Egyptian elections: back to the future (EN)

 « The Egyptians were not trying to please anyone » headlined Le Progress Egyptian, a French language daily newspaper after the third day of the presidential election. And it went on to add that the “pessimistic threats from local or international bodies did not manage to influence the chauvinists of the country. Whether the West, or even Egypt’s enemies, were satisfied or not with the level of participation, it didn’t seem to matter to the Egyptians. They knew exactly what they wanted and were not interested in pleasing others ».

photo photo 1 photo photoThis was one of the important aspects of this election. But only one of the many – the extent of the violence and the violation of human rights that the country has experienced over the past three years, weigh heavily on the context of these elections. Thousands of opponents or those supposed to be, are or have been imprisoned or intimidated.

This election was a step forward on the “road map” (rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties and groups calling for a boycott of the elections) after the referendum on the constitution and before the future parliamentary and local elections.

However it does not excuse the military regime which deposed (under pressure or with the help of the huge mobilization of the population) the former elected president and which took over the country. All this within a very tense national context and a devastated economy, but supported with billions of dollars from Ryad, as well as the particularly difficult regional context. From the Sinai to Libya and through to Sudan, the insecurity caused by arms trafficking across the region is huge.

We knew all this and we were even aware of it before the elections; we knew of the evolution of the Egyptian revolution and its setbacks, the death sentences of hundreds of people (even if they were not executed), the summary trials, if they ever took place (as attested by the international mission of lawyers who witnessed such trials last month). Such a state of affairs inevitably discourages the most optimistic supporters of the democratic transition.

But it is also important to try to understand the other side to this election. The EU Election Observation Mission and its preliminary report is the result of having been able to experience some very special moments of the campaign and the election itself. Even before our departure, such a mission was called into question; were we not legitimizing the regime and the president whose election was a foregone conclusion? The preliminary report (1) is not at all in this vein. Furthermore, the mission got off to a bad start due to the bureaucratic-political decisions that delayed the deployment of long-term observers inside the country. The holding-up of the material required for this mission was probably due to the rigid attitude adopted by the authorities and the dysfunction of the chain of command rather than political opposition to the mission, due to the fact that an expert team was already at work in Cairo since late April. This team increased its contacts and provided a detailed analysis of the context and procedures that preceded the election: analysis of the adopted constitution, the lack of regulation of the media (all but independent), the organization of the election itself for some 53 million voters in 11,000 polling centres, repeated and serious violation of human rights which reflected a real regression on the ground.

photo 3 photo 5 photo 1 photo 1Being aware of such a situation, I and five of my fellow MEPs, decided to get the feel of the city and its inhabitants. We met a number of people from the political arena as well as members of the civil society; we visited a number of polling stations which had taken over the schools, not to mention the long hours of observation in different offices and conversations with the long queues of voters, some of whom spoke English, but most often via the interpreter who accompanied us.

« You must tell the world what we want. We want Sisi »

It was unquestionably, the pride, the identity and the feeling of a new found country that animated Cairo throughout the election period and thus, knowingly conveyed the winning candidate to victory. Posters of the candidate Fattah El-Sisi lined every panel bordering the endless viaducts that cross the city. The same smaller portrait of the candidate hung from every clothesline under the windows of the buildings across the city. He was everywhere. It was clear from the beginning that the two candidates running for election did not have the same financial means as far as publicity was concerned and even more so, their respective campaign offices highlighted this huge disparity.

photo 1 photo 1Sisi’s offices in the new part of the city (New Cairo) were located in an area where huge houses competed in ugliness in looking like huge fortresses.  Armed men in battle dress were posted at the entrance while soldiers stationed nearby were on guard in the whole street. Upstairs, a computer room called “the operation room » was equipped with multiple screens (rather out of date!), where a number of young men and women, probably volunteers, monitored and updated the media and social networks.

We were welcomed by the campaign manager, the former Egyptian ambassador to the EU in Paris, who is married to a woman from Liege. He mentioned a conversation he had just had with Anne Marie LIZIN and statements she had made which he deemed unfounded…. But above all he spoke of the difficulties encountered by the candidate Sisi whom he supported. The meeting was obviously intended to explain why there was a risk that the turnout was not going to be very high. And that was even before it was decided that there would be a third day of polling.

On our return to the hotel, we passed in front of the buildings of the Ministry of Transport. I remembered that in 2001, shortly before September 11, I had come to meet the Minister and a number of military officials in charge of civil aviation in order to discuss aircraft noise and airport security, for the exchange of support on different points to be discussed at the ICAO Assembly.

We went on to meet the local candidate Hamdine Sebahi, some posters of whom eventually managed to appear on the bridge over the Nile near Tahrir Square on the last day before the elections, thus much less imposing! The appointment was for 22.30 and it was still more than 30°C. We finally arrived at the end of a labyrinth of small streets and came face to face with a horse pulling a cart overflowing with rubbish. It took all the patience and skill of the driver of our minibus to reverse down the lane with hardly a centimetre on each side of the vehicle. We finished the journey on foot. Our contact was waiting in the lobby of a rundown building and the ride in the elevator was not very reassuring either. The local candidate occupied an apartment on the 12th floor, renovated quite simply with a small waiting room at the entrance. There were not enough chairs for everyone and the ensuing discussion was rather confused speaking of one thing and another. Hamdine Sebahi focused on social justice and redistribution. My Polish and Czech colleagues remembered that emerging from a dictatorship where everything is in the hands of the few, requires more than redistribution from the rich to the poor; they explained to Mr Sebahi that it was necessary to protect private investment, create progressive taxation, eliminate corruption and ensure transparency. They spoke from experience; they were both over 50 and had lived through such a transition from one regime to another.

photo 2 photo 1 photo 3 photo 4But let’s go back to the thousands of Cairotes who voted. In all the offices which we visited, a little less than half of those registered had voted at the end of the second day of voting. During the day, it was mostly the women with their children or those who were accompanying their elders, some with or without headscarves of all shapes and colours, some in abayas.  Many waved the national flag, or wore a hat with the colours of Egypt. Some were even dressed in the national colours. There was singing while queuing or the crying of the youyou sound the women make and the chanting of slogans: Masr (Egypt  – Egyptian Arabic) and showing the C for Sisi with thumb and forefinger.  Some of them called to us and told us “we are the best in the world” or “you tell the world we want Sisi.”


A well-organized election   

In the polling stations, whether in the fashionable district of Maadi or in the popular neighborhoods of Abdeen or Bulak, people voted seriously and calmly.  The teams of assessors were also serious and competent and well organized, under the leadership of a president, male or female, and all from the judiciary.

photo 3 photo 4 photo 2 photo 1Some embraced the ballot box. Others took photographs (a sort of electoral selfie!) or asked the children to take the photo. This good-natured atmosphere was in contrast with the military equipment and the sandbags at the entrance to the office guarded by armed soldiers. But the contrast was only in appearance: the soldiers helped the elderly or disabled to access the polling stations. It was clear that everything was done to ensure that the election went well. And so it did throughout the three days of voting. Everyone (with the notable exception of some 5 million people, mostly women, who were not registered, because of an abusive interpretation of the matrimonial regime) had an electronic identity card. In some offices, equipped with a map reading device, identification of the person on the electoral roll was easy. There was at least one woman in the office to compare the face on the ID card with the real face that was hidden behind a veil. Finally, each voter was asked to dip a finger in indelible pink ink to prove he/she had voted and could not vote a second time and some people even dipped two fingers in and came out of the office holding up the two red fingers for the V sign!

These polling stations were in fact quite moving. All sorts of people mingled; for example, this young head of the polling station, elegantly dressed in a well-cut suit and polished shoes who had not even loosened his tie, despite the heat; he accompanied the elderly in their tattered slippers, and allowed the children to dip their fingers in the pink ink, while explaining to us in perfect English how the office operated. The atmosphere was friendly and a voter approached me. Our interpreter translated, « I saw you on TV! »  Of course the image of us as MEP observers had been used to legitimize the process and call voters to the polls. This was inevitable and part of the risk in being here. But far more important than these images, was the preliminary report submitted the day after the election, and the final report to be submitted within a month. It was clear and uncomplacent as to the context of such elections and the subsequent report was not well received by the authorities and is already controversial. However, that day there was definitely something going on between all these people- they were sharing something important, perhaps ephemeral but we will see……..

My Polish colleague pointed out that despite all our reservations on this election and knowing the results in advance, the mood of the election and how it had taken place had nothing in common with what had happened in the 1970s in his own country.

If the people « want » the return of the army, it is because they have a particular relationship with it. The army is a safeguard even if they stand for only 5% of the economy, but it is the army which controls the major part of the national economy.

On the other hand, the return to power of the military is also for many a question of preservation of personal interests and keeping their position in society or quite simply a guarantee of stability and the recovery of the economic sector and tourism.

On our return I spoke to an Egyptian working in an international company and a fervent supporter and voter of Morsi. He explained to me at length why he had refused the call to boycott the elections and why he had finally voted for Sisi. It is obviously not the entire population of this metropolis of 30 million people who will have voted and one of the big issues in this election lay more in the rate of participation (a third day of voting was unexpected but it was designed to boost the turnout, which was perhaps not the case) than in the respective percentage gained by the two candidates. But let’s be honest: the first estimates were between 30 and 40% which has yet to be confirmed but seems compatible with what we saw in the polling stations we visited. If this proves to be correct, regardless of the context, the turnout will have been identical to last Sunday’s European elections.

A context that was as violent as much as it violated the principle of legality

Our work was not limited to visiting the polling stations. For two full days, politicians and representatives of the civil society presented their own analyses which were at the same time very different and yet similar. It was clear that there was violence and repression on both sides. Compared to Mubarak’s time, human rights have definitely regressed as is the case concerning the quality of justice and gender equality. At present, it is probably the worst time for women: the increase in female genital mutilation, child marriage, sexual harassment is in total contradiction to the openness of the Egypt we knew before. It is also the worst time for human rights:  dissonant voices are not tolerated and are considered as dangerous or even worse, to be defenders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a most supreme insult.

photo 4 photo 1 photo 2 photo 3This is also the case for the infamous « protest law » which, in contrast to all international standards, allows and trivializes the use of force and firearms against demonstrators. For example, the indiscriminate repression against the pro-Morsi demonstrators on Rabaa al-Adawiyya Square, a deliberate repression led by anti-riot police equipped with gas masks and which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries. These events can be compared to those of Tiananmen Square and were the subject of a report2 by the National Council for Human Rights, a report that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the police and army approve (which is somehow a good sign!) but which was sent to the Prosecutor.

We also had talks with the President and the Secretary General of this Council for Human Rights. We discussed the situation in the prisons with a population of over 20 to 40,000 inmates (according to different sources) with or without charges against them but in any case far from all being criminals. The prison conditions are terrible and torture and beatings are common practice. Confinement is the rule and family visits are limited and take place behind windows. There are also many under18 detainees.

The candidate Sisi has announced that he will demand a revision of charges held against these tens of thousands of prisoners and that he will create a commission for this purpose. We’ll see. But it is unclear that if such a commission were formed, how could it take a decision on such a large number of casesin the short-term. Throughout our contacts we insisted on the importance of such measures from the newly elected President, including the right to pardon.

In prison, there are also the leaders of the April 6 Movement whose representatives we met, three young men in their twenties and already with solid experience and commitment. The April 6 Movement had actively prepared the uprising of January 25 in 2011 against the former president Mubarak. It also participated in the protests against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who ran Egypt after Mubarak’s fall. It was, however, divided after the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections and disintegrated after President Morsi’s victory. Part of the movement had joined the Islamic Salvation Front opposed to the Brotherhood, while the « Ahmad Maher » movement adopted a more ambiguous position.

Ahmad Maher and two other senior members of this April 6 faction were sentenced a few months ago to three years in prison for « illegal demonstration and violence. »  We were told that they would have preferred that there be no observation mission for these recent elections as they were extremely pessimistic as to the future, the road map and the return to power of the army and that, as far as they were concerned, Sisi was not a guarantee for political stability.

We then talked about their own commitment and how to translate their immediate political demands, in order to give strength to their movement which wants to build a true civil society. These are young men who must be invited by the European movements in order to be heard and understood and supported.

A state of emergency without a name

Another body, the Fact Finding Committee, was established by presidential decree six months ago and is working on events in Rabaa as well as all other violations and abuses committed since June 30, 2013.  This is a huge undertaking by the independent commission whose President, a former ICTY official, the Vice-Chairman and Secretary-General agreed to meet us at the Shura Council Chamber of the Parliament which hosts their work. They have divided their work into twelve categories of violations and / or events. For each of them, they have gathered evidence and testimonies from all over the country, insofar as the responsibility of the facts and sometimes the facts themselves are not clear and which require verification. The figures concerning the victims of Rabaa vary widely. They admit that they believe that they are currently in a state of emergency as yet without a name. They have requested and have been granted additional time in order to process information and to write their report, all the more so since the Muslim Brotherhood initially refused to cooperate but changed their minds and have recently provided evidence in the investigation.

In this context, the NGOs and independent journalists (very rare within a system that is dominated on the one hand by the government media – state TV –and on the other hand by private media whose interests often converge) are considered to be the enemy. Some are in prison, others have left the country. We met the brother of one of them who told us the terrible story of the arrest of his brother, who was covering the events of Rabaa and was taken to the stadium, where his equipment was confiscated before being sent to the Abu Simbel prison and then to the Torah prison where he was beaten and suffered degrading treatment. The lawyer of another photojournalist, arrested on December 28 while covering the student protests, recounted the experiences of his client in prison without trial. The correspondent of another newspaper told us how he was hit by police bullets and given up for dead while covering a student demonstration. Rescued and cared for, the police are now trying to prove, by intimidation and threats, that the bullets were fired by students! Journalists have become enemies of the State to such an extent that the mere fact of having a camera or a laptop on the street puts the owner in danger.

On the « official media » side, an academic, specialist in these matters, argued that during the campaign, ‘this’ media never pushed the candidate Sisi to respond, while pushing the other candidate into a corner. The presenters of the programme announced their vote, and those who spoke of a « coup » lost their license. This whole sector should be regulated through a Media Council. If it were to see the day and enjoyed real liberty of expression there would be a great deal of work to do. We were told that the atmosphere is extremely hostile towards Human Rights representatives. They are not asking for foreign interference or intrusion but they do want pressure to be put on the authorities.

Parliamentary democracy?

This bleak picture of the reality on the ground is in complete contradiction to the new constitution of 2014, which reflects the relationship between the military authorities, Islam, the oligarchs and the voices demanding revolution and change. This text is a catalogue of the important rights that all Eyptians should enjoy, including the recognition of religious minorities and even the right to culture! But there is a huge gap between what the constitution stands for and reality. And the implementation of the constitution will depend on both the laws that the new Parliament will vote and (the control of) their application.

Parliamentary elections are planned for after the summer. But if we refer to the first draft of the law organizing the elections and electoral districts, we have every right to be worried about the ability in the future to assemble political forces in Egyptian society which are currently polarized or split. One cannot imagine MPs forming coalitions or compromising on legislation. As the bill stands 80% of seats would be conferred on an individual basis, with preference votes and not according to party votes, which obviously opens up the risk of seeing 80% of votes « bought » by a presidential majority. The Minister of Foreign Affairs with whom we discussed this scenario did not defend this draft but he did emphasize that it was necessary to fight against the increase of political parties (currently numbered at 68) that proliferate due to the funding of public parties. The elimination of such subsidies could be interpreted as a limitation of the freedom to form political parties but, he declared, it was necessary to look for other ways to avoid fragmentation. Admittedly this is a real issue. The number of electoral lists in Tunisia also affected the legibility of the parliamentary election. We advised them to validate their bill via the Venice Commission (3), advisory body of the Council of Europe on constitutional issues related to election and codes. Some of our political interlocutors also believe that political reconciliation is not immediate or in any case not possible now. And even the left and liberals prefer to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood in order to win seats.

Terrorism, stability and transition

The fight against terrorism is a strong recurrent argument  which according to some, justifies all sorts of abuse: historical period, wave of terrorism, need to put Egypt back on the map and its ability to play its role in the region, the need to distance itself from the effects of poor governance of the past decades. The Sisi supporters criticize the historical errors of Morsi who had apparently forgotten Egypt, and dreamt of a great Islamic family beyond national interests. As for those of the Muslim Brotherhood, one can endlessly discuss their role and the reasons for the abstention votes but one will never know if they actually fed the ranks of the boycotters or abstentionists in the presidential elections. The future is still to be written. It is dark. But there is no other choice than to be on the side of those who still want to believe.

Isabelle Durant




(3) Established in 1990, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, is an advisory body of the Council of Europe on constitutional issues. The Venice Commission is composed of experts in constitutional or international law, of judges of the supreme or constitutional courts, or members of national parliaments. The Commission plays a key role in the defense of Europe’s constitutional heritage and has gradually evolved into a recognized independent think tank.

The Venice Commission is composed of experts in constitutional or international law, of judges of the supreme or constitutional courts, or members of national parliaments. The Commission plays a key role in the defense of Europe’s constitutional heritage and has gradually evolved into a recognized independent think tank.

The Commission has been very active in Eastern and Central Europe, giving assistance in drafting new constitutions and laws on constitutional courts, electoral codes, laws on minorities and other laws related to democratic institutions.

The Commission does not dictate or impose anything but does highlight inaccuracies, risks or aspects that violate the European constitutional norms. It is up to the country making the request to draw conclusions and to find the necessary solutions.

The Venice Commission has operations beyond Europe’s borders. The Commission is made up of 58 members. Some non-European countries have observer status with the Venice Commission: Argentina, Canada, Holy See, Japan, Kazakhstan, United States and Uruguay. South Africa and the Palestinian National Authority have a special co-operation status equivalent to that of observer.