Egypt’s presidential race and the European Union election observation mission: what is at stake?

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Egyptians will see the EU flag near the observed polling stations and will interpret the symbol as a gesture of recognition that the country has embarked on a path which enjoys international legitimacy. In this context, the onus will be on the head of the election observation mission to write a credible and solid report.

On 26 and 27 May Egyptians went to vote for their next president after three years of turmoil. After the revolution which ousted longstanding President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the stage was taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood whose wideranging consent brought an Islamist to power for the first time in Egypt’s history. Mohammed Morsi’s presidency, however, was shortlived. The breakdown of the constitutional process, the Brotherhood’s inept governance and its inability to practice democratic politics led to a violent counter-revolution which brought down Morsi, revealed a deeply polarized and embittered society, led to the imprisonment of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and inaugurated a new ear of repression of dissent in the name of the country’s stability.

Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, until recently chief of the Egyptian army, has emerged in this turmoil as the next charismatic leader who enjoys huge popularity. With only one opponent in the presidential race, opposition nearly silenced and a favourable media – by desire or necessity -, he is likely to gain Soviet-style percentages of votes. In fact, it needs to be said that he probably would have enjoyed great popularity even in a free and fair context. But having hidden much of the opposition in secret detention centres he chose not to run the risk of a contested election and opted for pre-revolutionary styles of campaigns. Indeed, Egyptians have enjoyed only two multi-party elections – one in 2005, in which ‘independent’ candidates affiliated to the illegal Muslim Brotherhood stood, and one in 2011 which catapulted Morsi to power.

The EU and the US have been lost in responding to the tumultuous events in Egypt. For a while the EU toyed with the notion that democracy and Islamism are, after all, compatible. Brussels had spent time and energy in advising Morsi about the need for inclusive politics and dialogue in the constitutional process. The Brotherhood did not listen. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton even managed to visit Morsi in prison after his overthrow in July 2013. These efforts were in vain. The US even suspended some (non military) aid for a brief period, though neither went as far as describing the July events as a coup – a ‘coup-like event’ was the preferred terminology. The EU too was at pains over how to deal with a large and strategic country in which its member states have extensive and multiple interests, and which plays a vital role in Middle Eastern and African stability.

Many in European capitals will be hoping that Egypt manages to stabilize its internal situation to be helpful in the international fight against terrorism and to curb the arc of insurgency which is spreading from Afghanistan through to Mali. The Egyptian government has been on a charm offensive to win back its old friends and offer guarantees that even if ‘democracy’ is temporarily on hold, the long-term process is in the minds of the political elites. In Cairo, international recognition is important.

The presidential elections are likely to represent a step towards this kind of stability. For the first time ever in Egypt, the EU is observing these elections. The question is: why? This has not been an easy decision. Since the Arab revolutions the EU has been able to deploy observation missions in an unprecedented number of cases and has built up its capacity to monitor elections. Its assessment plays an important part in legitimising the winning government. At the beginning of the Maidan protests in Ukraine, for instance, the position in Brussels was that given that the President was freely and fairly elected in a contest which was monitored by the EU, he remained the legitimate interlocutor.

The observation mission to Egypt was actually agreed upon in the spring of 2013, for parliamentary elections which were never to take place. The decision to continue to hold the mission, despite numerous problems in setting it up regarding its mandate and role, is intended to represent the EU’s engagement with the country, and its ability to make an assessment over how the elections are held. This way, the EU would have the tools to criticize the electoral process if need be. A small team of analysts was deployed in mid-April, to be joined by a larger group of long-term observers at the end of April, and then a 60-person strong mission just ahead of the date.

Yet the context in which the elections take place is already biased and amply reported on. The risk that rather than representing a tool to empower the EU to be critical of the electoral standards, the mission ends up legitimizing the results – which are a foregone conclusion anyway. In the eyes of the more Machiavellian policy makers in the EU and in the US, this may be the preferred outcome. It would end the dilemma of how to engage with a strategic partner which has backtracked on its attempt to embark on a more pluralist track. Others may argue that if there is any chance for consolidating political rights in Egypt, it can only be done through engagement of the democracy-supporting actors such as the EU, and not by isolating a country and its people. And al-Sisi was clearly set to win the presidential race anyway. Yet it cannot be ignored that Egyptians will see the EU flag near the observed polling stations and will interpret the symbol as a gesture of recognition that the country has embarked on a pather which enjoys international legitimacy.

 In this context, the onus will be on the head of the election observation mission to write a credible and solid report. Its content will play a huge role in determining the future of relations between Egypt and its old partners.



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