Egypt unprepared for September elections

June 29, 2011

Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections are due to take place in three months. But a near-total lack of preparation is prompting fears that the vote will be flawed, undermining its legitimacy and marring a revolution that empowered the people.

The vote is slated for September, but a new election law has not been finalized, no electoral system has been announced, no districts have been drawn and no specific date has been set. Egyptians who had hoped to see democracy after three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule worry that a troubled election in the Arab world’s most populous country could instead endanger reform efforts in their country 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 the 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 political groups point to a March referendum on constitutional changes as evidence that the transitional military council governing the country can move quickly. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces organized the March 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 Middle East, many in the region are looking to Egypt as a bellwether for what happens when a dictator is deposed. That attention means a marred September vote would not be just an Egyptian failure, Zahran said.

“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. Leaders there announced in June that the first election since the January ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali would be postponed from July 24 to Oct. 23.

In Egypt on Monday, the English-language version of the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper reported that the military had no plans to postpone the elections.

The problem, said a Western diplomat in Cairo with firsthand knowledge of the military council’s workings, is that the ruling generals “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 public.

Unsecured polling stations, 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.

‘Most opaque process’

In the past, Egypt’s feared Interior Ministry ran elections. But many voters stayed away because they expected that 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 the elections 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 no election rules are in place and parties are still in the process of getting licensed. Judges, who under the draft election law are supposed to oversee the voting, have not met. No one knows how the elections will work, so poll workers have not been trained and voter education campaigns have not been launched.

The military 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 such as the Muslim Brotherhood that have been around for decades.

“This is the most opaque process we’ve seen,” said Andrew Reynolds, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies electoral systems in new democracies. “No one, not the political parties, the United Nations” or nongovernmental organizations “knows who’s even writing the law,” he said.

Under the 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 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, 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 military rulers have not reached out to international experts 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 F. Kerry (D-Mass.) urged the head of the Egyptian military council, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to consider inviting international observers and that Tantawi was open to the idea.

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.

But groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has an established grass-roots following, are pushing for the elections to be held on time. The call for postponing the vote is “basically a minority exercising dictatorship and forcing its opinion on the majority,” said Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer and member of the Brotherhood.

Although a precise date for the elections has not been set, the military announced March 28 that the vote would be held within six months, and many here expect it by the end of September.

Between now and then, the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and government bodies grind to a halt, will further stall preparations.

“I’m 100 percent sure the elections will be postponed,” Zahran said. “The criticism is accumulating, and something has to be done.”

Special correspondent Sulafeh Munzir al-Shami in Cairo contributed to this report.

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