Observing, not monitoring
Magda El-Ghitany talks to proponents and opponents of having international observers monitor this fall's presidential elections
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, senior government officials said a formula was being worked out to help take the edge off the idea of international monitors observing this fall's elections.
Reactions to statements made by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif indicating Cairo's willingness to allow international observers to monitor this fall's presidential elections have been mixed. To make clear that his statements were by no means a declaration of the Egyptian government's commitment -- or for that matter intention -- to respond favourably to US President George W Bush's suggestion, Nazif attempted to take a step back when he said -- earlier this week -- that the US was talking about "observers rather than monitors".
Regardless of the semantics, the public and political commentators alike were wondering whether or not Egypt would allow international observers. According to Nazif, who was forced to comment extensively on the issue during his recent trip to Washington, the idea of allowing international monitors to observe presidential elections was unlikely to be appreciated by an Egyptian public that was sensitive to the notion of foreign "intervention".
That said, Egypt actually has an extensive record of sending members of its foreign service and civil society community to observe elections overseas. Diplomats who have participated in such missions told the Weekly that allowing elections monitoring strengthens a nation's credibility; that it could enhance Egypt's international status as a country that is embracing democracy at a rapid pace.
Former Assistant Minister Fathi El- Shazli, a veteran of several monitoring missions, said it was wrong for the public to look at the issue as a "sign of foreign intervention. International monitoring is not about foreign intervention." El-Shazli and a group of Egyptian and international monitors observed the Palestinian presidential elections in January.
Former ambassador Rakha Hassan, who was an observer in last March's elections in Zimbabwe, said that international observers "do not meddle. They just watch the process," making sure it takes place according to international standards from beginning to end.
Even if they detect violations, Egyptian diplomats said, the legal mandate that international monitors work within does not allow them to interfere in the details of the electoral process in any way; or, for that matter, in its outcome. Observers can check voters' lists for fictitious names or people who have died. They can also determine whether citizens were deprived -- by the state -- of either their right to vote, or to nominate themselves, for religious, ethnic, or political reasons. Observers also work to ensure that nominees get equal chances to meet the public, and express themselves in state-owned/run media. On elections day, observers also make sure that the police does not interfere in the electoral process, its role limited to maintaining security and order.
Some would say observers' most important job, though, is ensuring that all voting boxes are transparent, colourless, and have plastic locks that -- once opened -- cannot be relocked. "A transparent box is a major indicator of the transparency of the electoral process. It leaves no room for doubt that votes could be rigged," Hassan said.
Vote counts would then be done in public under the observers' watchful eyes. Afterwards, the world is told whether the concerned elections were "transparent or rigged".
According to UN statistics over 100 countries have asked for assistance and monitoring of parliamentary and presidential elections over the past decade alone.
El-Shazli said international elections monitoring was common amongst nations in the midst of the democratisation process; Egypt would lose out by excluding itself from the trend. Failing to invite international observers to the September presidential elections, El- Shazli said, could "send a wrong signal, making people think Egypt has something to hide". Thus, as long as it does not affect state sovereignty, the presence of international monitors will strengthen Egypt's global credibility and transparency, he said.
Actually, the presence of international monitors need not even contradict with domestic election- watch committees, which are usually made up of a nation's key independent figures. Often times, these domestic committees help observers review the electoral lists.
Other prominent commentators remained adamant about not having foreign monitors. Tareq El-Beshri, a former deputy chief justice, was one of those who vehemently denounced the idea. "Any international monitoring is bound to be tainted with the political agenda of the world's hegemonic power, the US," El- Beshri said . Any international monitoring organisation, even the UN, would in one way or another aim to apply "the US motive: political intervention" in Egyptian internal affairs. El-Beshri called on the Egyptian judiciary to establish "a domestic monitoring process", with "full authority for monitoring the elections", from beginning to end. If granted such authority, the committee could prove to be the perfect answer to Egypt's electoral concerns.
Diplomats told the Weekly that Egypt's colonial history, combined with current concerns about US interference into the domestic affairs of Arab and Muslim countries, provided legitimate fuel for the public's dread. Hassan Eissa, an ambassador who also monitored January's Palestinian elections, said Egyptians have a problem with the US's "hegemonic power whose policies in Iraq, stance towards the Palestinian cause, and double standard foreign policy on Middle East issues are reasons for concern."
The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has also voiced its reluctance to the idea of foreign monitors. Its secretary- general, Mokhles Qotb, said there was no need for international monitoring as long as a domestic judicial committee was "capable of perfectly accomplishing the task."
Despite these concerns, diplomats who have been on monitoring missions said it was worthwhile for the Egyptian government to consider inviting a credible and reputable team of international observers. Their presence would help to "rebuild bridges of trust, which are noticeably missing, between the ruler and the ruled" in Egypt, El-Shazli said.
It might also encourage better turnout on elections day. "Egyptians generally believe that their votes do not really decide the elections' winner at the end of the day. They think things are pre-determined, and that the elections are just an official ceremony to celebrate a given," said one diplomat who asked for anonymity. In the presence of international observers, "citizens will trust the transparency of the elections process, and will be encouraged to vote because they will know it will count."
Between those who believe that allowing international monitors would grant Egypt a certificate of transparency and credibility from the US-dominated international community, and those who think otherwise, there is clear consensus that the government needed to take all necessary measures to ensure that the next presidential and parliamentary elections were fair and free. At the end of the day, Egyptian credibility is at stake.