Known Unknown: Why the Egyptian Referendum is a Black Box

Voting for the Egyptian Constitutional referendum concluded Wednesday but it will be impossible to learn the actual outcome. Yes, on Saturday the High Electoral Commission will announce the official results, but the severely limited state of domestic and international electoral observation precludes independent verification of government assertions. This is a serious concern for an election secured and administered by two highly partisan state institutions: the military and the judiciary. And this is a serious concern for a vote that is meant to signal a “return to democracy” for a major US partner. 

The point is not to contest the particulars of the government’s numbers, or to entertain the hypothetical of whether Egyptians would have approved the constitution had it not been essentially illegal to campaign against it. The more basic issue is that we lack credible means to assess the results.

Domestic Observation

In the tense days following the final round of Egypt’s 2012 presidential election it seemed that the state apparatus was stalling, and observers wondered aloud if the deep state would lean on the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) to declare the establishment candidate Ahmed Shafiq the winner.

But, unlike during the Hosni Mubarak years, there was now a serious counterweight to any move to alter the results: effective domestic election observation. A nascent but growing group of civil society organizations had brought greater scrutiny to the electoral process than ever before. Building on fledgling efforts from the mid-1990s, a handful of NGO coalitions trained and fielded over 10,000 domestic observers from several hundred community-based organizations for the 2011-2012 elections. With the opening of political space, came a flood of poll-watchers mobilized by political parties who, together with the domestic observer groups, formed a powerful deterrent to mass fraud.

Leading this effort was the Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) electoral organization—Sawasiyya—partisan but scrupulous. The FJP’s parallel vote tallying operation was comprehensive, efficient, and incredibly swift. They had placed observers in every polling station and every counting center across the country and by the morning, after polls closed, they had published an amalgamated booklet of every tally sheet of the election, each with the signature of the presiding judge. Thus a common refrain leading up to the PEC’s announcement of Egypt’s new president: “they can’t possibly steal the election now—everybody already knows the results.”

But that impressive observation machine has since been dismantled. In the first wave of arrests that followed the July 3 removal of President Mohamed Morsi from office, the military-backed government targeted many key figures of domestic observation—a list of individuals that included Khallaf Bayoumi, director of the Shehab Center for Human Rights. The Shehab Center, headquartered in Alexandria, was the only domestic group in Lower Egypt with an extensive coordinated field team that reported from far-flung polling stations in governorates like Beheira and Matrouh. Bayoumi oversaw a vast network of volunteers who fed real-time reports back to the main office, where they were compiled into hourly reports and served as an invaluable resource for interested citizens and international observers. Now, one year later, as Egypt faces new elections, Bayoumi is facing down a five year sentence in military court.

Al Ahram reports that approximately 5,000 Egyptians were slated to observe the referendum—a very small number considering there are upwards of 30,000 polling stations. Not enough, for example, to observe if the overnight seals on ballot boxes were unbroken while in the custody of the military—or to keep a keen eye on voter registries—as was standard practice in past elections.

Part of the explanation for the reduced ranks of poll watchers is that, unlike in previous elections where the bulk of observation was shouldered by party agents, for this vote the High Electoral Commission barred party agents under the specious rationale that the constitutional referendum was not a political party contest—despite the fact that political parties have been instrumental in campaigning, advertising, and mobilizing for the vote. On top of this, many of the experienced domestic groups with national networks decided to sit out the referendum owing to the overall oppressive environment, or had trouble securing government permissions. For example, the group Shayfeenkum (“we see you”), which has observed Egyptian elections since 2005, reported 60 percent of their applications were refused. And, of course, observation groups affiliated with the FJP have been banned since the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the party stems, a criminal organization.

Of the domestic groups observing the referendum, most have limited reach, resources, and technical proficiency. The only group that pledged to field a nation-wide observation mission, Tamarod, has no prior experience in the technical aspects of observation. Moreover, as the progenitors of the June 30 revolution that this election is meant to secure, their professional objectivity is suspect. Indeed their campaign spokesperson declared the objective of the group’s electoral observation is to prevent “schemes by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In addition to gleaning information for a national audience, domestic observers serve as essential antennae for international observer missions, who are always far less knowledgeable about local conditions. For better or worse, the statements of international missions often are taken as the final word on an election in international media and foreign capitals, and the veracity of these statements depends in large part on quality partnerships with local actors.

International Observation

For decades it was a de facto tenet of Egypt’s foreign policy that the country would not allow international observation. Thus, it was a welcome development signaling real change in 2011 when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made the decision to permit international electoral missions. Over the next two years several major international observation outfits participated in a number of long-term electoral projects—for the upper house of parliament, the lower house of parliament, and the presidency.

It is indicative of the current environment that, of the three US-based organizations that provided the bulk of international electoral observation during the post-Mubarak elections, two are no longer welcome in Egypt: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The third, The Carter Center, opted to field only a limited ten-person technical team for the referendum and in the build-up to the vote criticized severely the prevailing political environment of the election, and urged the government to take steps to ensure the integrity of the process.

Nevertheless, the US government remained intent on supporting an international observation mission, even a scaled back one, and contracted the private firm Democracy International (DI) to monitor the referendum. The rationale to field an electoral mission is straightforward enough: It is better to be in a position to observe any irregularities than to sit on the sidelines.

Aside from the very real consideration of lending legitimacy to an undeserving process, the DI team, quite simply, was not in a position to observe irregularities—at least not on a meaningful scale.

The DI delegation, steered by a small core team ensconced in a Cairo hotel, was composed entirely of short-term observers shuttled into the country for a one-week stint. Bookended by briefings and debriefings, DI’s eyes on the ground were in the field for roughly three days, witnessing election day activities only. Of course no observation mission is expected to encompass the entirety of an election. But this inevitable shortcoming is off-set by the standard practice of long-term observation, in which field analysts develop rich understandings of local electoral contexts and, crucially, build relationships with local officials, political actors, civic groups, and voters—indispensible resources to assess election-day information. Especially in a country as massive as Egypt—and especially for an organization with no previous experience in Egypt—these fundamental aspects of observation will be impossible for a small core team in the capital and an assemblage of foreigners dispatched to places unknown for seventy-two hours.

The importance of long-term observation is enumerated clearly in the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation—the field’s key international agreement—to which DI is a signatory.

The essential importance of such long-term observation is known well by DI, whose co-founder quite literally wrote the book on international election observation. In Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy (2004) Eric Bjornlund warned that international actors who place too much emphasis on election day can be “dangerously superficial.” Describing best practices for observation Bjornlund writes, “…it is important to have long-term international monitors in place in various locations around the country well before the elections, ideally eight weeks or more before election day.” DI’s plan in Egypt called for zero long-term observers. Even their core team, based solely in Cairo, was not in place eight weeks in advance of the vote.

Why Does This Matter to the United States?

This referendum, of course, has wider implications than simply constitutional matters. It is widely seen as a referendum on the legitimacy of the military-backed government and its highly controversial decision to unseat the only Egyptian president ever popularly elected to the office.

Establishing the legitimacy of the new power structure is not an abstract exercise: large amounts of US assistance are tied to the democratic progress of Egypt. The 2014 omnibus spending bill being approved by Congress this week will allow the Obama administration to release up to $975 million in aid to Egypt once the Secretary of State certifies that the referendum was “held” and the Government of Egypt is “taking steps” to govern democratically.

Should the referendum be rewarded with $975 million? We’ll just have to take General Sisi’s word for it.

Matthew Hall is Assistant Director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He served as an elections analyst in Egypt in 2011-2012.

Image: Photo: Poll watchers escorting ballot boxes to the counting center. Alexandria, 2012. (Matthew Hall)