Egypt is still reeling from the recent elections for the People's Assembly, the lower and primary house of the country's bicameral parliament. The first round, on November 28, was marred by reports of fraud, violence and widespread denial of access to accredited observers. The organized opposition was left with only four seats. The Muslim Brotherhood, which in 2005 had won 88 seats with members running as independents, did not win a single seat.
In response to what they saw as widespread vote rigging, both the Brotherhood and the Wafd - another of the main opposition parties - announced their withdrawal from the second round, held on December 5. The final tally gave the organized opposition a mere 3 percent of the seats, compared with 23 percent in 2005. "An Assembly Without Opposition" read the headline of one independent newspaper after the announcement of the final results.
Many Egyptian analysts expected that there would be fraud in the absence of independent judicial supervision, but nobody quite expected a People's Assembly so devoid of opposition. The government had in recent years pointed to lively debates in parliament and the media as evidence of democratic life when speaking to the outside world. A government that remains as image-conscious as this one needs to have an opposition in parliament.
The overall results reflect the exclusion of the opposition that Human Rights Watch observed during the campaign and the first-round voting itself. In the weeks prior to the elections, security officers resorted to their usual pre-election crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting at least 1,300 members between October 9 and November 28. I spoke to 24 of those who'd been arrested and held for periods ranging from 24 hours to six days, all eventually released without charge. These were young, educated men who had been putting up campaign posters or handing out flyers in support of a Brotherhood candidate. Four of them told me they'd been tortured. A fair and free election requires opportunities for candidates to campaign - in other words, to express their views freely and to bring supporters together in rallies and meetings. The authorities showed little respect for these basic rights.
On the first-round voting day, representatives of independent and opposition candidates were excluded from polling places, and even journalists and civil society monitors with permits were denied access; half the staff of one NGO with 2,600 monitors found themselves in this position. As the Human Rights Watch team went around to polling place after polling place we heard the same story: representatives of opposition candidates were denied entrance because of a regulation that had been issued overnight stating that their ‘proxies,' or forms, already formally approved by a notary, now had to be stamped at the local police station. When Brotherhood representatives tried to meet this additional requirement, police stations refused to grant them stamps. Some who did get the stamps were still refused entry.
The systematic exclusion of independent observers was particularly critical given Egypt's tradition of fraud. Yet two heartening narratives come out of these elections: the role of the judiciary and the media coverage. Denial of access to polling places for independent journalists and monitors was made up for by the wealth of citizen journalism. Ordinary people documented fraud, violence, and interference by security forces with their mobile phones or small cameras and disseminated them widely through social networking or opposition websites.
The other force the government couldn't fully control is the judiciary. Although greatly weakened by governmental interference, the judiciary in Egypt still enjoys the most respect of all state institutions for its relative independence. Constitutional amendments in 2007 had drastically reduced independent judicial supervision of polling places to oversight by "general committees," marginalizing the role of judges.
After voting day, though, some judges courageously spoke out about incidents of fraud. And before election day, administrative courts ruled again and again against decisions barring some candidates, often emanating from the Interior Ministry, ordering the authorities to reinstate candidates or cancel the elections in certain constituencies. The impact of those rulings, which the government ignored, will not go away easily; Egypt heads toward presidential elections in 2011 burdened by the enormous legitimacy deficit of this new ‘People's Assembly'.
Heba Morayef is a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Cairo.