EgyptSource blogger Magdy Samaan speaks on elections and censorship

Magdy Samaan, Stephen McInerney and Michele Dunne (left to right)

EgyptSource blogger Magdy Samaan spoke at an event co-hosted by the Hariri Center, the Wilson Center and Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington announcing the blog’s launch and previewing Egypt’s elections.

Michele Dunne, director of the Hariri Center, participated in the discussion with panelists Magdy Samaan and Ibrahim Houdaiby (who joined the conversation from Cairo by Skype), moderated by POMED director Stephen McInerney.

Houdaiby, a freelance journalist and political analyst, identified three major challenges that could complicate Egypt’s three-stage parliamentary elections, slated to begin on November 28: 1) security challenges, 2) media censorship and 3) the need for an independent judiciary.  A dysfunctional security apparatus that has failed to fully redeploy civilian police officers since the January uprising appears ill-equipped to maintain order at polling stations, particularly if voters turn out in record numbers as expected (recent polling data indicates that almost 90 percent of Egyptians intend to vote, compared to 41 percent in the March constitutional referendum). Meanwhile, an unhealthy media environment characterized by state censorship and corruption will hinder transparent and accurate coverage of the elections. Nearly 10,000 judges will be responsible for supervising polling stations, but Houdaiby cited concerns that the judiciary may lack sufficient independence to adequate monitor the voting process.

Election results are difficult to predict in light of the diverse political field and lack of identifiable leaders, as well as the fact that millions of Egyptian who have never voted before are likely to participate.  Houdaiby said that polling data suggest that some 27 percent of Egyptians support Islamist movements, including about 15 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood. Polling data indicates that Egyptians are primarily concerned with political and economic rather than ideological or religious issues, a trend that will undermine popular support for Islamist parties that fail to address voters’ practical concerns in their platforms, according to Houdaiby.  He predicted nonetheless that Islamist parties might capture about 45 percent of the seats in the new parliament.

Magdy Samaan, a freelance journalist and blogger for EgyptSource, agreed with Houdaiby that Egypt’s deteriorating media environment and the ongoing detention and censorship of journalists are impeding the development of an open society and pluralist political system. Samaan also warned that despite the ruling military council’s stated intention of transferring power to an elected civilian government, there are signs that the military is seeking to preserve and even expand its political and economic privileges in the post-Mubarak system, including a constitutional provision to shield its budget from parliamentary scrutiny.  Far from playing a constructive role in the democratic transition, participants noted that the military leadership is deploying many of the same tactics used by the Mubarak regime to intimidate and silence its critics.

Michele Dunne echoed Samaan’s concerns about the military’s intentions, noting that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) efforts to wrest control of the process of choosing members of a constituent assembly calls into question what the powers of the new parliament will actually be.  There is a widespread expectation that the elections scheduled to begin November 28 will be fairly run, a first for Egypt.  At the same time, however, the new electoral system is so extraordinarily complicated that even well-meaning electoral administrators might make errors or differ in their interpretation of important issues such as seat allocation.  This raises the real possibility of violence and unrest surrounding the elections, which could disrupt the process and detract from the legitimacy of results.  

Stephen McInerney described the features of the electoral system as well as electoral monitoring, noting that there remain many uncertainties about the details of the system and whether domestic monitors and international observers (being called “witnesses”) will be able to watch all phases of the voting and counting process.  Some results (for the one-third of “individual” seats) will be announced immediately, whereas the other two-thirds (“proportional” or party list seats) will not be announced until the end of the process—mid-January for the People’s Assembly and mid-March for the Shura Council.  With rumors and leaks of results likely, this phased announcement of results might also lead to suspicion about rigging and possible violence.

For additional coverage of the discussion, please visit POMED’s website. The Wilson Center has produced an audio recording of the event.

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