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International doubts persist over Egypt's controversial elections

On the 26th and 27th May, Egypt will go to the polls to vote in a controversial presidential election. There are only two candidates: former Field Marshall Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and underdog liberal candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

Al-Sisi, who left his post as head of the army in March so that he could run as a civilian candidate, le the coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi in July. He is officially endorsed by the army and is widely expected to outpoll his rival. While much of the population genuinely and enthusiastically supports his presidential bid, however, there are concerns about the restrictive political environment in which these elections are taking place.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the movement to which Morsi belongs, has been outlawed and declared a terrorist group. Hundreds of its supporters have been killed, arrested, or sentenced to death. And the crackdown has not been limited to Islamists. Secular protesters, including many of those involved in the mass demonstrations that led to Morsi’s ousting, have also been rounded up and arrested. Media freedom has also been seriously curtailed, with more than 20 Al Jazeera journalists currently standing trial for charges that include smearing the reputation of Egypt and supporting terrorism.

Further blows to the vote’s credibility have come from the news that various international monitoring bodies are scaling back their operations over the election period or – in some cases – will not attend at all. One such example is the US-based Carter Centre, which observed the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections in Egypt. Last week, it announced that it would deploy a small expert mission focusing on the broader legal and political context rather than attempting to observe actual procedures on polling day. In a statement, the centre expressed concern about the “restrictive political and legal context surrounding Egypt’s electoral process”, citing the lack of a “genuinely competitive campaign environment” and the political polarisation that is hampering the transition to democracy.

In perhaps the biggest blow to the credibility of the election, it was recently suggested that the European Union would follow suit in not sending a full monitoring team. Over the weekend, the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir reported that officials in Brussels had said that the human rights situation in Egypt “is not in line with the minimum acceptable criteria” for holding an election”. It cited a confidential EU report that warned: “Deploying a EU observer mission puts to question the credibility of future EU missions and the role of these missions in the region and elsewhere.” It was subsequently widely reported that the EU’s long-planned observer mission of 140 members would be cancelled because of difficulties bringing vital communications and security equipment to the country.

Today saw something of a reversal, with Mario David, a member of the European Parliament and the chief observer, announcing that the mission would go ahead. This is despite the fact that observers have not been deployed across the country well ahead of time, as had been planned. Denying that Egypt had created obstacles to the mission going ahead, he said: “Thanks to joint efforts and the constructive engagement of the Egyptian authorities, I am pleased to announce that the [observer mission] is able to continue to observe the presidential election in Egypt as widely as possible throughout the country.”

This will be a relief to Egypt’s authorities, which want to use this vote to end the country’s current international isolation and show that it is on the road back to democracy. In keeping with this aim, officials of the transitional government – which was installed by Al-Sisi – have licensed 79 domestic and five international organisations to monitor the vote. But many of these groups – which include the Carter Centre and Transparency International – have continued to cast doubt on the context in which the election is taking place.

The EU decision to go ahead with the monitoring mission will disappoint Egypt’s dissidents. Many opponents to Al-Sisi, including members of the April 6 Movement, which led the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, have been pressuring European diplomats to cancel the monitoring mission. This is on the basis that an EU presence would lend international credibility to the polarised and repressive political environment in Egypt – which, of course, is exactly what the government wants.

The vote next week will go ahead regardless of international observers. But the question of how far democracy can exist when opponents are routinely arrested and harassed remains.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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