Egyptian elections: international observers don’t matter

Khairi Abaza Contributor
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Washington and Cairo are locked in a war of words over whether or not the government of Egypt will allow international observers to monitor the country’s parliamentary elections this Sunday. The U.S. State Department has fanned the flames of the controversy by demanding international observers.

Last Monday, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif declared that Egypt would reject any international oversight of its elections, and that Egyptian organizations will observe them instead. Nazif’s remarks echo earlier statements by Safwat El-Sherif, the secretary general of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party, who told the government daily Al-Ahram that Egypt would accept no “foreign interference.”

Americans are paying particular attention to these elections, which some observers expect to be the last before aging President Hosni Mubarak might hand over the reins to his chosen successor. But beneath all the post-colonial bluster, the truth is, international monitors won’t make a difference. The regime will rig the elections anyway, and the Egyptian people will find skillful ways to report fraud, just as they did in the last elections, in 2005.

A decade ago, Egypt’s electoral monitoring apparatus was poorly organized. Civil society was weaker, and the organizations that watched elections were fewer and less skilled. In the past five years, the situation has changed dramatically. The Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development developed a simple and elegant means of monitoring the 2005 legislative elections, using observers who instantly reported any type of irregularity to an online tracking system.

Since then, many Egyptian groups have received training from international organizations such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Egyptian NGOs have made so much progress that some of them now lead workshops and training in other Arab countries.

Most of this training occurred in the mid-2000s, when the United States took greater pains to spread democratic values in the Arab world. The Bush administration was more vocal in its support for democracy, and launched many key programs, such as the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.

In this week’s elections, Egyptian NGOs will once again be allowed to act as monitors. Though these organizations are more susceptible to pressure from the regime than those based in other countries, they will once again uncover most of the irregularities — just as they did in 2005. In doing so, they will signal once again that Egyptians are ready for greater political liberalization, and that it is the only way to preserve stability into the future.

As with all of Egypt’s elections since the 1952 military coup, the first round of voting this Sunday will be neither free nor fair. The outcome of the elections is always predictable, with the regime leaving some minority of the parliamentary seats to the opposition. In generous times, this can reach up to a quarter of the seats.

During most of the Mubarak era, under the constitution, Egypt’s judiciary was charged with supervising the elections. The process was far from perfect and the judiciary was never fully independent, but judges proved that they could be impartial when they chose to be. In many cases, unlucky candidates can prove that their elections were rigged and challenge the regime in court. Yet, after the constitutional amendments of 2005, the regime abolished this provision, leaving no government body responsible for ensuring free and fair elections.

The regime has also tightened the rules on civil society, and made it more difficult for Egyptian political groups to accept international funding. Under the rules enacted in 2002, groups and candidates can receive no licenses and accept no financial support without the approval of the regime — making any NGOs that are serious about confronting the regime vulnerable to its machinations. In the past few years, several new electoral bills have been under discussion, but the regime has used the opportunity to show greater diligence in applying restrictions.

Yet international observers are no longer necessary to report electoral irregularities, and no one expects them to discover anything that the Egyptian people themselves would miss.

Egypt remains, as ever, neither completely open nor completely closed. Unlike the wards of more authoritarian states, Egyptians have the power to report electoral irregularities, but unlike the citizens of democracies, they do not have the power to put an end to fraud.

The Egyptian people remain at the mercy of a regime armed with emergency laws and many means of repression. Cairo can crack down on political parties, reporters, newspapers, labor unions, and all other political constituencies. The government allows people to vent their frustrations and rehearse democratic processes, but it prevents them from practicing democratic rule.

In Washington and the capitals of other democracies, well-meaning people should focus not on the need for international observers in sham elections, but on encouraging genuine liberalization in the Egyptian political system. Only then can Egyptians enjoy free and fair elections, and the benefits of a truly stable government.

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.