geared towards registering a "positive" protest. Spoiled ballot papers are intended to send a clear message to the authorities. Some discussion groups have suggested that people intending to annul their vote make themselves visible on election day by wearing black T-shirts and a white band around their arms.
Reem Saad, a social anthropologist at the American University in Cairo, says that after voting for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who finished fourth in the first round, she was "propelled" into annulling her vote. She wants as many people as possible to join her in questioning the legitimacy of the elections and the next president. It's an activity, she says, that will pay off in the days following the ballot.
Invalidating your vote to avoid selecting either of the run-off candidates when you opted to vote in the first round has been described by some of the original boycotters as escapism at best, hypocritical at worst. Anyone who does so, they say, has suddenly decided to object to the same rules they cheered when they thought their candidate might win.
Journalist Sara Khorshid boycotted the elections from the start because, she says, the transitional process "never made any sense". She understands why others may now be following her lead, despite happily voting in the first round. "I can't blame anyone for taking this stand now. The situation in Egypt is confusing and it's only natural for people to shift positions. To boycott now is better than voting for Shafik who will reinstate Mubarak's state."
It's probably no coincidence that the boycott call gained momentum after other alternatives to the run-offs -- including the idea of a presidential council comprising the top two pro-revolution presidential candidates plus Mursi -- failed to get off the ground.
The boycott movement is symptomatic of a revolution that 15 months since Mubarak's ouster remains leaderless, fragmented, and lacking a coherent vision. When tens of thousands of protesters filled squares in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez following the verdict in the Mubarak trial eyes turned to the two pro-revolution presidential candidates, Abul-Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi. Between them they received nine million votes in the first round, a figure many activists hope they would use as a base to lead the protests.
It didn't happen. Both men made brief appearances in Tahrir Square, cheered the revolutionaries, voiced support for their demands to ban Mubarak-era cronies from political life, and went home. A few days later the packed square returned to normal. No one had to evict the protesters because they, too, had gone home. The idea of annulling votes picked up soon afterwards and hasn't stopped.
"They are part of a third way that's in formation," says Mustafa El-Labbad, a political analyst who voted for Sabahi in the first round and is now planning to invalidate his ballot. He predicts that two to three million voters will spoil their ballots, the majority of them young and middle class. "Older people won't want to queue for hours just to invalidate their ballots," he says, "and we don't expect the informal housing population to do it either."
Sabahi has repeatedly refused to endorse either run-off candidate. Abul-Fotouh's campaign said on Monday that he would support Mursi against Shafik. Abul-Fotouh, himself a Brotherhood leader before being expelled last year, attempted to position himself in the presidential race as a consensus candidate capable of bridging the secular-Islamist divide. Sabahi, on the other hand, rejected political Islam and banked on his secularism. Despite their differences they emerged as leaders with the kind of ballot box legitimacy many of their supporters now want withheld from the next president.