Legitimizing an Undemocratic Process in Egypt

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There is a real danger that international observers monitoring Egypt’s constitutional referendum will lend legitimacy to a flawed and undemocratic process.
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The U.S. 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.

But there 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 Islamists, effectively 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.

It will 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

In this 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 particular concern.

Two other 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.

Despite 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.

These 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.

Next, 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.

Normally, 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).

But it 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.

Take 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

The fact 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 to Democracy?

Even amid 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.

The 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.

Whether 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.

And 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.

The Question of Legitimacy

What it 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 referendum.

A strong 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.

If 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.

International 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.

End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (24)

  • JTawfilis@aol.com
    2 Recommends
    From what I understand, the Egyptian people want to find their own way forward and no matter what we think or try to do (USA), they have made that stand and if that translates to even more changes, we cannot do much about it. The systems in the Middle East are so complicated and corrupt (still), there isn't going to be any semblance of "clean" for years to come. What's really sad is the masses of poor that exist, the devastated economy and environment, and the lack of outside viewpoints that don't see or understand what suffering the masses are going through, how they simply seem to follow their God and are desperately searching for HOPE after all they have been through. I remember seeing UNITY in Egypt when they won the African Cup for soccer....and it was amazing...how I wish there was a way to help Egypt UNIFY and stop living in chaos before their rich cultural heritage is destroyed and lost forever.
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  • whalefish
    An embargo would free things up allowing for further action on these economic terms.
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  • maged
    this report is full of judgments that lack evidence..in addition to a number of wrong reading into the draft constitution..
    1-it is totally judgmental to say if the observers were allowed to do their job they will not conclude that the process was free and fare...to be honest the report should have mentioned that all elections and referendums is Egypt were always free but never fair primarily due to the irregularities and fraud tactics mastered by the Bratherhood in particular in rural areas.
    2-the report should have also stated that the Bratherhood is not really striving to monitor the referendum but rather to undermine it all completely mainly through intimidation for a very simple reason it will actually reveal a very different opinion of the people they claim to have won their sympathy.
    3-it is incorrect to say that the new draft gives the Army more power in reality the text puts for the first time the Army finances under the control of the next parliament and it does limit putting civilians in front of military courts (that was totally unchecked in the 2012 constitution)
    future reports need to be more accurate and look hard into the realpolitik rather then indulge in academic thinking.
    all the best
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    • RedSea replies...
      I find this article extremely flawed and full of contradictions, and highly biased. Noting that the author has a strong affiliation with Al Jazeera, who was kicked out of Egypt, and a few reporters recently arrested for illegal broadcasts from hotel rooms, and who paid the hotel bills of MB officials who fled to Qatar to escape arrest. This author also lacks much knowledge of the situation and history, and assumes the IDR and IRI U.S. NGO's left out of the monitoring process are reputable. They are the NGO's who were caught illegally funding and organizing the Muslim Brotherhood campaign. The IRI is chaired by John McCain, who recently came to Egypt to demand the release of Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and acted so disrespectful that he was kicked out of the presidential palace. Of course the IRI claims they applied for a permission, and then their offices were raided. However their offices were raided only 3 or 4 days after they applied for permission, but had been operating inside Egypt for motnhs, illegally indeed. The only reason they applied for a permission was because they were tipped off about the raid. The Cairo Director of IRI, Sam LaHood was caught trying to flee the country, arrested at the airport. Sam LaHood was also an advance man for John McCain's presidential campaign, and it was John McCain who came to Egypt to negotiate the release of his boy Sam LaHood. Tjhere is speculation that John McCain made a deal to release the Blind Sheikh in exchange for the NGO workers. The NGO workers were released and their trial was held absentee, and the trial had to be adjourned 3 times as protesters came to the court demanding the release of the Blind Sheikh, claiming the deal was not kept. This prompted the start of a 24-hour sit-in outside the US Embassy in Cairo for the release of the Blind Sheikh. So guess what? The demonstration at the US Embassy on Sept. 11, 2012 was also not about a anti-Mohamed video on youtube, but about the release of the Blind Sheikh. The son of the Blind Sheikh and Mohamed Al-Zawahiri threatened the Embassy 6 weeks before and planned ta demonstration for 911, which was advertised with posters and banners on the streets of Cairo several weeks in advance. So it is no wonder that they have banned the IDR and IRI from Egypt. Little Miss Dunne, is a little bit lacking of the real events! I could go on and on, and there are many more claims in this article I can tear into and rip apart, but that's enough!
    2 Recommends
    It is easy criticizing other countries when we have peaceful demonstrators at NY and   other cities who did not burn churches ,kidnap citizens ,bomb police cars and army evicted by force   at the most democratic country of the world .

    It is easy to criticize . but Egypt was faced with the greatest terror organization   on the earth    from people who were taught since childhood that killing and bombing others is a way to heaven ....it had been through this horrible psalmist militant   from Somalia ,Gaza ,Afghanistan ,Pakistan ,Philippine etc..... to the end of the list including the USA .
    We should let Egypt cleanse itself from this plague ,so it will not be another thorn for us.
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  • zafargondal,UK
    There seems no legitimacy in the process. Constitution is a social contract document between state and individuals, between various ethnic groups and between individuals and objectives are to work together and find viable solutions for the problems we all human face on this Earth. Inclusiveness and consensus is very critical. The process is very much crucial for credibility and sustainability of this social contract. If some strata/elements of state are excluded, then there is no fair and equitable social contract. Such contract is bound to fail.
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  • mohamed sherif
    sir, madam
    in Egypt the constitutional referendum well pass by the judiciary system ,which stell working for mubark goverment and they also working for the military counselors who run rhe country from the back door with the military chief Abdle fattah elsisi. you should know that any one who say no to the constitutional, he or she well be proscuted. all egyptians are under repression of the judiciary borad and the military power. they well also fabricated the presodenetial election, because the military against civil president, they well not allow egypt to have civil president. that why they removed morsi from power.
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    • Masreya replies...
      R u Egyptian?
  • CarnegiFools
    This is coming from an organization once led by Alger Hiss!!!
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    • Carlos replies...
      Reading this flawed and reductionist analysis makes it clear why the US got it wrong in the Middle East. If such writings feed Washington´s policy makers, then it is no wonder why the US has turned into an elephant walking through a porcelain shop.
  • Drmk
    2 Recommends
    Of all the reputable institutions in the US comes Carnegie with this Dunne's article that is biased, jumps to conclusions, short circuiting academic integrity and above all the need to Shepard and assist Egypt towards Democracy. The fight for human rights and good governance is under way and when the people establish a road map, the author rejects because of the misleading point of departure: unless Morsi is back what ever you will do will never be accepted. I may resort to listen to Amr Moussa who said yesterday don't pay attention to tainted articles coming out of Washington, let Egyptians proceed and show the world their true desire to rebuild their nation. Obviously this is not the Carnegie I know, this is not the Carnegie that wrote in the early nineties to waive the service of debt for Egypt, this is not the Carnegie of sound, rigorous, unbiased contributions. What we need is to assist a nation with its endeavours, disagree when disagreement is necessary but not to override or ridicule the wish of millions who rejected the Brotherhood rule. My advise to the author go back to the case of Tunisia and apply "comparative politics", see where the Islamists listened and gave in on key issues including the Sharia in the constitution and choose to co opt forces in the society, integrating secular forces leading Tunisia towards a secular state. Morsi had a chance but because he never ruled and was coached or ordered by the supreme Brotherhood Council, failed.
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  • MTaha
    1 Recommend
    I'm so sorry to say... This analysis is far away of the real situation in Egypt.
    As a member of al-Nour party, we see the amendments is fairly good and satisfying different groups and batching different ideologies to common frame. As you might know, al-Nour party is the second big political party, and the main Salafi party. So we are not excluded from any political re-engineering or reform. However, we do regretted and condemned the coup and its consequences especially considering the MB as a terrorist organization.
    Concerning the safety and security, It was the same environment and even worth during the last three elections and two referendums within period of three years!!
    I hoped to read fair analysis with useful suggestions.
    Thank you.
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  • MOhamed Talaat -Egyptian citizen
    2 Recommends
    is to advance the cause of peace through analysis and development of fresh policy ideas and direct engagement

    is USA and you   try to help Egyptians or Arabs   ? no   you want destroy our   country   as you did in IRAQ
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  • Leon
    2 Recommends
    Yet, another ethnocentric and self-fulfilling understanding of democratic governance. Yet, another narrow US-focused analysis based on doctor-patient analogy. Enough of such understanding and analysis please. Let the people of Egypt, and the peoples in all non-western societies shape their own relations with their own states.
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  • egyptian 83
    We are missing our few freedom days :(
    When we had an elected president we could say no loud more than ever before
    But now and since the coup we are suffering from the bloody return of mubarak/sisi anti freedoms regime
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    • Egyptian too replies...
      I am sure you are missing your ´freedom´ days as a member and follower of the cult of Muslim Brotherhood. No return to the ´freedom´ of your anti-Egypt terror cult. The dustbin of history is delighted to receive your cult and its ´freedom´.
  • Javed Mir
    --new constitution concerning military powers all suggest otherwise.--

    Empirically whenever a constitution is drafted by the military junta does not stand the test of time and eventually leads to more confusion and disruption in the society.
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  • SS
    What about parliamentary elections in Iraq 2005 the presence of occupying American army. Was that legitimizing democracy in Iraq? Why this sudden infatuation and defense of the Islamists and Muslim brotherhood portraying them as democracy champs who had been victimized by undemocratic people? Without the Muslim brotherhood and its writings, we would not have seen AlQaeda, Taliban, Hamas and similar terror organizations. Which side Carngie Foundation for Democracy is on these days! Crying over islamists who terrorize the people of Egypt with their riots and free to kill fataws does not serve the cause of democracy. The general accusation that the US sponsors and defends Islamist terrorism has now been academically proven.
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  • Greek Tragedy
    As bad as previous dictatorships, manipulated referendums while the largest and most democratic party is outlawed. That has been the Egypt of the Pharaohs., The Egyptian liberals are the sons and daughters of the
    Pharaohs led by the Copts. Islam and its civilizing influence is much diluted by dictators, a violent, cruel and savage, but cowardly military, and the environmentally destructive self-indulgent , spoiled and corrupt bourgeois liberal middle class
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    • Steve replies...
      Islam is anything but a "civilizing influence." Islam is the very antithesis of civilization. As soon as Islamists gain power they immediately go to work killing off and/or driving out members of all other religions. Now that the Jews have all been driven out or killed the only civilizing influence left is the Copts.
  • shamyandshamy@hotmail.fr
    . The new Constitution of the coup has been drafted only to obtain international recognition of the new government & as a letter of guarantee to obtain and spend U.S & EU aid,

    Since the new school year, students rejected the new military-led government & hold protests on campuses throughout Egypt. Many were arrested or killed in the violence between them & security forces.
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  • alaa lotfy
    actually this artical aint worth reading, you should consider to read more about every detail in the political scene in egypt instead of writing on one base, ignoring the great division.
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  • real face
    It is simply! US does not want Moris, WANTS SIS. US is AFRAID by Morsi especially for Israel, so Sis is the best choice for them. It is US democratic. For sure not. Just a stupid person do not understand the evil game playing by US.
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  • Steve
    Egypt's new constitution is a vast improvement over what the Muslim Brotherhood rammed down the people's throats. Perhaps now Egypt will be able to develop into a basically secular, albeit Muslim dominated, country rather than an Islamist tyranny.
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/01/09/legitimizing-undemocratic-process-in-egypt/gxx4

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