As Egypt heads toward elections for the lower house of parliament on November 28 and the presidency in 2011, Cairo’s officials have got their story straight and they are sticking to it: this proud nation needs no international observation of its elections, which will proceed according to well-established laws and constitutional precepts.  There is just one problem with this story, which is the history of past elections in the country: rigged and often violent.  In fact, Egyptians’ sense of trust in formal politics (never great) has deteriorated to the extent that several opposition parties will boycott and those that will participate are suffering from internal rifts because many of their members do not want to legitimize the existing system.

Assuming there will be no international observers to provide a window into the elections, how can Egyptians and outsiders tell how fair they were in the end?  One of the most important signals will be whether the Higher Electoral Commission extends credentials to the 14,000 or so Egyptian civil society activists seeking to monitor the elections. They have undergone rigorous training since a much more modest monitoring effort in 2005 and now are pressing for full access to the voting and counting processes.  In the  June 2010 elections for the small upper house of parliament, the electoral commission gave credentials to only a small percentage of civil society monitors at the eleventh hour (a major impediment in a country as large as Egypt) and then failed to instruct poll workers to let monitors in.  Whether that was incompetence or deliberate obstruction, the media spotlight on the November 28 elections is too bright for the electoral commission to get away with that again.

Violence has also been a major factor in previous Egyptian elections and could be this time as well.  The Ministry of Interior has in the past surrounded certain polling places—where a prominent pro-government candidate faced a strong opposition competitor— with security cordons, leading to violence as voters attempted to get in.  Thugs working for the security services or hired by specific candidates have intimidated and physically (including sexually) assaulted voters, monitors, and journalists while police looked the other way.  Will the orders be any different this year?

New measures specifically targeting Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, also raise doubts about how fair and competitive the elections will be.   The Brotherhood, a banned organization, may run candidates only as independents but in 2005 they campaigned openly, using the slogan “Islam is the solution,” and contested almost one-third of the parliamentary seats. Now the Egyptian government has outlawed the slogan, police authorities are systematically rounding up supporters of the movement, and the electoral commission has denied registration to one-quarter of the Brotherhood’s proposed candidates.

The government meanwhile has registered all of the hopefuls of co-opted or weak secular opposition parties, while newer and more independent secular parties (such as the liberal Ghad and Democratic Front parties) are boycotting. This faces the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) with a dilemma: it needs to win at least two-thirds of the parliament, but it also wants to create the image of real competition.  With the Brotherhood on the run and more credible secular parties boycotting, a strong electoral showing by captive or weakened parties such as the Tagammu and the Wafd would be a sure sign of electoral meddling.

Media coverage is emerging as another major issue in light of recent measures by the government, like requiring satellite television channels to get official clearance before reporting live from anywhere in Egypt. The government also has stipulated that cell phone providers get a similar clearance before sending aggregate text messages to their users, a technique that has been increasingly used by the opposition to mobilize supporters and reach out to the public. And in spite of the diversity of the media landscape in Egypt, with its mix of public and private ownership, initial reports by Egyptian NGOs following media coverage and reporting in the lead-up to the elections have indicated a clear bias towards the ruling party and its candidates.
 
Perhaps the most interesting thing to look for on November 28 will be the U.S. reaction to Egypt’s elections. Washington tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Mubarak to accept international election monitors and to lift the state of emergency under which Egypt has been ruled for three decades.  The administration should keep in mind that showing U.S. support for political reform and human rights in Egypt has value even if Mubarak—aged 82 and ailing—continues to stonewall.  The Egyptian public follows every utterance from Washington, trying to determine where Obama stands.  And Mubarak’s successor, perhaps yet to be determined, is on the scene and undoubtedly also listening to every word, trying to gauge whether external actors support Egyptian citizens’ demands for democratic change and to what extent he will need to accommodate them.