It would be easy to dismiss Egypt’s November 29 parliamentary elections as just one more chapter in Egypt’s rather sad recent electoral history. The ruling National Democratic Party will get at least two-thirds of the seats, assuring its control over any future amendments to the constitution. Opposition candidates are already facing more difficulties in campaigning than they did in 2005, Egyptian civil society monitors have every reason to fear that they will not receive full credentials and access to polls, and international observers are once again being rebuffed.

And yet, there is something very important happening in November. Egyptian political life is being tested just as the country approaches the end of three decades of Hosni Mubarak’ s presidency. President Mubarak and other senior figures in the government and the National Democratic Party (NDP) have been fending off internal and external pressures for political reform for years by arguing that the system is being reformed, but at a pace that suits the conservative nature of Egypt and avoids instability. 

Even a slow pace of reform moves forward, however, and it is unclear whether the upcoming parliamentary elections represent real progress. Even if they will not be perfect, will they be freer, fairer, more transparent, and more participatory than the 2005 elections were? Indications right now suggest they will not. 

NDP representatives can argue that there were two important changes since 2005 that could improve this year’s elections: the establishment of an electoral commission and the creation of a 64-seat quota for women in the People’s Assembly. On the face of it, an electoral commission should be an improvement over the previously cumbersome system of judicial supervision. But the judges—however inadequate in number to supervise more than 50,000 polling stations—showed themselves more than adequate in integrity and independence in 2005. The electoral commission, on the other hand, has made a dismal showing so far, allowing the widespread exclusion of opposition candidates during the Shura elections and failing to facilitate the work of civil society monitors. Should its performance during the November elections be similarly unimpressive, the verdict on the commission will be in.

The women’s quota is a positive development in that it can help redress the longstanding underrepresentation of women and bring Egypt in line with levels of female parliamentary participation elsewhere in the Arab world. But the quota will represent an advance in political freedom only if the seats are freely contested. As it is, many observers fear that the women’s seats will be one more tool for the NDP to control the assembly.

In contrast to their unified position on the need to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections, opposition groups disagree on the merits of participation in 2010. Competing calls for either boycotting or participating in the elections clearly reveal the challenges and limited opportunities inherit in the model of constrained political reform that has governed Egyptian politics in recent years.

The Ghad party, National Democratic Front party, and the National Association for Change have decided to boycott the elections in protest of the NDP’s refusal to meet opposition demands for measures guaranteeing the fairness and transparency of the elections. Such measures include cleaning up voter registries, halting the harassment of opposition candidates, ensuring the functioning of the electoral commission and the presence of its representatives in polling stations, and allowing local and international monitors to freely perform their jobs. These demands spring from the opposition’s expectation—informed by their experiences in the 2008 local and June 2010 Shura council elections—that the regime is intent on limiting the competitiveness of the 2010 parliamentary elections as compared to those of 2005. The regime’s handling of the electoral process has also fueled calls in the independent press and among youth activists to boycott, as participation in elections whose results are predetermined would lend a false sense of democratic legitimacy to the ruling regime.

On the other side, the Wafd party and the Muslim Brotherhood—the most organized and capable opposition groups in Egypt—have decided to participate, as have Tagammu and a few smaller parties. Recent statements by members of the Brotherhood Guidance Bureau indicate that the Brotherhood will attempt to field as many as 200 candidates.

Despite their prior agreement with those calling for a boycott of the elections and their concerns about the transparency of the electoral process, the Wafd and Brotherhood leaderships have justified their decision to participate on four grounds. First, boycotting would exclude opposition parties and movements from the core of political life, namely electoral competition and parliamentary participation. Second, it would weaken the opposition’s popular presence and organizational capacity by depriving it of the opportunity for direct interaction with voters and rejuvenation of party cadres involved in electoral campaigns. Third, boycotting runs the risk of allowing the NDP full reign over the elections. And finally, by participating, the opposition can document electoral transgressions and demonstrate to the domestic and international audience the regime’s failure to ensure the transparency of the elections, thereby dispelling myths of democratic legitimacy.

The boycott-participation divide speaks to the fundamental challenges and limited opportunities that the opposition has faced during Mubarak’s presidency. On the one hand, the regime maintains a stranglehold on electoral competition to ensure the NDP’s hegemony over legislative bodies, but on the other hand it gives the opposition the opportunity for limited political participation through elections and parliamentary activity.

As such, the 2010 parliamentary elections will renew the tension between challenges and opportunities for Egyptian opposition groups, and therefore should be watched closely.  With the country anticipating a period of presidential succession, the parliamentary elections are worth following for yet another reason. At this crucial juncture, the elections offer a valuable opportunity to understand the regime’s preferences on striking a balance between stability and the urgent need for reform.