Egypt is preparing for its first real multi-party parliamentary elections without the grip of Hosni Mubarak and his abolished National Democratic Party (NDP), ousted over nine months ago. The electoral law finally announced on October 8 has made the Egyptian electoral system one of a kind: with 2/3 of parliament to be elected via proportional party lists and 1/3 through first-past-the-vote system, while retaining the quota of 50 percent for workers and farmers. Further complicating the process is the arrangement of huge electoral districts that make it difficult for candidates or parties to feasibly reach voters with their campaigns. Parliamentary elections will start with the People’s Assembly (Lower House) on November 28.  This will be the first stage of a three-round system to elect 498 members to parliament in a process set to end in January 2012.  A similar process will be used for the Shoura Council (Upper House) elections to choose 180 members during a period from January to March 2012.  In light of the complexity of the new electoral system, international and domestic monitors will have a particularly important role to play in scrutinizing the multi-stage polling process and reporting any irregularities that may arise. However, new regulations on election monitoring have troubling implications for the ability of monitors to effectively supervise the voting process.  

Initially, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had refused to allow international monitoring (Morakaba in Arabic) of the parliamentary elections saying that “we reject anything that affects our sovereignty,” a statement that was very disappointing to pro-democracy groups. But perhaps taking into account backlash from Egyptian civil society and the international community, the SCAF backed down from its position and announced that local and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be allowed to “follow” the elections.

On October 17, the High Electoral Commission (HEC) issued a decree to regulate the process; clearly indicating that only registered local as well as international NGOs would be able to watch the elections. The question of election monitoring in Egypt has been long debated, and the Egyptian authorities have always taken a strong stand against international observation, seeing it as an infringement on sovereignty. Despite some initial positive steps taken by the HEC toward the NGOs like extending the registration period and issuing accreditations for free, human rights activists are still skeptical that the HEC will allow monitors full access to all stages of the polling process, including the all-important counting facilities where elections results will be tabulated. Albeit welcoming the decision to allow election “followers,” civil society groups and NGOs fear that the HEC won’t accredit their teams on time for the elections and that a “follower” (Motabe’ in Arabic) will not be endowed with any meaningful authority. As for the foreign groups, in addition to being registered, they have to get pre-approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) before they are able to even apply for permits. So far, the Carter Center is the only foreign entity that will be allowed to follow the elections after being invited by SCAF.

Confusion over the vague terminology of election “followers” and uncertainty over whether or not they will be allowed to supervise all aspects of the electoral process is adding to concerns over Egypt’s highly complex and evolving electoral system. This chaotic system underwent several significant changes before it was finally announced – after repeated delays – by the SCAF in October. 

An earlier draft of the electoral law released by the military council on May 30 drew criticism from most political parties and revolutionary forces. Parties and analysts were stunned by the SCAF’s lack of transparency and  shocked that the law had been drafted without any consultation with political groups and civil society. The care-taker government and SCAF came back in July after meeting with political parties to approve new amendments to the original draft, but many remain concerned about the confusing structure of the electoral system and its uncertain implications for the composition of the next parliament.

The parliament to be elected holds an extreme importance to most Egyptians and indeed the political parties, as the first elected assembly of the post-Mubarak era and the one that will be responsible for drafting the new constitution through selection of a 100-member constituent assembly. According to Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration released following Mubarak’s stepping down on February 11, the SCAF holds authority of the President and Parliament until elections are held.  Given the importance of the upcoming elections, the latest changes to the electoral law – which reflect the chaotic political environment and lack of clear guidelines or framework for a transition – are particularly troubling

Most of the parties, especially those formed after the fall of Mubarak, have no or limited experience and insufficient time to build national constituencies. This explains the amount of complaining and whining about each step in the process. They have been focusing more on issues not of high importance for Egyptians. According to polls conducted, security and economy come on top of everything else Egyptians look for now. On the other hand, the SCAF is clinging to power using the rights given to it by the Constitutional Declaration, which led to a lot of criticism. The military junta was accused of not being serious about reforms and the public began to question their motive for not identifying a clear timeline for transitioning power to civilians; and many began to suspect that the generals wanted a weak parliament that won’t challenge their powers during the transitional period. This was apparent on several fronts, such as the court decision to allow Egyptians abroad to vote; the controversy over the supra-constitutional proposal presented by Dr. Ali al-Selmi, Deputy Prime Minister for Political Affairs; and a momentous court ruling on November 11 banning former NDP members from running in the parliamentary elections.  

The fact that all of the previous examples have occurred just weeks before the start of  elections is probably not a coincidence and suggests that the SCAF and the interim government  not only lacks a vision for Egypt’s transitional period but is also determined to keep the post-Mubarak political order as opaque as it was under the former regime.