First foreign monitoring of Egyptian elections might herald better relations with Europe

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 21 May 2014

The decision of Egypt's authorities to allow a EU observer mission to monitor next week's presidential poll could lead to greater support for the incoming presidency in Cairo, say European diplomats

Nikolai Vulchanov
European Union Election Observation Mission in Egypt's Deputy Chief Observer Nikolai Vulchanov and Chief Observer Mario David look on during a news conference in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

European diplomats in Egypt say they are hoping that the decision of the Egyptian government to facilitate a European Union (EU) observer mission monitor the presidential elections scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, 26-27 May, across the nation is an indication of a new inclination on the side of authorities to accommodate some the basics of democracy and political freedoms.

They add that the more commitment Egypt shows in this direction, following the expected election of former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the more openness the EU will show towards Egypt and the more support it can grant the presidency of El-Sisi.

“We think it is a very positive thing that the Egyptian government acted promptly to accommodate the concerns and the obstacles that had nearly forced us to downgrade the mandate of our mission from observing to assessment,” said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

An agreement had been reached between the EU and the Presidential Elections Committee allowed for the first ever foreign observation of an election in Egyptian — presidential or otherwise.

The decision, say government officials, was taken to send a signal to the world that Egypt is breaking free from the past where the mere idea of any observer mission was a strict taboo.

“I have to admit it, and I have worked for long years with elections, from the government side, that before there was room for, let us say, some manoeuvring here and there. But this time we are determined and we are confident that it is going to be free and fair. We are not getting any orders to suggest otherwise,” said a concerned government official.

“Free, yes. We have every indication to think that the upcoming presidential elections will be free. But not fair — not in the orthodox sense anyway, because when all is said and done there is an unmasked bias in state bodies and the media — actually more private than official — towards Field Marshal El-Sisi,” said a European ambassador in Cairo.

“Still, it is a big step forward to have free elections and to count on the popularity of the candidate, even if he comes from the heart of the state or from the armed forces, to secure that the elections would be free and for that matter observed,” she added.

According to this and other members of the Western diplomatic corps in Egypt, any positive sign from official Cairo to the effect that democracy and human rights would be observed is much welcomed for two reasons: first, to do with unmasked European and general Western concern over the fate of “nascent democracy in Egypt” following the ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013 in the wake of massive nationwide demonstrations calling on him to step down; second, the positive engagement of democracy on the side of Egypt helps European capitals that wish to help Egypt “anyway” — in order to support the stability of Europe's otherwise disturbed southern borders — to face up to the objections of rights groups in Europe that still insist that Egyptian authorities should be punished.

In the reading of many Western diplomats, the real motivation behind the decision of the Egyptian government to allow the observer mission to operate, and to reverse complications that nearly led to the downgrade of the mission, has to do essentially with the fact that it is the chief of the army who last year acted to remove Morsi and who is running as the lead presidential candidate less than a year later.

“Still, it is a good sign and we want to encourage our Egyptian friends to further pursue this direction with the parliamentary elections — especially that we have doubts about the impact of the electoral law on the ability of political parties to have a real presence in the next parliament, and actually on the ability of those opposed to Field Marshal El-Sisi in general to have any serious presence in parliament,” said another European ambassador.

The decision of the Egyptian government to facilitate the observer mission will allow a group of 80 monitors who are already moving across the country with the help of Cairo-based European diplomats, to observe the process and to write reports on any violations — or, indeed, the lack thereof.

“Ultimately this mission, along with the work of other observers, would silence firmly any doubts about the legitimacy of the results of the elections,” said the same government official.

For the Europeans, however, this step, significant as it may be, cannot be enough in and of itself to open up long-term European support for the new authorities in Egypt.

European diplomats in Cairo speak at length of serious concerns about the fate of democracy and human rights in Egypt. Reasons for concern include developments on the ground and the vision offered by El-Sisi and his supporters in their official and informal statements.

Having carefully followed the interviews of El-Sisi, and visited with his aides and advisors, several European ambassadors say they hear much said about how “democracy could come later,” that “human rights is a side issue compared to security” and that “the reform of the police is not a pressing priority” — indeed, more than they would have expected.

For some, these statements bear a clear resemblance to statements they used to hear, both openly and privately, from the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.

“Mubarak made a mistake when he thought that if he kept people fed, which he was not actually doing very well, he would secure their silence. Morsi made another mistake because he thought that his electoral victory was a sign that the people were on his side regardless. Clearly the message that Egyptians have been sending is that they want both good living and democracy,” said a European diplomat based at the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels.

She added: “Time will tell if Field Marshal El-Sisi is heeding this message. We are not sure. Let us say we are hoping he is.”

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