Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Egypt Unprepared For September Elections

By Leila Fadel from Cairo
Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections are due to take place in just three months. But a near-total lack of preparation is prompting fears that the vote will be flawed, undermining the election’s legitimacy and marring a revolution that empowered the Egyptian people.
While the vote is slated for September, no election law has been declared, no electoral system has been announced, no districts drawn and no specific date set. Egyptians who had hoped to embrace democracy after three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule now worry that a troubled election in the Arab world’s most populous country could instead endanger reform efforts in Egypt and beyond.
“What happens as a result of the elections will define the features of Egypt and the region,” said Farid Zahran, a member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has pushed for elections to be postponed. “Now is the time when the revolution ends in success or failure.”
Amid a growing debate about postponing the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood and other established groups point to a March constitutional referendum as evidence that the military leaders who now govern the country can move quickly. The ruling military council organized that vote in just a few weeks, but it was hardly perfect. There were allegations that people voted multiple times and reports of voter intimidation. In most polling places, election monitors were not to be seen.
As uprisings continue across the region in the face of violent suppression, many are looking to Egypt as an example of what happens when a dictator is deposed. That attention means a marred September vote would not just be an Egyptian failure, Zahran added.
“If Egypt builds a modern, civil state, that will color the whole region, and if it goes into a dark tunnel, it will take the region there with it,” he said.
Tunisia’s interim government faced a similar dilemma. This month, leaders there announced that the first elections since the January ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali would be moved back from July 24 until Oct. 23.
In Egypt on Monday, the English-language version of the state-owned newspaper Ahram reported that the military had no plans to postpone elections.
The problem, said a Western diplomat in Cairo with firsthand knowledge of the military council’s workings, is that the transitional rulers “haven’t done anything yet” to prepare. The council’s secretive nature, however, makes it difficult to rule out the possibility that some preparations have been made, but are not yet public.
Polling stations that aren’t secured, organizational problems that keep large numbers from voting, or general perceptions of fraud due to a lack of independent supervision could lead Egyptians to reject the September results as illegitimate, the diplomat warned.
Excitement and enthusiasm
In the past, the feared Ministry of Interior ran elections. But many voters stayed away because they knew the results would be rigged in favor of Mubarak’s now disbanded National Democratic Party.
Now Egyptians appear excited to choose a truly representative body. Seventy-six percent of people want elections to happen on time or sooner, according to an International Republican Institute poll released this month, and 72 percent said they plan to vote.
Despite that enthusiasm, candidates have not been announced because there are no election rules in place and parties are still in the process of getting licensed. Judges, who under a draft election law are supposed to oversee the voting, have not met. Poll workers have not been trained and voter education campaigns have not been launched because no one knows how the election will work.
The military ruling council issued the draft election law in May, saying it was seeking input from the public. Legal experts who studied the law found it muddled, filled with gaps and favorable to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that have been around for decades.
“This is the most opaque process we’ve seen,” said Andrew Reynolds, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies and advises on electoral systems in new democracies. “No one, not the political parties, the United Nations” or non-governmental organizations “knows who’s even writing the law,” he said.
The lack of transparency and the proposed voting system both pose risks for the success of the vote, he said after returning from a visit to Egypt. “You want this to be as inclusive and as democratic an election as possible.”
Under the electoral system proposed in May, one-third of the seats in parliament would be apportioned based on the number of votes a party receives in each Egyptian governorate. The other two-thirds would be distributed based on votes for individual candidates in a district, a system that works against smaller parties because they don’t have enough reach to campaign in every district and win individual seats, Reynolds said.
“The bottom line is that this system advantages the old parties,” he said. “The people who are going to lose out are the Tahrir Square groups and the liberal movements.”
The country’s military rulers have not yet reached out to international observers to help ensure a transparent election, according to Western observers. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday during a visit to Egypt that he and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) urged the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, to consider inviting international observers and that Tantawi was open to the idea.
The precise powers of the next parliament are also unclear. “Everything is vague, we have no clarity on anything,” said Ahmed Fawzy, director of the Democracy Development Program, an Egyptian advocacy group that monitors elections.
A security vacuum
As the country debates whether to postpone the elections, newer parties — largely secular and liberal — are calling for a delay because they need time to prepare and introduce themselves to the public.
Egypt still faces a security vacuum created after police attacked protesters during the January revolt, then withdrew from the streets and have not come back in full force, prompting some to call for better security before the vote proceeds.
But groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has an established grass-roots following, are pushing for elections to be held on time. The call for postponing is “basically a minority exercising dictatorship and forcing its opinion on the majority,” said Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer and member of the brotherhood.
While a precise date for elections has not been set, the military’s announcement on March 28 that the vote would be held in six months has led many here to expect them by the end of September.
Between now and then, the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and government bodies grind to a halt, will further stall preparations.
“I’m 100 percent sure the elections will be postponed,” said Zahran. “The criticism is accumulating and something has to be done.”
-This report was published in The Washington Post on 29/06/2011
-Special correspondent Sulafeh Munzir al-Shami contributed to this report from Cairo

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