The next month’s Egyptian legislative elections continue to be the focus of attention in policy debates in the US capital. Last week, a panel of Egyptian and American experts convened in Washington, D.C. to lead a discussion on the upcoming vote in Egypt.
Organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the panel discussed the merits of boycotting versus participating in the parliamentary elections and challenges facing Egyptian election observers.
The discussion included Wael Nawara, the secretary. general and co-founder
of opposition Al-Ghad Party, Mahmoud Ali of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development, Carnegie’s Michele Dunne, and POMED’s Executive Director Andrew Albertson.
Nawara discussed what he views as the shrinking political space available for
Egyptian opposition activists, despite gains achieved in 2004 and 2005. He contended that the Egyptian Government has exploited the 2005 electoral success of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in order to pacify the international community and demonstrate that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is the only viable alternative to so-called extremists.
The regime, he argued, has managed to crush all alternative political groups between the NDP and the Brotherhood.
Nawara made the case that the best choice for opposition parties is to boycott the November election.
Participation in an election governed by rules designed to deny the opposition a fair chance at competing for votes, he argued, was tantamount to collusion in fraud.
While he acknowledged arguments opposition advocates make for participation – that participation is the only positive avenue for Egypt’s opposition, that boycotts are rendered meaningless if a few parties choose to break them, and that elections offer a valuable opportunity for opposition activists to interact with the public – he maintained
that boycott is the only option that could challenge the legitimacy of the regime.
Concerns about election rigging aside, Nawara questioned the ability of the Egyptian Parliament to serve as a conduit for reform, given what he called its ineffectiveness at monitoring the Government’s performance.
In particular, he pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s 88-seat parliamentary gain in 2005, which has not led to any notable progress on the reform front, where space for political activism has continued to shrink.
Ali discussed the challenges facing Egyptian NGOs in election monitoring. He
said that the Supreme Election Commission, while recognising the right of Egyptian NGOs to monitor elections, has not been fully cooperative with them.
Ali explained that the Commission’s tendency to issue monitoring permits less than 24 hours prior to election day makes it almost impossible for NGOs with limited resources to assign permits to election monitors on time, particularly those posted in rural areas.
The number of permit requests that the Commission approves is usually too small to adequately cover a sufficient number of polling stations.
Ali also presented some of the practical challenges that election monitors face, including arrests by Egyptian authorities and prevention from observing activities inside voting stations, ballot counts and voter registration.