Does Egypt need international election observers?

International observers are for newly independent states without the institutions needed to run elections–unlike Egypt–according to Moqbel Shaker, vice chairman of Egypt’s National Human Rights Commission. Shaker reportedly provided this helpful explanation to police officers at a 3 October training seminar related to the upcoming parliamentary elections. But while the fact that the human rights commission is engaging with police is positive, Shaker unfortunately perpetuated a persistent fallacy circulating in Egypt regarding international election observers.

Egyptian officials, including Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mufid Shehab, have so far rebuffed requests by international organizations to observe elections with four questionable justifications: 1) international observers would interfere in the actual administration of elections, which is the province of Egypt’s electoral commission; 2) international observers are intended to replace or supplant Egyptian civil society monitors; 3) only new states or those without confidence in their own institutions invite observers; and 4) Egyptian citizens, including those who are close to the opposition, would object to international observers on the grounds of national sovereignty.

The idea that international monitors or observers would interfere in electoral administration reflects a basic confusion about the tasks of supervising, monitoring and observing elections. Supervision of the elections (ishraf in Arabic) is the duty of national officials; in the case of Egypt the electoral commission and the ministry of interior share the task. Monitoring and observation, on the other hand, are done by independent civil society organizations, whether Egyptian or international and are intended to assess how free and fair the elections were. While the same Arabic terms (muraqaba or raqaba) are often used to cover both of these tasks, in English there is a distinction between the more extensive mission of monitoring and the more restricted task of observation. Monitors generally spend weeks or months assessing the entire process of registering voters and candidates and evaluating access to media and other campaigning issues before elections, and then evaluating challenges or protests that arise after elections. Observers generally spend a much shorter time assessing the process before and after elections and issue more limited reports.

Regarding the issue of international monitors supplanting domestic monitors, this could never be the case in a country the size of Egypt. Covering all or even many of the polling and counting stations will require more than ten thousand Egyptian monitors, trained by civil society organizations. International observers would number in the dozens and their role would be mainly to support the domestic monitors and publicize their findings regarding the elections.

Perhaps the most stunning falsehood perpetuated in Egypt is that strong states do not invite international organizations to monitor their elections. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Not only do major world powers routinely invite credible international organizations to monitor their elections, but so do states in the Middle East. The United States, Canada, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and virtually all European states have invited organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor national elections held in the last few years. In the Middle East, Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen have invited organizations including the OSCE, the European Union, and American groups such as the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute. In November, Jordan will join these states by inviting such organizations to monitor its parliamentary elections. By refusing to invite credible observers, Egypt stands out increasingly as an anachronistic exception to the rule.

Equally hard to swallow is the claim that most Egyptian citizens, including those who are close to the opposition, reject international monitoring as an infringement on national sovereignty and an unwanted intervention in domestic affairs. Some recent opinion polls, such as that carried out by WorldPublicOpinion in spring 2009 and another used by Freedom House in its annual report for 2009, suggest that nearly two-thirds of Egyptians approve of international monitoring for parliamentary and presidential elections, and do not see it as contradictory to the principle of national sovereignty.

Furthermore, the shifting stance of the Egyptian opposition regarding the question of international monitoring for the 2010 parliamentary elections shows that the idea is gaining steam. Opposition parties and movements that once rejected international monitoring are now debating whether this rejection is justified. The Muslim Brotherhood has reversed the stance it took on the eve of the 2005 parliamentary elections, with several of its leaders openly calling for international observers since last year. These statements stress that international monitoring does not represent an interference in Egyptian affairs, but rather has become a necessity due to the electoral fraud constantly perpetuated by the regime and its security apparatus.

Joining the Brotherhood in welcoming international monitoring are the Ghad Party, the Democratic Front Party, some non-partisan opposition movements such as the National Association for Change, and all of the nongovernmental organizations engaged in the domestic monitoring process, such as the Egyptian Alliance for Monitoring the People’s Assembly Elections (an umbrella organization of some 120 NGOs). In October 2009, the leaders of Ghad and the Democratic Front, as well as members of the Egyptians against Fraud movement and other figures including the head of the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc Saad al-Katatny, all signed a document calling for international election observers. The petition went on to ask international rights groups, the EU, the African Union, and the Arab League to urge the Egyptian government to allow international observers into Egypt to oversee the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The document’s signatories gave the following justification for requesting international monitoring:

“The media, judiciary, and rights organizations have all contributed to documenting the grave violations seen in the presidential and legislative elections in 2005, then in the constitutional amendment referendum in March 2007, the Shura Council elections in June 2007, and the local elections in April 2008. In blatant defiance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law, the government as a matter of course ignored hundreds of judicial rulings voiding the elections in a number of electoral districts. The Egyptian authorities still deny the right to form political parties, obscure the legitimacy of several political forces, and impede civil society from independently observing the elections. The parties signing this request emphasize the need to invest your political and diplomatic capital with the Egyptian authorities in order to convince them to accept your request for monitoring of the elections. In this framework, we call upon you to support the demands of Egyptian NGOs to enable them to monitor the electoral process freely and independently, and to guarantee the authorities’ cooperation with these organizations to facilitate their work.”

The National Association for Change, meanwhile, in the third article of its “Together, We Will Change” petition, which has garnered the support of 115,664 Egyptian citizens to date on the Association’s website, demands that local and international civil society organizations monitor the elections.

Even opposition groups that have announced their opposition to international monitoring are finding that position difficult to maintain in the face of the aforementioned reasons combined with public sentiment. Tagammu, the most important leftist party in Egypt, in a statement by its leader Rifaat al-Saeed rejected international monitoring as an intervention in Egyptian affairs, whereas the party’s deputy secretary-general Hussein Abdel Razeq announced his cautious support for such monitoring due to the recurring fraud in past elections. The same happened within the Kefaya movement, which has openly acknowledged internal disagreement over the question of monitoring. Kefaya’s former coordinator George Ishaq was one of the signatories of the October 2009 document, whereas other leaders such as the current coordinator Abdel Halim Qandil remain opposed to monitoring.

In the Wafd Party, although leaders such as chairman al-Sayed al-Badawy and Secretary General Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour are united in their opposition to international monitoring, the party is having to work hard to convince the Egyptian public of the wisdom of its stance. In their statements in the past few months, al-Badawy and Abdel Nour did not justify their rejection of international monitoring on the grounds that it would constitute interference in domestic affairs. They said rather that it would be impractical for a handful of international monitors to cover a country the size of Egypt (which has 40,000 polling places) and expressed concern that the monitors’ work would consequently be restricted to the major cities, with the countryside likely to be neglected.

What is certain is that although Wafd is using logistical difficulties as a pretext to reject international monitoring, it is actually as split on the issue as Tagammu and Kefaya are. This clearly shows the growing tendency within opposition movements, as well as a broad sector of the Egyptian public, to favor international monitoring as a safeguard against electoral fraud. In the final analysis, these developments greatly reduce the credibility of claims by regime supporters that the Egyptian public is dead set against the idea of international monitoring, and make it much more difficult to convince the international community that observers would not be welcomed in Egypt.

This article is coauthored by Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy. Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, and Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

This article is published by agreement with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ©2010, (http://egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org/).

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