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.

Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.
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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.