Wall Street Journal discusses Egyptian Elections with IRI’s Scott Mastic

Egypt Rejects U.S. Request for Poll Monitors
The Wall Street Journal
By Jay Solomon in Washington and Ashraf Khalil in Cairo

Egypt’s government has rejected Obama administration requests that Cairo allow international monitors to observe next Sunday’s parliamentary elections, undercutting U.S. hopes to bring greater transparency to a crucial political transition in the Middle East.

President Hosni Mubarak’s decision comes as his security forces arrested more than 200 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood over the weekend in the coastal city of Alexandria and in the Nile Delta provinces of Sharqeya and Beheira. Mohammed Mursi, a senior leader of the Brotherhood, which seeks to impose Islamic law in Egypt, said the arrests were an attempt to “terrorize the Brotherhood” ahead of the vote.

The Nov. 28 legislative vote for Egypt’s lower house is a precursor to presidential elections scheduled for next year. Many Middle East observers believe those polls will be used by the 82-year-old president to extend his own rule or to pass power to an anointed successor, possibly his son.

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top U.S. officials have pressed Cairo to allow international monitors, to lend credibility to the transition process leading up to the presidential polls next year, according to American diplomats.

“An open electoral process would include a credible and impartial mechanism for reviewing election-related complaints, a domestic election-observation effort according to international standards, and the presence of international observers,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said last week.

Egyptian officials say they don’t need international observers.

“The government has repeatedly stated that it will not allow international monitors to observe these elections, as there are numerous safeguards enshrined in the electoral law to guarantee transparency,” said Karim Haggag, a spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in Washington.

In June, U.S. officials and international organizations said there was credible evidence of voter fraud and intimidation during elections for the country’s upper house. Mr. Haggag said Egypt’s High Election Commission is well-equipped to oversee the vote and is staffed with senior judiciary officials independent of Mr. Mubarak. He also said civic groups and candidate representatives will be allowed to monitor polling stations on Sunday. International monitoring “raises sensitivities about external interference in domestic politics,” Mr. Haggag said.

Successive U.S. administrations have struggled with the dilemma of how hard to push for democracy in Egypt. Cairo remains among Washington’s closest political allies in pursuing a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. And Egyptian security forces have cooperated closely with the U.S. in combating al Qaeda and other militant Islamist organizations.

Still, human-rights organizations rank Mr. Mubarak’s government as among the Middle East’s most repressive regimes. And substantial U.S. financial and military support for Egypt has undercut Washington’s calls for greater political reform in countries such as Iran and Syria.

President George W. Bush’s administrations initially pressed Mr. Mubarak to liberalize his political system, but softened the message after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood—which is banned but still runs independent candidates—scored major gains in the 2005 elections and secured 20% of the lower house, called the People’s Assembly, becoming the country’s largest opposition bloc.

Mr. Obama used Cairo as the venue last year to give his signature speech about U.S. relations with the Islamic world. But many Egyptian democracy activists have complained that the Obama administration has largely backed away from challenging Egypt on democracy and human rights, particularly as Washington has relied heavily on Mr. Mubarak this year to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Mrs. Clinton met with her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, on Nov. 10 at the State Department and didn’t raise the issue of Egypt’s elections during her public remarks. A number of Egyptian activists interpreted that as a signal that Washington will only go so far in taking a stand on the election monitors and other issues tied to Egypt’s political transition.

“America doesn’t care about this at all. They feel stability is more important than democracy,” said George Ishak, a founder of the Keyafa movement, which aggressively pressed Mr. Mubarak to commit to political reforms during 2004-2005.

U.S. officials said they’re continuing to press Egypt’s government to bring transparency to the vote, though it is less than a week away. They also said that the election monitors are only part of the infrastructure required to produce a credible election, and that they are seeking to strengthen the role of Egypt’s civil society.

“There are a whole host of issues that characterize a transparent election,” said a senior State Department official. “We laid out to Egypt what is required. International monitors are a piece of this, but it’s not the only issue.”

Egypt’s refusal to allow international election monitors reverses what has been a positive trend of more-transparent voting across the Arab Middle East, said democracy activists. Last month, the Jordanian government allowed monitors for the first time to observe legislative elections. And more transparent votes also have been conducted in Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in recent years.

“One has to ask the question of why Egypt is resisting what is increasingly becoming the norm in the region,” said Scott Mastic of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based organization focused on promoting democracy globally.

IRI and the National Democratic Institute jointly wrote Mr. Mubarak in July asking to be allowed to monitor the November vote.

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