Eight Points About Egypt’s Presidential Election

We need to act more prudently in responding to criticisms and observations about the election process and the democratic environment in Egypt at large. As a nation striving towards a greater degree of democracy, we should respect differences in opinion.

Egyptian voters, May 26, 2014, Cairo. Pan Chaoyue/Xinhua Press/Corbis.

I participated in the recent presidential election in Egypt, and I want to offer a few comments about the election management process, from a public administration perspective. Overall, we need to act more prudently in responding to criticisms and observations about the election process and the democratic environment in Egypt at large. Our response cannot continue to be denial, rebuttal or ridicule of any differing points of view. As a nation striving towards a greater degree of democracy, we should respect differences in opinion.

  1. Election by Egyptian Expats. The election started for Egyptian citizens abroad two days before it started in country. Newspaper headlines and TV shows began discussing the unprecedented numbers of Egyptian expats participating in the election process, in comparison to the first time Egyptians had been allowed to vote from outside Egypt, right after the January 25 revolution. The number appeared higher than the 2012 presidential election that culminated in a competition between Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, or than during the referendum on Egypt’s amended constitution in January of this year. As a close observer of elections, I was struck by two facts: first, the numbers of participating voters were not much higher than previous balloting; and second, the procedures had been improved a great deal, but no one was mentioning that as a factor in the reported increased numbers. The first time elections were held after the revolution, voters needed new national ID cards; passports were not allowed as a means of verification. This has changed since then. According to the 2014 presidential elections law, any Egyptian who is abroad on the day of the election can vote, provided his or her name is registered in the voters database. A valid ID card or a passport with national ID number is sufficient. Previously, voters had to register at least two or three weeks before the election, download an application online, and send it by post to the specific polling station. This time around, the process was greatly simplified. Anybody traveling abroad, even for a few days of vacation, could just pass by and cast his or her vote—a completely different story.
  2. Mobilization. In mobilizing Egyptians to go out and vote, an up-tempo song “Boshret Kheir,” or “A Good Omen,” was played over and over on TV and in the streets and at the polling stations in support of the leading candidate, former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Jokes abounded about how women especially need to be fit during voting to be able to dance to the music. Amazingly, a lot of dancing took place by women at the polling stations, and many of them were wearing the veil.  Religious figures, such as the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Awqaf (Endowments) minister, called on Egyptians to go out and vote for the sake of stability. These figures called voting a national duty, disregarding the weird fatwas made by some that prohibited participation in the election.
  3. Smooth Election Processes. The actual voting started in Egypt on Monday, May 26. In the polling station I went to, in a public secondary girls school in Manial, just south of downtown Cairo, the process was very well organized. At the end of the first day of the election, a quarter of an hour before the end of the voting period, there were around a hundred women standing in line, and about a dozen others being let through because of age or medical condition. I stood patiently in the queue until a woman organizer, wearing multiple badges, with Egyptian flag pins on various places of her blouse, asked me to come forward. When I inquired why, she said it was her job to help the elderly people. The comment struck me with the reality of my sixth decade, yet I did not ponder on it much and tried to let it pass.  Other women came in at the back of the queue doing the traditional zaghrouta or ululation indicating happiness. In less than half an hour, I was done and had my little finger dipped in pink ink, matching my nail polish.
  4. Carrots and Sticks. Late at night, the television suddenly announced that the prime minister had decided to consider the next day an official holiday so that citizens have time to vote. This caused some confusion among faculty and staff working in various private and nonprofit organizations, like myself, who started wondering whether they will also be given the day off or not, and whether the scheduled activities for the next day would be cancelled. It took a long while to figure out that the holiday was just for government employees. In parallel, the news tickers on the television screen started reminding people that those who would not go out and vote would be liable to a penalty of 500 Egyptian pounds and called upon by the prosecution authorities. According to Article 43 of the 2014 elections law, “a person whose name is registered in the voters database and fails, without an excuse, to cast their vote in the presidential election, shall be penalized with a fine not exceeding 500 Egyptian pounds.”  I started wondering whether this will mean my three children would get in trouble and to what extent. All three of them are in their twenties and had decided to boycott the election. The government and the Presidential Election Commission were using both carrots and sticks to get out the vote.
  5. One Day Extension of Election. The next day of the election, Tuesday, passed without much fuss, and I decided to work from home after the confusion over whether it was a workday or a holiday. Towards the evening, state TV talk shows discussed the need to extend voting hours beyond 9 p.m., because more people had showed up at the polling stations in the evening to avoid the hot weather. All of a sudden, the Presidential Election Commission made a new announcement, extending the election for a third day to accommodate the needs of those who still wanted to vote and could not get a chance over the past two days. Special reference was made to wafadeen, citizens working or residing in governorates distant from their voting station, those who needed more time to travel back to their hometowns. Not only that, the government announced that to facilitate travel for the wafadeen, all train travel would be free, and passengers could board by showing their national ID demonstrating that their voting address is in another governorate. Rumors also started circulating that some malls in Cairo suburbs, especially in Sixth of October City, were instructed to shut down their operations by 4 p.m., so as not to distract citizens from their main task of reaching the voting station and casting their votes.
  6. Election Reviews in the International Media. Upon checking the international news, there was a lot of sarcasm and ridicule about the level of desperation by the Egyptian government to collect votes for El-Sisi, the favored presidential candidate. Before numbers were released, reports in the international news had these comments to make about the election turnout:
  • “Egypt Scrambles to Raise Turnout in Presidential Vote” (New York Times, May 27, 2014);
  • “Egypt’s presidential elections was extended by a day on Tuesday in an effort to boost lower than expected turnout that threatened to undermine the credibility of the frontrunner, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.” (Reuters, May 27, 2014);
  • “At the few dozen polling places that CNN visited or drove by in the Cairo area this week, there were no significant lines of people waiting to vote.” (CNN, May 28, 2014);
  • “At many polling stations, soldiers on security duty have outnumbered voters and others have seen no voters at all for hours.” (BBC News, May 27, 2014);
  • “The presidential election in Egypt has been extended to a third day following lower than expected voter turnout. In a seemingly unsuccessful effort to boost low numbers, Tuesday—originally the final day of voting—was declared a public holiday.” (Euro News, May 27, 2014);
  • “Nothing in Egypt’s current political environment favors open, multiparty elections… The challenge is with the political context for elections, not the technical process.” (Al-Monitor, May 26, 2014).
  1. Incident with International Monitors. Egypt’s Presidential Election Commission had initially approved election monitoring by 79 domestic organizations and six international organizations. Among the approved international monitoring organizations were the European Union, the African Union, and the Carter Center.

    Upon checking the reports of the international election monitoring missions, an incomprehensible incident occurred, during a workshop organized by the National Council of Women at the Cairo Opera House. While discussing the reports by international monitors, the director of the NCW, former Ambassador Mervat Tallawi together with a group of her supporters, literally asked the members of the international election monitoring delegation to leave the room. The justification was that the mission had commented on issues that were not within their mandate of election monitoring. It turned out that there was mention made of women being harassed while standing in queues at the polling stations, and this had angered the members of the National Council of Women. Expectedly, reaction to this outburst in the international media was not to Egypt’s favor.

    Why the desperate measures, and does this happen anywhere else in the world? Have elections been extended in other countries beyond the planned time? These were the questions that bothered me. And here is what I found.

    The excessive worrying by the government and Presidential Election Commission about the election turnout was not due to any doubts regarding the election outcome or El-Sisi’s candidacy. Rather, it was related to the need to prove to the outside world that El-Sisi had overwhelming support by his people; that what abruptly happened on July 3, 2013, when the armed forces ousted President Morsi, was not a ‘coup’ but an expression of people’s will.

    The final reports by the international monitoring organizations were somewhat critical of the election context, more than the actual processes of voting. The U.S.-based Democracy International monitoring organization, for instance, was critical of the overall political context in which the election occurred. “Egypt’s repressive political environment made a genuinely democratic presidential election impossible,”said Eric Bjornlund, president of the organization. The European Union observers were less vocal in their criticism. Robert Goebbels of the European parliament described the election as, “democratic, peaceful and free…. but not necessarily always fair.” Although the extension of the voting days was legal and within the Presidential Election Commission’s mandates, it was perceived to shed some doubts on the credibility of the process as a whole.

    8. Strong TurnoutAfter the third day of the election, there were finally reports of a strong turnout, reaching approximately 47 percent of the 54 million registered voters. El-Sisi received 23.9 million votes, compared to 13.2 million votes won by Morsi in the 2012 election. It seems there was no reason for the excessive worrying after all about the turnout.

    As for whether there were incidents in other parts of the world where elections have been extended beyond the planned time period, it turned out there were. In Sudan in 2010, during the presidential and parliamentary elections, because on the first day many voters faced problems in finding their names on voting lists, the authorities decided to extend the elections for an additional two days. In the state of Florida in 2012, during the presidential election, voters sued to extend the voting hours because of the long lines and got their request approved. In New York County, because of a snowstorm, there were considerations of election day extensions. The idea is that the extension of voting time during elections can happen and is legal but should be implemented with extreme caution.

    Our election was fine as regards process and procedure, but the overall political context was not very supportive, to say the least. If we want to fully regain the respect of the outside world, we should not call countries ambassadors and rebuke them for criticisms they voices against elections, and we should not kick out international observers of elections if they point to us areas where there is a need for improvement.

Laila El Baradei is the acting dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.