Background Report on Egyptian Civil Society Election Monitoring in Upcoming Elections

Background Report on Egyptian Civil Society Election Monitoring in Upcoming Elections

 The Egyptian government has steadfastly refused to grant international election monitors access to monitor parliamentary elections this week. Senior Egyptian officials have rebuffed repeated requests from US government officials, claiming that Egyptian civil society has the capacity to monitor its own conduct.

This would be stretching the truth, even in ideal conditions:

  • There are over 50,000 polling places throughout Egypt that will be in use on election day;
  • Civil society monitors expect to have—at most— approximately 12,000 monitors deployed around the country;
  • In a best case scenario, Egyptian election monitors would cover only around 20% of polling stations; and
  • Rather than spreading voting over several days to enable monitors to travel around the country to observe multiple polling places, all of the voting will take place on one day, increasing the likelihood that violations will go unreported.

This marks a precipitous decline in the level of independent monitoring from the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, when the Egyptian judiciary had powers to supervise elections. The government stripped the judiciary of its powers to supervise elections through a Constitutional amendment adopted in March 2007, and the electoral commission that has taken over this function lacks independence.

The hollowness of the authorities’ plans to rely upon independent Egyptian civil society to monitor elections can be seen in the myriad steps already taken to frustrate and obstruct the activities of such monitoring organizations:

  • violent assaults by the security forces and government backed thugs against activists campaigning for free elections and the rights of opposition candidates, as well as independent journalists and bloggers seeking to report on violations;
  • arbitrary detention of activists, opposition candidates, independent journalists and bloggers;
  • delay and denial in the issuing of official permits for independent election monitors;
  • the suppression of opposition opinion and independent government critics in the media;
  • restrictions on the use of new communications technologies in organizing protest and monitoring and reporting on violations; and
  • blocking of foreign funding to election monitoring projects, using powers granted to the government under the NGO law.

This non-exhaustive list of official attempts to stymie efforts to monitor elections is likely to increase as Election Day draws near. Each of these charges is documented in this brief backgrounder, based on observations on the ground by Neil Hicks, Senior Policy Advisor for Human Rights First. Hicks has visited Egypt three times in 2010, most recently from November 3rd -7th to meet with human rights and democracy activists, independent journalists and bloggers. The backgrounder also includes recommendations for the U.S. government to use the lessons learned from the parliamentary elections to build a policy that can promote a much fairer process for the forthcoming presidential elections, and that most importantly sets the foundation for a renewed emphasis on promoting human rights and democracy in Egypt after the succession question is settled.

In, short, the failure of Egypt, one of the United States’ closest regional allies and the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in foreign assistance since 1979, to move toward a more democratic system and to improve respect for human rights is a problem for Washington. The U.S. government is seen by many people in Egypt and in the region, as an uncritical backer of the authoritarian rule of President Mubarak, and the Mubarak government is blamed for corruption, police brutality and persistent poverty and inequality that is fueling unrest and social tension.

The U.S. government should use the lessons learned from the parliamentary elections to build a policy that can promote a much fairer process for the forthcoming presidential elections and that lays the foundation for a renewed emphasis on promoting human rights and democracy in Egypt after the succession question is settled.

Human rights and democracy activists in Egypt, who are focusing their advocacy around the elections, are under no illusions that their demands for free and fair elections can be realized during this electoral cycle. Nonetheless, they are aware that the run-up to the elections and the conduct of the elections themselves put a spotlight on the government’s practices, and especially on its lack of respect for the basic rights and freedoms that underpin any democratic system.

The government’s intention to tightly control the outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections has been clear for years. The November 2010 parliamentary elections, which will set the scene for the even more important presidential elections to be held in 2011, are a test for repeated claims by Egypt’s leaders that they are preparing the ground for democracy and moving forward with political reform. It is a test that they are almost certainly destined to fail.

Implications for U.S. Policy

President Obama has stated that promoting human rights and democracy through foreign policy is a necessity for the United States, yet in Egypt, one of Washington’s closest allies, largest aid recipients and longtime target of human rights and democracy promotion strategies, the administration’s ability to demonstrate results is being called into question by the Egyptian government’s transparent efforts to deny domestic or international scrutiny of the forthcoming elections.

Local human rights and democracy activists are dismayed that support from Washington for their cause is intermittent at best. They compare the Obama administration’s support for human rights unfavorably with that of the Bush administration during the peak period of the Freedom Agenda, between 2003 and 2005.

The question of the succession remains the major issue in Egyptian politics and casts a shadow of paralysis over all talk of reform. President Mubarak’s departure from office – which appears imminent and may happen as early as next year, presents a unique opportunity for advancing the political reform he has spent much of his career obstructing. Mubarak still has the authority to set a new course for reform, an act that would certainly be more difficult if he is succeeded by his son, Gamal, or by another untested leader.

The U.S. government’s close bilateral relationship with Egypt provides leverage, and even a responsibility for the US to contribute to genuine political reform, greater democracy and improved respect for human rights. The consequences of failing to take this opportunity could be quite serious in Egypt; by the administration’s own arguments, the lack of democratic legitimacy leaves Egypt at risk of greater instability, economic decline and greater insecurity. Moreover, a failure to rise to the challenge at such a pivotal moment in a country so closely identified with U.S. policy in the Middle East would not go unnoticed and could undermine the credibility of the U.S. government’s claims to support human rights and democracy everywhere.

The Urgency

Through constitutional reforms and other measures, Egypt has created political conditions that insulate it from the possibility of the Islamist opposition prospering at the polls in this election cycle. Although Egyptian officials have not stopped pointing to the Islamist threat as a reason to hold off on democratic reforms, on this occasion, these protestations have even less credibility than usual. If the Egyptian authorities are truly concerned by extremism, then they have the opportunity to gain legitimacy by increasing participation in the political process by permitting a broader variety of opposition candidates to run in the parliamentary elections, and by taking steps to make voting as transparent, free and fair as possible.

Far from taking advantage of this moment, the Egyptian government’s actions in the run-up to this election show that its intention is for the ruling party to retain its iron grip on the parliament, and especially over the process of presidential succession.

Recommendations to the U.S. Government:

  1. The perception that the promotion of human rights and democracy has been downgraded should be tackled on several fronts and in a sustained manner, by:
    • Reiterating commitment to human rights and democracy in Egypt by U.S. leaders, especially by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton;
    • Setting out a clear vision for what political reform in Egypt would entail and couching it in terms of Egyptian self-interest; and
    • Publicly and consistently speaking out to criticize violations and denials of basic freedoms suffered by activists, such as the break-up of peaceful protests.
  2. Speak clearly and specifically about what the U.S. government means when it talks of the desirability of free and fair elections. Make clear to the Egyptian government the USG’s realistic expectations are for the conduct of each round of elections and publicly criticize when those expectations are not met.
    • The problem areas of the current electoral procedures are well known: the restrictions on the ability of non-NDP candidates to stand for office, the inadequacy of the electoral roll, the weakening of official electoral monitoring efforts previously carried out by the Judiciary, and the interference with NGO monitoring efforts in Egypt.
    • The USG should speak specifically about these problem areas and publicly endorse recommendations to improve them.
  3. Frankly acknowledge faults and violations that will occur in the election process.
    Perhaps activists’ deepest desire is for senior U.S. officials to call violations by their names and describe the situation as it is. Most do not expect the United States to change the situation, and many do not think that such a role would be desirable or appropriate for a foreign government, but they do expect the USG to speak the truth in public statements and in meetings with Egyptian leaders.
  4. Make constructive suggestions on practical ways the electoral process can be improved. If, as in the case of international election monitors, the Egyptian authorities do not act on these suggestions, seek a public explanation.
  5. The USG should declare its intention to carry out a comprehensive review of the impact of U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt after the 2011 Presidential elections, with special attention to human rights and governance and their impact on all aspects of the bi-lateral relationship. The conduct of the Presidential elections, and the respect for basic political freedoms during the 2010 – 2011 electoral period as a whole, should be a major focus of the review.
    • Getting the succession right should be the Obama administration’s major strategic goal. From now, the message should be delivered that failure to accomplish reforms will be damaging for Egypt, decrease its economic competiveness and development, increase political instability and extremism, and diminish its relative regional influence.
    • Regression on political reform and respect for human rights and basic freedoms should be cause for reducing, withholding or conditioning of foreign assistance funds, including military assistance, by the Congress.
    • Concerns about violations and the need to promote accountability for them should be framed in the language of mutuality, shared interests and shared responsibility.

The Charges

1. Violence

The use of violence against protesters is common in Egypt. The security forces can invoke exceptional powers under Egypt’s near permanent State of Emergency to break up unauthorized public gatherings. Between November 3 and November 15, 2010, one organization that is recording reports of election-related human rights violations, Ushahid ( recorded 20 incidents of violence related to the process of candidates seeking to register themselves for election. On November 4, 2010, there was a violent assault on students and faculty at Ain Shams University. They were targeted for supporting demands for the independence of the university, for calling for respect for basic political rights, and for endorsing the agenda of the National Association for Change—the umbrella organization led by former Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei.

University police allowed thugs armed with knives and chains to enter the campus and attack protesters. The security forces turned a blind eye to attacks on peaceful students and faculty members.

Many of the worst incidents of violence are directed against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest organized opposition political group. Despite being officially banned, Muslim Brotherhood candidates secured 88 seats in the previous parliament running as independents, making it the biggest opposition party. It is widely predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood will not be permitted to win as many seats this time around, and one way that outcome is being ensured is by blocking Brotherhood-backed candidates from running as candidates. Protests in Alexandria on November 19 by supporters of the Brotherhood objecting to these kinds of restrictions led to violent clashes with the security forces.

The threat of religious extremism coming to the fore in Egyptian politics through an electoral victory for the Brotherhood is often invoked by government officials resisting pressure to move forward with political reform and democratization. Brotherhood leaders claim to be committed to non-violence and to the democratic process, but there are legitimate concerns shared by many Egyptians that increased Muslim Brotherhood influence would endanger the rights of religious minorities and women, and would lead to further restrictions in freedom of expression. However, the ruling party controls the electoral process so tightly that there is no chance that the Muslim Brotherhood will increase its share of the vote, or its seats in parliament, on this occasion. Indeed, it is confidently predicted that the Brotherhood will suffer a major electoral reversal and be replaced by the Wafd party as the main opposition in parliament. In these circumstances, it is disappointing that the authorities have not taken advantage of the marginalization of the Islamist opposition, in order to grant more space and freedom to secular opposition parties. The government’s failure to liberalize the political process, even in the controlled political environment it has created, casts further doubt on the seriousness of its intentions to move forward with any political reform at all.

The threat and use of violence creates an intimidating atmosphere for civil society activists interested in promoting respect for basic rights and freedoms around the elections. Experience in previous elections suggests that the authorities will not shrink from using violence to obstruct monitors and to disrupt voting at polling stations.

2. Detention

Short periods of detention without charge, sometimes accompanied by beating and other ill treatment are an occupational hazard for bloggers and activists in such groups as the April 6th movement that organize protests against government repression and denials of basic rights. In one typical incident, journalist Youssef Shaaban and a group of other independent journalists and bloggers were detained on November 19 while traveling to Alexandria to cover protests there. The journalists were beaten, held overnight, and finally released on the side of the road without their shoes, wallets, or cell phones.

3. Permit Denial

Most civil society organizations seeking to monitor the elections have applied to the High Elections Commission (HEC) for the permit required to carry out monitoring at polling places. The deadline for submitting applications was November 7, but as of November 22, permits had not been issued. This follows a pattern established in elections for the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, the Shura Council, held in June 2010, when the HEC delayed issuing monitoring permits until the last minute, making it impossible to distribute permits to monitors far from Cairo and resulting in far fewer permits than had been requested by civil society organizations. On November 23, the HEC issued limited permits to 76 organizations that had applied. The permits do not grant monitors access to polling stations and forbid them from photographing incidents that may take place. Independent monitoring organizations are protesting these restrictions.

4. Media Restrictions

The authorities are undermining the efforts of local civil society organizations to monitor the elections and to report on violations by blocking media access to the information produced by the monitors. In addition to the dismissal of one of the most prominent independent newspaper editors, Ibrahim Eissa, of Al-Dostour, the past few weeks have witnessed the purging of government critics and independent analysts from newspaper opinion pages and TV talk shows. At least 12 satellite TV channels have lost their licenses, and editors have been warned reportedly to tone down political commentary critical of the government during the electoral period. Media monitoring carried out by independent organizations, like the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies indicates a strong bias in the mainstream print and broadcast media in favor of the ruling National Democratic Party. Coverage of the activities of independent monitors has been brief and at times hostile.

5. New Technology Restrictions

Egyptian government officials often have expressed concern that the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook can be used to mobilize anti-government protests and have promised measures to bring them under control. Such restrictive measures are hard to implement in practice, and several organizations have embarked on ambitious projects to monitor election-related violations and to carry out real-time election monitoring using cell-phone and Internet technologies. There are tens of millions of cellphone subscribers in Egypt, making it by far the most widely used communications tool.

On October 11, 2010, the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) announced new regulations requiring cell phone users to obtain a permit prior to sending out mass messages. The regulations seemed intended to curb the dissemination of critical reporting on government policy by independent newspapers, such as Al-Masry al-Yawm, that are investing in their capacity to communicate with their audience via cell phone, and to obstruct efforts by political opposition groups to organize protests using text messaging.

Activists have responded to these restrictions by adopting technological measures to mask mass messaging from official oversight, a process one activist described as a “Tom and Jerry game,” where activists are striving to stay one step ahead of official restrictions.

6. Blocking Funding

Under the law that governs the functioning of independent NGOs in Egypt, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has the authority to block or hold up financial grants from foreign sources made to Egyptian civil society organizations. This is one measure that permits the government to undermine the independence and exercise control over NGOs. It is not unusual for grants made to Egyptian NGOs to be held up for months, pending release by the Ministry, even after official permission to receive the funding has been granted.

Several organizations have applied for funding from international sources to support projects related to monitoring human rights conditions in the election period and to carry out election monitoring. Such funds are vulnerable to delay or even blocking by the authorities that could seriously undermine the capacity of independent civil society organizations to carry out their work.

The government’s intention to tightly control the outcome of the 2010 parliamentary elections has been clear for years. Human rights and democracy activists in Egypt who are focusing their advocacy around the election are under no illusions that their demands for free and fair elections can be realized during this electoral cycle. Nonetheless, they are aware that the run-up to the election and the conduct of the election itself puts a spotlight on the government’s practices, and especially on its respect for basic rights and freedoms that underpin any democratic system.

The November 2010 parliamentary election, which will set the scene for the even more important presidential election to be held in 2011, is a test for repeated claims by Egypt’s leaders that they are preparing the ground for democracy and moving forward with political reform. It is a test that they are almost certainly destined to fail.

Observations from Egyptian Civil Society

Egyptian civil society expectations for the parliamentary elections are very low: it is very difficult for opposition candidates to stand, judicial oversight of polling sites has been discontinued; well-known, long standing weaknesses in the system remain uncorrected. Turn-out will be low, and the ruling party will win emphatically, but gain no legitimacy from it.

The problem of insufficient election monitoring is compounded by the lack of any political cost for the Egyptian government for failing to pay attention to the violations and abuses that will be exposed. Although civil society efforts to monitor elections and to otherwise promote participation and voter education have increased, no one expects them to have any impact on the outcome.

There is a widespread belief among Egyptian human rights and democracy activists of different generations and ideological currents that the U.S. government is unconcerned about their situation and even complicit with the Egyptian government in its efforts to restrict and suppress independent civil society organizations. As Ahmed Salah, a leader of the April 6th youth movement, told Human Rights First:

“We feel the U.S. can do much more because we have seen the U.S. doing much more in 2005. It was very effective and it allowed us great freedom.”

The widely shared narrative in the Egyptian activist community is that the Bush administration shelved the “Freedom Agenda” after the 2005 Egyptian elections and the January 2006 Palestinian elections and took on faith the Egyptian government’s assertion that the choice was between a continuation of Mubarak’s authoritarianism or the Muslim Brotherhood, opting firmly for the former. There is now a perception (wrong or right, but it exists, and there is some factual basis for it) that this administration cares less about human rights in Egypt than the Bush administration did at its most active. The case for this belief has many elements, some factual, others matters of opinion and perception. These include:

    • The weakening of public rhetoric from U.S leaders since the time of President Bush’s second inaugural address and Secretary Rice’s June 2005 Cairo speech;
    • The cut in absolute terms in U.S. Democracy and Governance funding from FY08 highs;
    • Apparent willingness to cooperate with Egyptian authorities in administering a more restrictive system of U.S. funding for Egyptian NGOs by discussing such measures as an endowment that would limit congressional oversight of those funds and increase Egyptian government control over their disbursement;
    • Failure to speak out clearly on suppression of protests such as the April 6th anniversary protest in Cairo;
    • Failure of U.S. leaders to meet sufficiently with independent civil society representatives – the balance between government-controlled and independent activists has been weighted towards the former. (For example, when Secretary Clinton met with NGO activists after the President’s speech in Cairo in September 2009, she met with about ten activists, only three of whom were recognized independent figures in the democracy and human rights fields;
    • Perceived over-emphasis in Washington and from U.S. officials about the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood as a reason to hold back on support for democratic reforms;
    • Alleged claims and statements by Egyptian government officials that the USG agrees with them on the need to suppress and control independent civil society;
    • The opacity of the human rights and democracy component of the U.S.-Egypt bilateral strategic dialogue;
    • The lack of a clear statement of U.S. government expectations for the 2010 parliamentary elections, despite the problems resulting from the 2007 constitutional amendments and the changes in provisions governing supervision of the electoral process;
    • The lack of a clear response to the El-Baradei phenomenon. (The U.S. government should not favor any candidate, but El-Baradei has made observations about weaknesses in the system that could be supported.)