• November 11, 2005
  • 9 minutes read

When less is more

When less is more

When less is more
Local monitors said the first round of parliamentary polls was calm and with less fraud than usual. Gihan Shahine wonders what this means

An administrative court ruling allowing local supervision seems to have helped thousands of independent observers to keep a closer eye on the first round of what is perhaps Egypt’s fiercest ever parliamentary race.

More than three coalitions involving 34 local rights groups fielded thousands of monitors — many equipped with laptops and mobile phone cameras — to observe yesterday’s first stage of the polls in eight of Egypt’s 26 governorates. In Cairo, 1,500 out of a total 5,000 candidates competed for around 180 of the 444 parliamentary seats at 11,000 polling stations.

The poll still has two more parts, the last ending in December. Results will not be known before mid- December.

Local monitors said they were allowed into polling stations and did not face any hindrances doing their job, a far cry from the presidential polls in September when a last- minute surprise decision allowing local supervisors was applied in no more than 10 per cent of constituencies, leaving many observers out, sometimes harassed and beaten.

The administrative court had issued a ruling three days ago rescinding an earlier order by Justice Minister Mahmoud Abul-Leil, which insisted that local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) wishing to monitor the month-long legislative polls should obtain permission from the state- sponsored National Human Rights Council (NCHR) — whose neutrality as a government affiliate is in question — as well as meet an array of conditions, including that they be impartial, non-partisan and should not be involved in the elections in any way. NGOs contested the ruling and the court eventually ruled in their favour, allowing them to monitor the polls independently.

A similar scenario occurred prior to the presidential vote but this time the Parliamentary Electoral Commission (PEC), which is assigned to supervise the whole process, decided not to contest the ruling.

Many observers said that by taking this somewhat milder stand towards NGOs, allowing full judicial monitoring of the vote and, for the first time, ordering that ballot boxes be transparent, the government was bowing to international pressure to democratise in an attempt to show that a real reform process is under way. Some analysts also thought the government was trying to boost the tarnished image of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), whose name has been recently linked with corruption.

Ghada El-Shahbandar, of the independent monitoring group Shayfeencom, which fielded more than 300 volunteer observers in Cairo in cooperation with the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), argued, "the government did not actually grant civil society the right to monitor the elections except when rights groups obtained a court ruling to do so."

Nasser Amin, of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, which yesterday fielded hundreds of trained lawyers to monitor the elections, agreed. "Local monitoring is a legal right and the government knew the court would grant it anyway." The PEC is an administrative body which does not enjoy the same legal immunity that the PEC was granted under the terms of the constitution. As such, PEC decisions can be overturned by the judiciary. In addition, according to Amin, "local and international pressure for monitoring has been strong and, for the government, local supervision was a better compromise than international monitoring.

"The parliamentary polls are considered less sensitive than the presidential vote anyway."

Initial reports revealed a generally quiet atmosphere and average participation by voters. A strong police presence did not affect the balloting process. Observers from Shayfeencom, however, reported several acts of violence, especially in the suburbs of Maadi and Al-Basatin, where paid thugs did not allow voters into polling stations except NDP supporters. The group also told Al-Ahram Weekly that judges in some constituencies in Maadi and Al-Daher ticked the balloting cards in favour of NDP candidates. Monitors also reported an incident in which phosphoric ink was not used and another in which a voter cast a ballot in somebody else’s name.

Rights groups had expected less fraud than in past polls where rigging and police interference were the norm, but nevertheless they insisted the campaign had neither been free nor fair all the way through as, they said, was the case in the presidential vote. In the same vein, the presidential elections did not witness fraud severe enough to overturn the result, which gave President Mubarak an overwhelming 89 per cent of the vote in what was a low turnout. Rights groups insisted that was a normal outcome of an already non- competitive race. Although the competition this time is tougher — among candidates from parties, members from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and independents — it is almost a foregone conclusion that the ruling NDP will win an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats.

"There are other rules in the game now that the whole world is keeping a keen eye on the polls as an important part of political reform the country is undergoing," said Mohamed Zarie, director of the Egyptian Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP) and the coordinator of the National Campaign for the Monitoring of Elections (NCME).

Many would agree with Zarie that fraud mainly occurred outside rather than inside polling stations, where full judiciary monitoring could at least impede more blatant forms of violation like ballot stuffing and police interference.

Voters’ lists, for instance, constituted a major form of violation. El-Shahbandar said almost 30 per cent of the names on the lists either belonged to the deceased, anonymous people without family names or recognised addresses, or were simply repeated. Zarie said there were incidents where collective registration of voters was reported, as in Bab Al-She’riya. There, about 400 voters who did not belong to a constituency were found listed in support of an NDP competitor like Al-Ghad Party of Ayman Nour. Zarie said the government also abandoned all neutrality when it attempted to influence voters by promising them jobs, flats, land and other incentives that candidates outside the NDP cannot provide.

"[But] they are all false promises, just bribes, which made the race unfair all the way through," Zarie said. "People would normally choose the person who would provide them with more services rather than the one with a real political agenda." The fact that almost one-third of the candidates were businessmen, according to Zarie, also made "vote buying even more widespread this time".

Rights groups had earlier reported a string of violations as well as violence which marred the first day of candidate registration in the parliamentary campaign. Local monitors said executive powers showed clear bias to NDP members, allowing them to apply before other candidates and allowing them to receive the two most prominent electoral signs, the camel and crescent. Monitors said the local councils had abandoned all neutrality when they allowed certain candidates to launch their electoral campaign before they were supposed to, according to the rules, and gave them strategic locations to post their banners. El-Shahbandar said her group received complaints of many incidents of violence where paid thugs harassed and physically abused opposition candidates, tearing up their banners in the presence of policemen who did not intervene. Neither did the police stop NDP members from "provocatively placing their campaigning stickers over those of their competitors," El-Shahbandar told the Weekly.

A preliminary report by the Independent Committee for Monitoring Elections (ICME), which fielded 5,000 monitors to observe the polls, said that members from opposition groups and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood had their applications rejected without reason. Some candidates were reportedly mistreated by the authorities and had their electoral signs changed. Again no reasons were given. The ICME also reported that some of its monitors were harassed, detained and interrogated.

The media also showed bias toward ruling NDP parties as revealed in a report issued on Tuesday by the Cairo Centre for Human Rights, a member of the Civil Coalition for Monitoring Elections (CCME) which covered state-owned and independent media, including 10 TV channels and 17 newspapers. The report noted that state-owned channels were not as neutral, nor did they give as much attention, to the parliamentary race as they did in the presidential vote. It said NDP members took up 58-68 per cent of all elections coverage. The report showed the national press was even more biased, dedicating about 76 per cent of its coverage to NDP members, a percentage that sometimes soared to 95 per cent and 86 per cent in cases of Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar respectively.

Zarie said the stiff competition, not only among members of various parities and independent candidates, but sometimes even within the same party, will in the end show mild progress. He said he expected the Brotherhood to win 30-35 seats instead of their current 17 or 18 seats and the opposition to garner 15-20 per cent of all seats, compared to a current seven per cent.

That, Zarie said, was a sign of gradual change. "After all, change cannot happen overnight."