A chance for democracy in Egypt
Although it has held a series of troubling elections this year, Egypt has an opportunity to fulfill the commitments its government has made to the Egyptian people as it prepares for next year's presidential election, if it takes steps to implement several changes to which it has committed.
Most reports show voter turnout in the recent parliamentary elections was less than 25 percent - reflecting Egyptians' lack of faith in their electoral process. Ongoing public demonstrations reinforce this fact. Indeed, in both rounds of parliamentary elections there were credible reports of significant government interference directed against voters at the ballot box. Opposition party observers and candidate representatives were blocked from polling places, domestic monitors were denied full access to observe the process, and international monitors were not allowed into the country. The June elections for Egypt's upper house of parliament were similarly troubled.
Both Egyptian elections stand in contrast to a trend in the region of greater electoral transparency. Iraq and Jordan also held elections this year, and both allowed independent international and domestic monitors to observe the voting process. While irregularities and some violence were reported in each of those elections, the relative freedom and transparency of their processes underscore the extent to which some leaders in the region are embracing international norms for democratic elections as a way to increase public participation and confidence in their governments.
President Obama has made clear his support for the principle that all individuals should have the chance to shape the decisions that affect their lives. The United States, along with many other governments - including some in the Middle East, as evidenced by the Iraqi and Jordanian elections - embraces the globally accepted norm of international monitoring for democratic elections. These are universal principles, as valid for the Middle East as for Africa, Asia or North America.
The partnership between the United States and Egypt, one of our most important in the region, is rooted in common interests and shared aspirations. Both Americans and Egyptians want to achieve Arab-Israeli peace and hope to see a stable Iraq and an Iran that behaves responsibly within the international community. It is the administration's firm view that progress in political and economic reform in Egypt is essential to the country's long-term strength and success as a regional leader as well as to sustaining a strong foundation for our valued strategic partnership. The presidential elections scheduled for next fall present Egypt's leadership with an opportunity to set the stage for the future by making the reforms that will bolster citizens' confidence in their government and enhance the government's legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
Egypt has publicly committed to steps that, if implemented, would be essential to a free, fair and transparent electoral process in 2011. The most important actions would be ending the long-standing state of emergency, under which the country has been operating since 1981, and enacting long-promised counterterrorism legislation that protects the universal rights of the Egyptian people. Egypt's High Electoral Commission, established by a constitutional amendment in 2007 transferring election oversight from the judiciary, has promised to review the irregularities reported in the recent elections; this new institution can demonstrate its credibility and independence by respecting and implementing court decisions on electoral issues, thoroughly investigating alleged violations of the electoral process and moving to prevent recurrences.
Free and fair elections require free and vibrant media; that includes bloggers and international coverage. The Egyptian government could also do more to encourage a broader array of political parties and to support citizens who want to form nongovernmental organizations to contribute to their country's future. It will also be important for Egypt to welcome both international and domestic election monitors and allow them to carry out their work freely throughout the campaign period and on Election Day next September.
When I visited Egypt in October, I heard a clear desire by many Egyptians to have the opportunity to participate more actively in their governance. This is why this administration is looking for signs of progress in next year's elections. We do this not out of judgment or the presumption that we know best. We look for these signs because we share common interests with the people and government of Egypt, including a political future worthy of Egypt's rich culture and history, one that signals the way forward for an entire region.
The writer is assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.