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November 19, 2010

What is the Egyptian Foreign Ministry Complaining About?

By Neil Hicks The Egyptian government seems to be increasingly uneasy about the attention being paid, locally and internationally, to its forthcoming parliamentary elections to be held on November 28.  Elections in Egypt are routinely rigged and the ruling party always wins by a large margin.  Predictably, very few Egyptians bother to vote. Yesterday,  Egypt’s Foreign Ministry issued a surprisingly abrasive statement accusing the U.S. government of “thinking itself the custodian of Egyptian policy,” and complained in strong terms of U.S. “interference,” apparently objecting to the U.S. government’s view that Egypt should hold free and fair elections, and especially to its support for international election monitors. A few lower and medium level Obama administration officials have called for international election monitors to be allowed to be present during the elections, including Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner.  A few weeks ago, NSC staff members met with the Egypt Working Group, an influential group of policy experts in Washington who are advocating political reform in Egypt and who support the call for international election monitors.  For some reason, the foreign ministry has taken particular exception to this meeting and singled the group out for particular criticism.  Earlier this week, former U.S. Ambassador to Cairo, Ned Walker, voiced his support for international election monitors in an interview with VOA.
It is hard to see how all of this amounts to unwarranted interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.  International election monitoring is increasingly the norm in most countries.  The recent elections in Jordan, for example were monitored by several international groups.  The U.S. government welcomes the presence of international monitors during U.S. elections.  Independent civil society election monitors in Egypt would welcome the presence of international monitors; it would lend their work more visibility and credibility and offer a degree of protection from official obstruction and reprisals. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Egypt appears to have something it wants to hide about the forthcoming elections, but holding flawed elections and trying to cover up the violations will not fool anyone and will not provide Egypt’s rulers with the stamp of legitimacy that could help them deal with the many challenges they currently face. The panicky response from the foreign ministry shows that it is sensitive to international criticism. The Obama administration would build its credibility as the supporter of human rights and democracy it claims to be if it were to step up its encouragement for the Egyptian government to do the right thing and invite international election monitors to observe the elections.  This would enhance the credibility of the electoral process and be a step towards improvements prior to even more important presidential elections next year. The U.S. government should take the opportunity offered by the foreign ministry’s statement to repeat its valid and unexceptionable case for free and fair elections and for the presence of international monitors, and it should demonstrate that it means what it says by having the Secretary of State, or even President Obama himself, make that case. Neil Hicks is the International Policy Advisor at Human Rights First.