Sunday, June 1, 2014

Egyptian Elections: Free and Fair?

By Stephanie Macuiba

Egypt just elected former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in its second presidential election following the 2011 ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Egypt had been without an elected president since Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi was forcibly removed in 2013, less than a year after taking office.

President Sisi won the seat by a landslide causing supporters to cheer and critics to wince. So was the second democratic Egyptian presidential election free and fair?

What about candidates?
This election involved two candidates, Sisi and his opponent Hamdeen Sabahi. As a comparison, the 2012 ballot contained 13 presidential hopefuls.

President Sisi rose to fame after the military assisted in the ousting of President Morsi. The Egyptian people called for the removal of Morsi after he usurped governmental powers and fumbled with the economy. Following the ousting, Sisi generated a cult-like following within the country appearing on everything from shirts to key chains.

President Sisi officially dropped his military title to run as a civilian. Yet he remained strongly backed by the military raising serious concerns for some that another Egyptian autocracy was on the brink. Former members of the military backed Sisi and dropped out of the presidential running as a sign of support.

Sisi’s only opponent was Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third during the 2012 election receiving around 20 percent of votes. Sabahi is a lifetime opposition activist. He became famous in the late 1970’s for publicly criticizing then-president Anwar Sadat. A largely unheard of act at the time. Sabahi’s campaign rallied around social justice and freedom.

Critics argued that Sabahi’s presence gave an illegitimate election a fa├žade of legitimacy claiming Sisi had been set up to win by the interim government.

Opinions silenced?
The Western media and human rights groups have accused the interim government of silencing opinions, perhaps to Mubarak levels, following the removal of President Morsi. Creating an environment that prevented a truly free and fair election.

Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood, held mass sit-ins and protests following Morsi’s overthrow. The rallies have become places of violence with Brotherhood members blaming police for using force and police blaming the Brotherhood for inciting violence.

With tensions between the two mounting, the government blamed a December car bomb attack on the organization and designated it a terrorist organization. According to the Associated Press, 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and 450 police officers have been killed in the 11 month interim.

Recently, human rights groups have criticized a mass death sentence given to Muslim Brotherhood members that attended a rally that lead to the death of a police officer. Senior officials told the Associated Press that the number of jailed Islamists is 16,000 including 3,000 mid to high level ranking Muslim Brotherhood members. Critics argue the Sisi-supporting regime is silencing people like the Mubarak regime (The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed until the 2011 Revolution). Proponents, including many citizens, argue the hardliner approach is necessary to curb unprecedented street violence.

Demonstration Law
Last fall, with increasing unrest, the interim government enacted a law that banned all demonstrations unless approved by authorities.

Supporters said the law was necessary to stabilize Egypt and curb violence, citing similar Western laws restricting public assembly. Critics, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, warned that the law proscribed excessive sanctions and was not well defined leaving a potential for abuse. Many activists have been jailed since its enactment including the founder of the April 6 Movement, who had been an important force in the 2011 Revolution.

During the campaign, the role of the media became a center point for those concerned with the fairness of the election.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, currently lists 16 detained journalists, the most since the organization was founded in 1981. Notably, four Al Jazeera journalists are being detained without charge. The European Union election observer mission noted that these imprisonments lead to an environment of restricted media and even self-censorship.

During the campaign, Sabahi complained to BBC that media coverage was one sided. Arguing President Sisi dominated the news circuits and received dramatically more camera time than Sabahi. The EU observer mission, noted that public media gave equal time to each candidate while private media gave nearly double time to Sisi.

According to an independent Egyptian newspaper, former 2012 presidential nominee Khaled Ali dropped out of the 2014 race claiming it to be a shame. Citing media persecution of anyone that goes against the majority account of events.

Voter Turnout?
On the first day of voting in Egypt, numbers were low and blamed on unseasonable heat. Tuesday was declared a national holiday to increase voter turnout and by mid Tuesday the elections were extended into Wednesday. The unexpected extension raised international concern but both candidates also filed complaints with the election commission.

Unofficial results indicate that Sisi won 93 percent of the vote. Void ballots accounted for 4 percent and Sabahi received just 3 percent of the vote. Turnout was estimated at 46 percent, lower than the 52 percent that showed up for the 2012 election. Sisi had called for a record setting turnout to legitimize his election and the earlier ousting of Morsi.

Was the landslide vote a true reflection of Egyptian sentiment? Maybe not. Many voters protested the election. The April 6 movement called for a boycott after the jailing of their leader under the demonstration law. And a number of Muslim Brotherhood members considered the election illegitimate and refused to participate.

Take Away
The current instability and polarization in Egypt prevented a textbook free and fair presidential election. President Sisi was supported by the military-backed interim government with little opposition at a time when free assembly was largely restricted.

Yet, the exhausted Egyptian people see Sisi as their ticket to stability and economic success even if that is at the cost of textbook democracy. All eyes will be on President Sisi to see if he can stabilize Egypt without using oppressive measures like his autocratic predecessors.

Stephanie Macuiba graduated from Southern Illinois University School of Law and recently passed the Illinois and California state bar exams. She completed internships at the Arab Center for Rule of Law in Beirut, Lebanon and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi, India. The International Association of Law Schools awarded her a young human rights scholar award for her article on indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay. She currently works and lives in Los Angeles.

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