EGYPT: Doubts about fairness and competitiveness of elections
With elections for the lower house of parliament scheduled for Nov. 28 and for the presidency in 2011, Egyptian officials are emphasizing that the country does not need international observers. Its elections, they say, will proceed according to well-established laws and constitutional precepts.
Unfortunately, these statements don't reflect the country's history: one with rigged and often violent elections. In fact, Egyptians' trust in formal politics -- never great -- has deteriorated to the point that several opposition parties will boycott the elections, and many members of participating parties do not want to legitimize the existing system.
Assuming no international observers are present, how can Egyptians and outsiders tell how fair the elections are in the end? One important signal will be whether the Higher Electoral Commission extends credentials to the approximately 14,000 Egyptian civil society activists seeking to monitor them. In June elections for the small upper house of parliament, the commission gave credentials to only a small percentage of monitors at the eleventh hour, and then failed to instruct poll workers to let them in.
Other factors -- including violence -- also raise doubts about how fair and competitive the elections will be. In the past, the Ministry of Interior has surrounded certain polling places -- where a prominent pro-government candidate faced a strong opposition competitor -- with security cordons, leading to violence as voters attempted to get in. In addition, voters, monitors and journalists have been intimidated and physically assaulted by thugs supporting specific candidates while police looked away.
New measures targeting Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, present another concern. In 2005, the Brotherhood's members campaigned openly, using the slogan "Islam is the solution," and contesting almost one-third of the parliamentary seats. Now the government has outlawed its slogan, police are rounding up its supporters, and the electoral commission has denied registration to one-quarter of its proposed candidates.
The government, meanwhile, has registered all of the hopefuls of co-opted or weak secular opposition parties. This presents the ruling National Democratic Party with a dilemma: It needs to win at least two-thirds of the parliament, but it also wants to create the image of real competition. With the Brotherhood on the run and more credible secular parties -- such as the liberal Ghad and Democratic Front parties -- staging a boycott, a strong electoral showing by captive or weakened parties such as the Tagammu and the Wafd would be a sure sign of electoral meddling.
Media coverage is emerging as another major issue, given the government's recent measures, such as requiring official clearance before satellite television channels can report live from anywhere in Egypt and before cellphone providers can send aggregate text messages to their users, a technique the opposition relies on to mobilize supporters. Initial reports by Egyptian non-governmental organizations also indicate a clear bias in media coverage toward the NDP and its candidates.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome this weekend will be the U.S. reaction to Egypt's elections. Washington tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Hosni Mubarak to accept international monitors and to lift the state of emergency under which Egypt has been ruled for three decades. Although Mubarak -- age 82 and ailing -- continues to stonewall these efforts, they have real value for the U.S. administration. Not only does the Egyptian public follow President Obama's statements closely, but Mubarak's successor -- whoever he will be -- undoubtedly does as well, as he gauges whether external actors support citizens' demands for democratic change and to what extent he must accommodate them.
-- Michele Dunne in Washington and Amr Hamzawy in Beirut
Photo: People walk past banners for parliamentary candidate Hassan al-Tonsi of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party in Cairo on Friday. Credit: Asmma Waguihi /Reuters