Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 May 2005
Issue No. 743
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'An ISO certificate of democracy'

How the government will ultimately respond to US President George W Bush's suggestion for the international monitoring of presidential elections remains unclear. Gihan Shahine samples the intense debate

Will Egypt allow international monitoring of presidential elections, now that US President George W Bush has said that, "presidential elections this fall should proceed with international monitors and with rules that allow for a real campaign"? The Egyptian government has always rejected such calls in the past, and this time was no different. Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour told a news conference on Tuesday that "it was unacceptable to impose international monitoring on Egypt or any other country."

Sorour, however, did not rule out monitoring with the consent of the state. Which was also, more or less, what Gamal Mubarak, head of the ruling National Democratic Party's powerful Policies Committee, hinted at when he told a recent press conference that there could be no imposition of international monitoring on elections. Egypt is a signatory of international treaties that allow the exchange of monitors with foreign countries, and has previously participated in the monitoring of presidential elections in countries like Algeria. Although binding, the treaties give the government the choice on whether or not to invite international monitors.

Since the high-level US call for monitors emerged in a climate already rife with vocal refusals -- official and public -- of unwarranted US interference in the country's internal affairs, the government's initial, practically knee-jerk rejection of monitoring garnered initial public support. It soon, however, also opened a Pandora's box of questions about just how internationally compliant Egyptian presidential elections could be.

Parliament's recent passage of a much-ballyhooed constitutional amendment stipulating new rules for multi-candidate elections ended up offering the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) virtually complete control over who can and cannot run. That has prompted analysts and reform activists to lean somewhat in the direction of accepting the international monitoring idea.

Those in favour of international oversight said the government's rejection of both local and international monitoring stems from a fear of its electoral misconduct -- forging voting lists, stuffing ballot boxes, arresting opposition organisers, and using the police to intimidate voters -- being exposed on a global scale. That said, however, almost all the analysts Al- Ahram Weekly spoke to rejected electoral monitoring by the US, which was accused of only interfering to serve its own imperial interests, and not to truly establish democracy and good governance.

Many analysts refuted claims that international monitoring would compromise the state's independence. "People mix up inviting foreign observers to monitor elections, which is currently a widespread practice in democratic countries, with having elections actually processed by a foreign party, which only happens in areas of conflict and war, and would absolutely be interference in Egypt's internal affairs," said Hafez Abu Seada, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). Abu Seada, who has participated in elections monitoring in other countries, said that international surveillance is widely regarded "as an ISO certificate of democracy". Abu Seada mentioned the fact that the US invited the European Union to monitor its recent presidential elections as a case in point.

In that vein, leftist Tagammu Party Secretary-General Hussein Abdel-Razeq said that, "Egypt needs international monitoring more than any other country, since it has only experienced two fair elections since 1923." In his opinion, only elections in 1924 and 1950 featured unbiased government supervision.

Abdel-Razeq told the Weekly that, "forging elections is almost a standard practice in Egypt, which would thus make it essential to have both international and local observers from the European Union and civil society groups monitoring the process." He said the Interior Ministry, however, had threatened to respond harshly when human rights activists proposed a committee to monitor the electoral process.

In the absence of a fair electoral system, international surveillance is ineffective -- "except maybe for catalysing a few press reports," the Kifaya movement's Abdel-Halim Qandil told the Weekly. Qandil said his group, which is actively calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's rule, welcomes international monitoring, although he personally doubts it would actually help ensure fair elections. Among the "tremendous legacy of rigging that would be hard for international monitors to discover or even handle," Qandil said, were the use of voters lists with names of the deceased, police intimidation including preventing voters from reaching polling stations, and other irregularities. Qandil said determining the accuracy of just one list would take at least two years in court.

Many would agree with Qandil that full judicial oversight, clear of any executive interference, is the best option. According to Qandil, Kifaya backs the unprecedented stance by 3,000 judges to boycott this fall's elections if the government fails to guarantee them full supervision of the process. Currently, the judges are not allowed to monitor many aspects of the balloting process, the most important of which are the voter lists, and the goings- on around polling stations.

"The judges want to steer clear of the electoral malpractice and rigging on the part of the executive body," Qandil said. "We support their demand for independence."

Mohamed El-Sayed Said of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies criticised the "flawed rhetoric that tends to classify those who seek fair elections via international monitoring as being 'unpatriotic'". Meanwhile, those who "reject international oversight in order to guarantee themselves a free hand in rigging elections are now perceived as patriotic," Said said. "It's a farce, of course, but we should not allow this auxiliary issue to distract us from our main issue, which is having real and fair elections under the full supervision of the judiciary."

With the judges themselves opposed to international monitors on the grounds that it would place their integrity in question, the government -- "if it truly intends to have a fair presidential campaign -- should allow the judiciary full oversight over the entire process, and then boast about it in front of the entire world by inviting foreign monitors," Said suggested.

But what Said considers a possible compromise solution certainly appears -- at this stage -- to be one that's not very likely to occur.

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