“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
—Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21(3)
The year 2010 could be key for assessing Egypt’s ability to run free and fair elections. On June 1, 2010, Egyptians cast votes for two-thirds of the Consultative Council (Maglis al-Shura), the upper house of parliament. On November 28 elections are scheduled for the People’s Assembly (Maglis al-Shaab), the lower house. As the uncertain health of President Hosni Mubarak fuels intense speculation about his successor, the November 2010 elections could be an indicator of the country’s preparedness for critical presidential elections scheduled for 2011.
Much stands in the way of free and fair electoral participation. Egypt remains under an Emergency Law that gives security officials free reign to prohibit or disperse election-related rallies, demonstrations, and public meetings, and also to detain people indefinitely without charge. Throughout 2010 and especially in the weeks leading up to the parliamentary elections, authorities have used these powers to disrupt and prevent gatherings and arrest individuals solely for exercising their rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression—freedoms that are essential to free and fair elections.
The most recent prior People’s Assembly elections in 2005 were marred by fraud and violence but were strongly contested. Members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization won 88 seats as independents – some 60 percent of the seats they contested. The presence of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates sometimes sparked more active debates in the Assembly, in which MPs called ministers to account and raised specific human rights concerns. However, the independent MPs have not been able to affect legislation.
In 2005 President Hosni Mubarak promised to “enshrine the liberties of the citizen and reinvigorate political parties,” but a series of constitutional amendments in 2007 and the renewal of the state of emergency in 2008 and again in 2010 have further eroded political rights.
Article 76 of the Constitution, as amended in 2005, allows multiple presidential candidates, but sharply restricts who may run; a candidate must be a leader of an officially recognized political party that has existed for at least five years and has won at least three percent of the seats in both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council. Any independent candidate must secure the endorsement of at least 250 elected members of the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council, and governorate-level councils, with at least 65 of them members of the People’s Assembly. The ruling National Democratic Party’s stranglehold on all of these bodies makes an independent candidacy—such as that of former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed El Baradei—virtually impossible. El Baradei has attracted support from across the political spectrum because he is not affiliated with the NDP or any other party.
A substantial factor in El Baradei’s popularity has been his calls for an end to the state of emergency, for full judicial supervision of the electoral process, for monitoring by independent Egyptian and international civil society organizations, for equal access for all candidates to the media, and for simplifying voting procedures by allowing individuals to certify their eligibility through use of the national identification card that every Egyptian must acquire at age 16.
A new problem in 2010 is that unlike in the elections of the last 10 years, the government has drastically limited independent judicial supervision of the polling, following a constitutional amendment pushed through in 2007. Another new factor is the recently established High Elections Commission (HEC), which issues monitoring permits and appoints “general committees,” comprising a limited number of judges who are to oversee the polling. The HEC, whose leadership has already changed twice since the commission became operational in May, functions with little transparency and has no standing secretariat to allow for communication with other bodies involved in election observation. Prior to the Shura Council elections, the HEC rejected 65 percent of the monitoring requests by civil society groups.
One positive development has been Law 149 of 2009, which allocates 64 parliamentary seats to women, increasing the total number of People’s Assembly seats to 518. According to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, the quota has encouraged women’s electoral participation, with 1,046 women running for seats this year compared to 121 in 2000 and 127 in 2005.
The Political Parties Committee (PPC) retains full control over the registration of new parties. Its partisan composition, sweeping powers, and subjective criteria for making decisions have been a recipe for the routine exclusion of nascent political parties.
People’s Assembly elections in particular have often involved widespread violence on voting day. The 2005 parliamentary elections saw serious violence at polling stations, which led to at least 12 deaths and hundreds of arrests of opposition activists and journalists. Sharply reduced independent judicial supervision this year makes independent monitoring of the upcoming elections more crucial, but the government has rejected calls by Egyptians and other governments for international observers. At this writing, less than a week before the elections, Egyptian NGOs have yet to receive monitoring permits from the Higher Elections Committee, which issued only 1,400 out of 4,000 requested for the Shura elections in June 2010.
Under international human rights law, the Egyptian government is obliged to respect article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which stipulates that
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.
The election for the Shura Council’s 264 seats took place amid reports of fraud, violence, and intervention by security officers to prevent voters from accessing polling stations. The president appoints 88 of the Shura Council members; half of the remaining 176 seats are up for election every three years. This June the ruling National Democratic Party won 80 seats, four went to legal opposition party members, and independents won the remaining four.
For a list of issues and questions raised by opposition and independent MPs in parliament, see quarterly Democracy Status reports by the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, available at http://www.mosharka.org/en/index.php.
 President Hosni Mubarak, speech announcing beginning of presidential campaign, August 17, 2005, http://www.mubarak2005.com/english/speech.asp?pg=1&NewsID=19&Section (accessed December 22, 2006).
 Safaa Bahaa Eddin, “Quota Increases Women’s Appetite for People’s Assembly,” October 27, 2010, http://shorouknews.com/ContentData.aspx?id=322176 (accessed October 25, 2010).