The election monitoring business

Yasmine Fathi and Salma Shukrallah , Friday 26 Nov 2010

As the Egyptian elections near, questions about monitoring persist

Elections monitoring

For the past year, the Egyptian government has adamantly stood behind its refusal to have international monitoring in the upcoming parliamentary elections. But now that the elections are just days away, the question is, who will do the job?

In recent weeks, the issue of foreign monitoring has led to a war of words between the US and Egypt. Despite repeated American requests that Egypt allow international monitors to oversee the elections, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has stubbornly refused, insisting that sovereign countries like Egypt do not need international monitors. The American persistence has led the Egyptian foreign ministry to express its annoyance with Washington, arguing that the US is meddling in local affairs. Washington has responded by saying that it is not meddling but simply giving friendly advice.

“This is not interfering in Egyptian affairs. This is encouraging a very close friend of the United States that its elections are vitally important and that its people want to see and have opportunities for greater participation in Egypt’s political system and have a government that is more representative of all segments of Egyptian society,” said State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley.

As the verbal battle continues between Cairo and Washington, many civil society groups have decided to pitch in, and monitor the elections, instead. To date, four civil society coalitions have been formed to oversee the elections. In addition, websites where candidates and citizens can regularly report voting violations have been set up and political bloggers will also contribute by reporting any violations they witness.

“I don’t understand the reason behind the refusal to allow foreign monitors in,” says Hafez Abu Saada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), which is part of one of the monitoring coalitions. “This is like a sick person refusing the help of a doctor because he’s foreign.”

The debate over election monitoring is not new to Egypt, and local NGOs and human rights organizations have been monitoring the country's elections since the mid-90s.These organizations include the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies (ICDS) and EOHR. Today, there are hundreds of organizations and several coalitions, all attempting to cover a wider constituency than was possible in the past.

This year, the EOHR has formed the Egyptian Alliance for Monitoring the 2010 Elections, which consists of 123 organizations. The ICDS has formed a second coalition the Independent Committee for Monitoring the Elections, made up of 40 organizations. In addition to these two, the Independent Coalition for Monitoring the Elections was established by three organizations, including the Cairo Center for Human Rights, the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement (ECP) and Nazra for Feminist Studies.

“The reason why so many groups insist on monitoring is because of all the violations committed in the past elections,” explains Gamal Eid, the Director of The Arab Network Human Information. “It is the role of the civil society to reveal to the Egyptian people what exactly is going on, otherwise it would not be doing its job properly.”

Surrounding these civil society group have been questions of funding. While some organizations insisted that they would not receive funding, others have happily accepted financial assistance from international groups. According to Ahmed Rizk, head of the ICDS, its Independent Committee has received two funds, at a total of $300,000. The money came from two American organizations: the Jordan-based Future Organization and the Tunisia-based Middle East Partnership Association. Meanwhile, the Independent Coalition has also received funding, obtaining a EUR300,000 from the European Union.

On the other hand, Abu Saada of the EOHR insists his coalition would receive no funds, neither local nor international. Mohamed Eisa, a lawyer at the ECP, claims that Abu Saada’s EOHR did in fact apply for an EU fund, but the ECP ended up getting it, instead.

Though the monitoring coalitions claim they are not competitive with one another, Mahmoud Nawar, a Helwan University student who was approached by a recruiter, said that many young people compare the prices paid by different organizations and decide where to volunteer, accordingly. Backing Nawar’s assertion, Abu Saada claims that many volunteers turned away from his coalition when they found out that the work is unpaid. “Monitoring the elections is not a job but a form of national contribution,” says Abu Saada. “I don’t feel comfortable about paying people for doing national work.”

As for the ICDS’ coalition, Rizk says that the group will not pay monitoring volunteers, but will give them food and transportation fees. He did not, however, state what amount would be provided. Similarly, Abu Saada explained that most of the 1000 volunteers will be given food, transportation and phone cards to text violations from the different polling stations. As for the ECP, Eisa said they intend to pay LE100 for each monitoring volunteer on the day of the elections but did not specify whether they were food and transportation fees or simply a one-time salary.

As for the actual value of their work, Eid believes that NGOs will not necessarily accurately reflect what happens on the day of the elections, either because of their close relationship with the government, or for fear of what will happen if they expose the violations. The only organizations that can be trusted, says Eid, are the independent ones such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Addintionally, Rizk argues, problems exist with regards to monitoring permits. According to him, permit applications submitted to the Higher Authority for Election Monitoring were refused before even getting reviewed and added that only "government affiliated" NGOs will receive permits. According to him, though only organizations that are registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity can apply for permits, even some of those that are registered were refused. In a contrary account, Abbas said that their applications were accepted and are currently getting reviewed.

Most coalitions have a similar monitoring process, which is divided into three or four stages, in addition to online interactive maps. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the country’s largest opposition group, has also opened an election monitoring website called “Shahid 2010.” They do not, of course, use permits but rather monitor through their candidates. Essam El-Erian, the MB spokesperson, says that the website will hopefully be effective in revealing all the violations that happen on the day of the elections.

"The law used to give candidates the right to have delegates inside the polling stations to make sure that the election processes is carried out properly and accurately,” says El-Erian. “But the government, unfortunately, does not respect this law and puts pressure on the delegates and refuses to let them inside the polling stations.”
The Shaid website has an adjoining twitter account and an interactive map which highlights all the polling stations. On it, users can find out if any problems – including police harassment, violence or thuggery – have takes place. Nazra also has an interactive map which will display all irregularities in the polling stations where female candidates are running. An additional monitoring website was set up by group of citizens who have called their site “Abu Blash,” meaning “For free,” where accounts, videos and photos of violations are uploaded.

Other NGOs that will participate in the elections include the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development, which will train 5000 volunteers to monitor the elections, and Monitoring without Borders, which will focus on the media coverage of the elections, especially in Luxor, Aswan and Red Sea governorates.

Each volunteer is trained to look out for violations, including that each voter’s identity is checked to make sure that he or she is indeed voting in their constituency; that proper electoral procedures are followed; monitors are there to watch the counting of votes and the official announcement of results.

This year, the coalitions’ job will be different, insists Abu Saada. According to him, in 1995 the minister of interior announced that if monitoring volunteers get close to the polling stations, they will be arrested. “The challenge was very clear from the beginning,” he said. “In 2005, it was easier, because there was judicial supervision protecting the voting ballots, so our volunteers just monitored from the outside.”

This year, it is the first time that monitoring civil society coalitions will work legally. A new amendment to the law on political participation rights allows civil society to participate in the electoral process.

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