As Egypt moves toward parliamentary elections on November 28, political parties are debating whether to participate in the process or to boycott it. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is struggling to manage competition within the party for nominations, and opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are facing restrictions on their ability to campaign. Meanwhile, civil society groups are organizing and training thousands of election monitors. The Carnegie Endowment and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted a discussion about the upcoming elections with Wael Nawara, secretary general and co-founder of the al-Ghad Party, and Mahmoud Ali of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development. Andrew Albertson, executive director of POMED, served as a commentator and Carnegie’s Michele Dunne moderated the discussion. The event was supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute.
Debating the Merits of a Boycott
The Egyptian opposition is currently divided into two camps: parties and movements that support electoral participation, and those calling for a boycott. Nawara outlined the arguments for and against participation, while acknowledging his party’s decision to boycott the November elections.
- Legitimizing a flawed system: Proponents of the boycott claim that participation legitimizes a political system. They argue that by eschewing participation in the electoral process, opposition parties can embarrass the regime into granting political concessions.
- Fixing the system from within: Advocates of participation argue that failure to compete for parliamentary seats will further marginalize the opposition, Nawara said. Proponents of this view, including Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, maintain that by participating in elections, they can document and expose flaws in the process.
Elections in an Authoritarian Political Landscape
Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections are set to unfold against the backdrop of an authoritarian political system that has resisted reform for 30 years, stated someone. Under the leadership of aging President Hosni Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has consolidated strong majorities in both of Egypt’s legislative bodies. On November 28, Egyptians will vote for representatives of the People’s Assembly, but panelists agreed that not much is likely to change. Nawara and Ali described the political system as structurally engineered to preserve the ruling party’s monopoly on power. Opposition parties, they asserted, face an uphill battle to reconfigure the political status quo by participating in the November elections.
- A “scripted” political process: Egypt’s political process is analogous to a “scripted play” that has been constructed to yield outcomes favorable to the NDP, Nawara said. Although the regime has opened the political process slightly in recent years, it has also taken steps to ensure the opposition’s parliamentary representation does not exceed a critical threshold by restricting the activities of existing parties and imposing barriers to new ones.
- Reining in the opposition: The Egyptian opposition has gained momentum in recent years, but its surge of political activism has been countered by the regime’s equally powerful crackdown on other parties, Nawara said. Beginning in 2004, new parties and movements such as al-Ghad, Kefaya, and the April 6 Youth Movement employed grassroots organizing strategies to mobilize mass protests and general strikes. By 2009, Mohammed ElBaradei had emerged as a vocal proponent of political change, and his National Association for Change–in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood–has gathered nearly 1 million signatures supporting constitutional and electoral reforms. The government retaliated by arresting members of the opposition and tightening restrictions on independent media and non-governmental organizations, Nawara explained.
- The legal environment: In 2007, President Mubarak introduced several constitutional amendments consolidating the executive branch’s control over electoral processes and introduced new restrictions on opposition groups with a religious orientation, said Nawara. Under the new legal framework, elections are supervised by an appointed electoral commission instead of independent judges, and the president now possesses the authority to dismiss parliament. Nawara argued that these changes have reduced the overall transparency of electoral procedures, rendering the voting process even more vulnerable to fraud and irregularities.
Obstacles to Free and Fair Elections
Although thousands of domestic monitors are seeking permission to observe the electoral processes, they face an uphill battle in preventing and reporting irregularities. Ali, whose organization is involved in training domestic monitors, outlined several of the obstacles to free and fair elections:
- Vote buying: Some candidates attempt to sway voters with lavish campaign spending and others have resorted to bribery and patronage schemes to mobilize support.
- Police interference: To register to vote, Egyptians must report to police stations, an intimidating experience. In past elections, security forces have even been deployed around certain polling places to keep voters out.
- Excluding monitors: Ali estimated that approximately 12,000 domestic monitors are being trained to observe 50,000 polling stations, but that only a fraction of them will be granted permission to do so. In past elections, the Higher Electoral Commission–which oversees the registration of domestic monitors–has restricted the number of credentials granted. Even monitors who successfully obtain credentials are not guaranteed access to polling and counting stations; in the June 2010 Shura Council election, many were denied access to these venues by security forces.
- Inadequate information about voting procedures: Ali criticized the Higher Electoral Commission for failing to provide adequate information to the public about voting logistics. Guidelines for participation are unclear, and voters are not adequately informed about registration procedures and polling place locations.
Beyond November 28
Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections represent the first phase in a broader process of political transformation underway in Egypt. An inevitable leadership succession looms on the horizon, and could take place even before the 2011 presidential election. In preparation for these imminent political changes, panelists urged U.S. policy makers and the international community to support the political aspirations of the Egyptian people.
- The role of international monitors: Permitting international monitors to observe voting processes would represent an important step toward fair and transparent elections, Albertson noted. Ali agreed, arguing that international monitors could effectively support the efforts of their domestic counterparts, and their presence would decrease the likelihood of voting irregularities.
- Reevaluating the administration’s policy toward Egypt: Nawara called on the Obama administration to develop a new diplomatic strategy emphasizing the importance of transparent, democratic processes in Egypt and creating positive incentives for U.S.-Egyptian cooperation. Noting that a viable strategy must be durable enough to survive leadership changes in Washington, Nawara called for “a long-term approach” that could be carried on by President Obama’s successors.