The results from the expatriate portion of Egypt’s presidential election are in and Former Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won with a landslide vote, defeating Nasserist opponent Hamdeen Sabbahi, with 94.5 percent of the vote. While the expat vote took place with no form of electoral observation, voting expected to take place in Egypt on May 26 and 27 will be monitored by over 80 local and international organizations.
Sabbahi should not be surprised by the initial results. Sisi had been tipped to win this election before he even announced his candidacy, which he eventually confirmed as per “the will of the people.” The military strongman gained a large amount of popular support from the moment he announced the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Despite the perceived inevitability of the result, Egypt has boasted about the number of organizations that intend to observe the election. The Presidential Elections Committee approved 79 domestic organisations and six international organizations including the European Union (EU) and the African Union.
But why should these two blocs, that have been critical of Egypt’s latest transitional phase, spend the time, money and effort to observe an election that many argue was over before the polling stations even opened?
The answer may lie in the fact that this election is bigger than Sisi (or Sabbahi), at least for the international community. This importance has been displayed since July 2013 through the hesitant response to Morsi’s overthrow. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, was one of the most engaged diplomats in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, looking to facilitate a dialogue that never materialized.
Aside from Ashton’s attempts, all the EU did was to condemn the human rights violations and withdrew export licenses for items that could be used for internal repression (only after the violent and bloody dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins at Raba’a and Nahda Squares last August).
The most obvious and most widely publicized stall on the issue came from the United States, which took until October to apply its own law on foreign funding, suspending the delivery of military and economic aid pending steps toward democracy. It was a strong supporter of the roadmap and Secretary of State John Kerry even had to backtrack slightly on a comment praising Egypt’s progress, and its “generals restoring democracy.” Recent developments in congress have shown that the military funding will return as the roadmap progresses, pending certification of certain criteria, among them a return to democratic rule.
The US government may have been reluctant to monitor the election itself. After all its implementing organizations, such as the National Democratic International, are persona non grata in Egypt following a trial in which its employees faced charges of receiving illegal foreign funding.
However, Democracy International, which is an implementing partner for the US Agency for International Development, is on hand to observe. DI also observed the January 2014 constitutional referendum and is expected to stay on until the end of parliamentary elections, expected later this year.
For much of the larger Western powers, Egypt is too big and too important to be allowed to fail. Its geographical location combined with the peace agreement with Israel, the influence with Palestine and much of the rest of the region makes it an important strategic partner.
The EU’s decision to observe the election was not to legitimize the process, although one could argue that by accepting the invitation in the first place, it does just that. This is, however, irrelevant in the wider scheme of international diplomacy and relations. The EU has been and will continue to be constantly engaged with the situation in Egypt, as it was during Morsi’s tenure. The man in power is irrelevant to the West as long as they are on side.
The African Union has taken a different road towards observing the election. In contrast to the West, the union moved swiftly and suspended Egypt’s membership two days after the change of government as per the Lomé declaration that stipulates, “the automatic implementation of specific measures whenever an unconstitutional change of Government occurs.” The union saw that “the overthrow of the democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi, did not conform to the relevant provisions of the Egyptian Constitution and, therefore, fell under the definition of an unconstitutional change of Government.” This was a step few other international bodies were willing to take.
This move had a profound effect on the way the foreign ministry engaged with its African neighbours. Minister Nabil Fahmy announced that he would reposition Egypt on the international scene as an Arab country with African roots.
Fahmy dispatched diplomats around Africa and there has been a marked increase in diplomatic contacts with African nations. Fahmy has travelled to several African nations, as did current and former Prime Ministers Hazem El-Beblawi and Ibrahim Mahlab, with an emphasis on development, trade and investment cooperation. Engagement with Africa has been a top priority of the interim government and on each visit the status of Egypt’s membership to the union, of which it is a founding member, was a topic of conversation.
The ministry has been pushing for support for development programs in Africa and is in the process of setting up “the Egypt Agency for Development Partnership,” which was established by Nabil Fahmy in August and will begin operations in June, and aims to focus on both developmental efforts in and technical aid to African countries, areas such as health, education and irrigation.
There has been an expansion in building projects from Egyptian contractors in Africa, notably from the Arab Contractors, a company for which Mahlab served as CEO and President from 2001-2012.
A detailed ‘progress report’ was presented to the African Union Peace and Security Council in January, which “reaffirmed the correctness of the [council’s] decision of 5 July 2013.” This however has not put a stop to the expectation that Egypt could well enjoy its previous status within the African union following the completion of the transitional roadmap.
Monitoring the election is another step on the African Union’s ‘fact finding’ mission to Egypt. The High Level Panel for Egypt, which was formed in the aftermath of 3 July, has visited Cairo on three occasions and compiled the above mentioned progress report. The Union was not prepared to cut Egypt off completely and the foreign ministry has said that it does expect to be reinstated in the near future.
The observation missions aren’t in Egypt to provide a rubber stamp for Sisi, they are more interested in the process and if this will lead to an Egypt that can be a strong and stable strategic partner in the future… like it was in the old days.
Joel Gulhane is a Cairo-based reporter for Daily News Egypt. Follow him on Twitter: @jgulhane