Egypt Bucks the System

On July 20, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that it would not invite international election observers to monitor the country’s upcoming parliamentary balloting, now scheduled for November (link). Egyptian and international human-rights advocates promptly expressed their surprise and dismay. “This is a very terrible development,” Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies director Bahey El Din Hassan told Kristen Chick of the Pan-African News Wire (link). His institute was one of several which signed a statement decrying the new law as “blatant interference” in the work of the country’s electoral commission, interference that “raises doubts about the integrity of the election process” (link).

This decision surprised many people hoping for democracy in Egypt because it is highly unusual. As Yale political scientist Susan Hyde demonstrates in her excellent book The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma (link), since the end of the Cold War, the idea that foreign election observation missions (EOMs) are an crucial enabler of free and fair elections has hardened into a widely shared international norm. As a result, only a very small share of elections in recent years have gone off without international observers present.

The decision alarmed many people because they believe the norm is rooted in sound practice. When I emailed Susan Hyde to ask for her thoughts on the SCAF decision, she wrote that the presence of international EOMs “can deter certain types of shenanigans, and their criticism (if it is warranted), packs a much bigger punch at the international level…The general reason for the norm, in my view, is that observers can increase information about the quality of the process for both domestic and international audiences.”

I was surprised by the decision, but I was not entirely dismayed. I agree with Susan that EOMs can improve the quality of elections, but I also believe they are neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve that outcome. The problem is that EOMs are neither as effective nor as impartial as we often imagine. They usually involve a small number of people who arrive close to election day and can only cover a tiny portion of the country. For political and diplomatic reasons, their top-line judgments–the only part of their analysis most of us ever will see or hear–often gloss over apparent flaws or abuses documented in their own reports. As one veteran of these missions bluntly put it to me in an email exchange about the SCAF decision, “International observers are truly full of shit. They come late, leave early, don’t know anything, and the method they use is crap. And that’s [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights], who is the best…Also international observers give a BS judgement, they say ‘flawed’ or ‘sort of flawed’ or ‘a step forward but there were concerns’ or crap like that that nobody cares about.” (To be fair, I suspect that Susan and many other advocates of international election observation would acknowledge some truths in those criticisms; see this essay of Hyde’s in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Duke University’s Judith Kelley.)

I also think we make a mistake when we focus narrowly on how the rejection of foreign election monitors relates to international expectations. Seen through that lens, the decision has been widely interpreted as a signal that the SCAF has something to hide. My exposure to Egyptian political discourse is extremely limited, but from what I’ve read and heard, I get the impression that the decision was genuinely driven, at least in part, by nationalist pride. Among the many impulses driving the 2011 revolution is a desire for greater autonomy from the foreign forces that long endorsed and materially supported the Mubarak regime. This desire was on clear display in a recent episode of Al Jazeera English’s The Cafe, in which Egyptian activists and intellectuals from various camps discussed the future of Egypt’s international relations (link). Seen in that light, international election observation missions might reasonably be construed as part of the Western imperialism many Egyptians are trying to throw off. In fact, this is how SCAF has explained itself. “We have nothing to hide,” Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen told reporters (link); “we reject anything that affects our sovereignty.” That the SCAF felt like it could reject this particular norm may be telling us more about the decline of U.S. and European influence in Egypt than it does about SCAF’s intentions for electoral skullduggery.

Last but not least, I’m optimistic that the absence of foreign observers does not necessarily lower the odds that Egypt’s revolution will produce a democratic national government. While I agree with critics of SCAF’s decision that international observers would probably help improve the quality of the upcoming elections, I also see the possibility of a silver lining. The hopeful part of my mind says that the absence of international observers should strengthen incentives for domestic groups to mobilize their own election observation activities. If Egyptians respond to that incentive, this mobilization could help to catalyze the organization or expansion of domestic advocacy groups and the emergence of new political parties that Egypt will need to develop a durable democratic regime. The optimal path would involve effective international and domestic observers, but if I had to choose between the two as an engine of democratic development, I would pick the home-grown version every time.

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  1. I think you’re definitely right about a fair number of Egyptians being against international observers. This issue definitely came up in a recent Chatham House roundtable in Cairo – the report (PDF: only mentions it in passing but during the discussion it was an issue of contention.

    I think a lot of outsiders would intuitively see the rejection of international observers as a bad thing, but there’s a big upswing in civil society activity at the moment and enthusiasm for a different kind of politics in Egypt. I would be optimistic about domestic groups mobilizing to monitor the elections.

    • Interesting, thanks, Leonie. I’m really interested in the “different kind of politics” aspect. The narrative about democratization that developed in the West in the past 20 +years puts Western observers and democracy assistance at the center of the story, as the critical “partner” without which many regime changes would not have happened. I think that narrative greatly overstates the importance of Western contributions those events, and I think people in countries like Egypt are tired — with good reason — of having outside powers deeply involved in their politics. In any case, I hope you’re right about domestic groups mobilizing to police the voting.


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