Friday, February 25, 2011

Moving toward free and fair elections in Egypt

In an environment where elections are valued and voters have confidence in election authorities, it still is a challenge for governments to carry out free and fair elections. In Egypt, since Gamal Abdul Nasser took power in 1954 and abolished political parties, elections have never been a fair competition for power. Until 2005, the Constitution required the President to be approved in a single candidate referendum.  The first multi-party presidential elections took place that year. In presidential, parliamentary and local elections, Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) prevented viable candidates from registering, restricted their financing, controlled media coverage, restricted campaigning, and used state resources to influence voting. NDP candidates at risk of losing employed thugs to attack supporters of their opponents. In voting stations, NDP officials stuffed ballot boxes, manipulated vote counts and "lost" ballot boxes transported to central facilities.

In 2005 and 2006, the Elections Commission opposed international monitoring and severely limited monitoring of polling stations by Egyptian civil society. Nevertheless, donors, including USAID, funded thousands of civil society monitors. USAID even funded unofficial international monitoring missions organized by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. While some of the monitors were prevented from entering polling stations, the combined monitoring operation provided a clear picture of widespread fraud and election abuses.  I experienced vote selling first-hand. As a USAID employee, I joined a group of Embassy employees monitoring the parliamentary elections.  At one station, a woman leaving the polls came up to me and asked for the money she was promised in return for voting NDP.

In efforts to address severe criticism of the electoral process, the Constitution was amended in 2007 to establish the High Elections Commission as an independent and judge-led election management body (Article 88). It has independent legal status and an independent budget. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, it recognized that abuses took place in many electoral districts, but declared the elections were run properly and reflected the will of the people. It condemned those monitoring groups and media who gave the impression that abuses were widespread and systemic. Many Egyptians believe the Commission cannot avoid bias. Four of the Commission's eleven positions are public figures selected by the Parliament, both houses of which have been controlled by the NDP.

Cynicism about the election process led Egyptians to insist that judges monitor the polling stations and receive complaints. A Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in 2000 required judges to monitor all polling stations in three rounds of voting. In most cases, judges have carried out their responsibilities seriously. However, a 2007 constitutional amendment (Article 88) prevented judges from covering all polling stations by requiring that elections take place in one day. Egypt has only enough judges to oversee a third of the polls in one day, and the remainder must be overseen by Ministry of Interior employees, in whom citizens have little confidence. Removal of Article 88 was one of the major objectives of the pro-democracy movement.

Even when judges are monitoring polling stations, their authority is restricted to the inside of the stations. They have no jurisdiction over abuses by security personnel and party officials outside of the stations, including vote-buying, establishing barriers to entrance and improper campaigning.

Citizens who wish to vote must present their voter card or present some form of photo identification and verify that they are registered at the polling station. One obstacle to voting is gaining an identification card.  Millions of citizens, particularly women and the poor, have either not attempted to get IDs or have faced obstacles in doing so.  They also are unable to register to vote for most of the year. Voter registration is only possible during a few months of the year. Consequently, many citizens are disenfranchised.

The seriousness of the Military Commission's commitment to democratic reform will be demonstrated by its support for revising Article 88 and other Constitutional provisions that prevent free and fair elections.  The Commission intends to submit the changes proposed by the Constitutional Review Committee for public debate and then for approval in a referendum.  I am confident that citizens will be much more engaged in this process than they were for the Constitutional referendums organized under President Mubarak, which were met by voter apathy.

I am less confident, however that Egypt will be ready to hold free and fair elections within the six month time limit set by the Military Commission. The challenges are enormous, requiring reform of the Ministry of Interior, attacks on systemic corruption and a change in the mentality of thousands of government officials.  Civil society must be vigilant in holding election administrators accountable.  It is certain, however, that the courage and commitment of those who overthrew Mubarak will serve them well in moving towards free and fair elections over the next few years.

Rick Gold

From Post-Revolutionary Egypt

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