Legitimizing an Undemocratic Process in Egypt
January 10, 2014
government, European governments, and international organizations interested in
electoral fairness face a difficult balancing act with the January 14–15
constitutional referendum in Egypt. They want to observe the vote on the
country’s new constitution to encourage Egypt to return to a democratic path
after the July coup in which President Mohamed Morsi was removed. Several teams
of international observers, whose post-referendum statements will command
attention from policymakers and the media, are lined up for deployment.
is a real danger that international players will lend legitimacy to a flawed
and undemocratic process. They risk playing into the Egyptian transitional
government’s efforts to focus attention on the technicalities of the post-coup
political road map while diverting notice from a deeply troubling context—widespread
unrest, the recent declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s
largest political group) as a terrorist
organization, escalating repression of
secular dissidents, a draft constitution that gives the military
broad powers, a drafting process that largely excluded
no freedom for those who would campaign
against passage of the referendum. And the likelihood of ongoing
protests during the referendum, as well as of violent attacks
against government targets, is high.
be nearly impossible for observers to do a credible job under the present
conditions in Egypt. And even if the referendum goes smoothly, it is not at all
clear that the vote will make a meaningful contribution to getting Egypt back
onto a democratic path. Observers and foreign governments, including the United
States, would do well to make sure that their engagement and statements keep
the focus on the big picture of Egypt’s worrisome trajectory.
An Unrepresentative Sample
referendum, as in all elections, international observers need to worry about
not only whether their presence will legitimize the undeserving but also
whether the prevailing conditions will allow them enough visibility into the
process to make well-informed judgments.
Several premier institutions, such as the U.S.-based Carter Center and
the European Union, have opted to send only small groups of experts due to the
negative conditions of the referendum as well as the poor security situation.
The Carter Center
cited “the polarized environment and the narrowed political
space surrounding the upcoming referendum, as well as the lack of an inclusive
process for drafting and publicly debating the draft constitution” as being of
prominent American electoral observation organizations that monitored Egypt’s
2012 parliamentary elections, the National Democratic Institute and the
International Republican Institute, were kicked out of the country in late 2011
and cannot participate in this referendum. Their staff members
were prosecuted, victims of a dispute over assistance programs
between the U.S. government and Egypt’s military government that took power
after ousting longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
the current situation and this troubled history, the U.S. government will fund
a team of roughly 80 international observers organized by the NGO Democracy
International to monitor the referendum. There will also be several other NGOs
on the list of
organizations authorized to monitor, including the Election
Network in the Arab Region and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable
Democracy in Africa, which reportedly will send relatively small teams.
observers must have the cooperation of electoral and other officials in order
to gain access to the places where voting and counting will take place. This
could be problematic in Egypt and was, for example, during the June 2012
presidential election, but the assumption for now is that Egyptian
officials, having accredited international observers, will cooperate and give
the monitors the needed access.
there is the question of whether international observers will be able to visit
enough polling places throughout Egypt to make a meaningful sample. The poor
security conditions in the country make this a dubious venture.
Even in a
placid security situation, however, international observers would not be able
to get more than a glimpse of electoral realities in as large a country as
Egypt, particularly in the far-flung provinces where many electoral abuses have
taken place in the past. At most there will be a few hundred observers for the
referendum, who will be able to visit only a fraction of the approximately
13,000 polling places. This means that international monitors must depend on
information from domestic election observers, who rightly should be much more
numerous than foreigners.
domestic observers come from political parties, candidates’ campaigns, and
civil society organizations, and they mount a much more comprehensive
monitoring effort than internationals. The most serious organizations or
networks will place an observer in every polling station from the beginning of
voting to the end of counting. In last year’s parliamentary and presidential
elections, Egyptian domestic observers actually obtained the official written
voter turnout and tally from each polling place, enabling organizations with a
nationwide network to carry out parallel counts. For the referendum as well as
upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, the electoral commission has
authorized a number of Egyptian organizations to deploy a combined total of
tens of thousands of observers (although many of those groups will not have the
financial means or logistical systems needed to deploy as many observers as
they were authorized).
has become clear that the opposing sides of the referendum question—for and
against passage—will not have equal access. Egyptian organizations in favor of
passing the new constitution will be encouraged to monitor happenings, while
those against the referendum will be excluded.
Tamarod, a youth organization that supported the coup and has remained
supportive of the military while other groups, such as the April 6 Youth
Movement, have become critics. The group has announced it will send large numbers
of monitors; many civil society organizations that supported the
coup have done likewise.
organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and others that would want
to see the referendum defeated (or at least verify voter turnout) will not be
able to monitor. While electoral authorities initially authorized 67 domestic
groups for monitoring, including Islamist-affiliated groups such as the Sawasya
Center for Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (which planned to send out as
many as 5,000 monitors), the Ministry of Social Solidarity recently announced
that only 40 of
the original 67 would be allowed and that groups including
Sawasya would be excluded.
that domestic organizations from only one side of the referendum debate will be
allowed to monitor means that irregularities and abuses are more likely to go
unnoticed or unreported. It also means that there will most likely be no
serious parallel vote count. And therefore international monitors will have no
basis on which to judge whether what Egyptian authorities announce about voter
turnout and results is credible, or whether the small sample of voting and
counting they were able to witness was representative.
Is a Clean Referendum a Way Back
the formidable challenges facing international observers, one could argue that
passage of the constitution via a reasonably clean process is a critical step
in Egypt’s political development and that international players should do what
they can to help pave the way back to participatory politics. It is true the
post-Morsi political road map hangs on the passage of the draft constitution,
and it is not clear whether the presidential and parliamentary elections
planned for after the referendum would take place if the referendum were voted
down. But it is nearly unimaginable that the referendum will be rejected because
the principal opposition plans to boycott the
vote and only a few small groups are campaigning to persuade
Egyptians to vote no.
argument could potentially be made that the constitution will lead back to
participatory politics (let alone a democratic path) if Egyptian authorities
were taking steps to encourage pluralism and build bridges after the bruising
coup and bloodletting that took place during July and August 2013. But the
recent declaration of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, the
promulgation of a draconian
antiprotest law and its enforcement against secular as well as
Islamist critics of the government, renewed harassment of
activists by secret police, and profoundly antidemocratic
provisions of the new constitution concerning
military powers all suggest otherwise.
the constitution will usher back in more participatory politics is also in
doubt because the document leaves some crucial matters undecided. For example,
Egyptians must vote on the constitution not knowing which electoral system will
be used for the parliamentary vote, whether presidential or parliamentary
elections will come first, or whether the new president will continue to have
extremely broad powers such as the right to appoint all provincial governors.
These decisions will have important implications for the development of the
political system, but they are left to the appointed interim president, Adly
Mansour, to decree, probably after the referendum takes place.
powerful Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has not yet announced whether he
plans to run for the presidency, and he very well might not do so before
January 14. This issue would not have been decided in the constitution, but it
might well make a difference regarding how supportive Egyptian voters are of
the post-coup order.
Question of Legitimacy
seems Egyptian authorities are most intent on, rather than restoring democratic
processes, is ensuring there is a strong show of public support for the
post-Morsi military-backed order. Authorities want “big crowds” and “expect
everyone who demonstrated on June 30 [calling for Morsi’s removal] to turn out
to vote,” said Prime
Minister Hazem El-Beblawi during a December 29 television
interview. Specifically, Egyptian
authorities are looking for numbers that will decisively
surpass the 18 million voters and 64 percent approval rating achieved by Morsi
in the 2012
showing is important for domestic political reasons and international
legitimacy. Recent Zogby
polling suggests that public opinion on the military-backed
transition remains quite polarized, and President Mansour, among other
officials, has called on Egyptians to “impress the
world” with their turnout.
international observers do their job carefully, they most likely will not be
able to provide the endorsement of a free and fair referendum and robust voter
turnout that Egyptian authorities seek, if only because they will lack the
information needed to make such judgments. In any case, they should keep in
mind a provision of the Declaration of Principles for International Election
Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers, commemorated at the UN in 2005, which
most of the major monitoring organizations have endorsed:
An organization should not send an
international election observation mission to a country under conditions that
make it likely that its presence will be interpreted as giving legitimacy to a
clearly undemocratic electoral process, and international election observation
missions in any such circumstance should make public statements to insure that
their presence does not imply such legitimacy.
observers at Egypt’s referendum or U.S. and European government officials who
must issue public statements on the event should post those words on their
mirrors as a reminder.
This article is reprinted with permission
from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It can be
accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/01/09/legitimizing-undemocratic-process-in-egypt/gxx4
Michele Dunne is a senior associate in the Middle
East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.