PRESS RELEASE: Findings of DI Egyptian Referendum Observation Mission
Cairo, Jan. 17 - U.S.-based Democracy International (DI) announced today its preliminary findings on Egypt’s recent constitutional referendum held on January 14 and 15. DI deployed more than 80 international observers to 23 of Egypt’s 27 governorates, which made it the largest international observation mission to this referendum. DI’s mission observed all aspects of the referendum process, including the political context in which the referendum took place, the conduct of polling, and the count.
Democracy International has serious concerns about the political environment in which this referendum took place. The referendum took place against a backdrop of arrests and detention of dissenting voices. There was no real opportunity for those opposed to the government’s roadmap or the proposed constitution to dissent. This constrained campaign environment made a robust debate on the substance and merits of the constitution impossible. “A democratic transition should be characterized by an expansion of freedoms, but Egyptians have seen substantial restrictions on the exercise of their democratic rights,” said Eric Bjornlund, Democracy International’s president and head of the observation mission in Egypt. “But the post-referendum period offers an opportunity to promote broader political participation.”
The actual administration of the process on the referendum days appeared to allow those citizens who participated to express their will. DI observers did note specific concerns about the administration of the balloting in some locations, including the heavy presence of security forces inside polling places, problems with the layout of some polling places that could have jeopardized voters’ ability to cast a ballot in secret, and instances where campaign materials were prominently displayed inside or immediately outside polling locations. They also noted the relative absence of nonpartisan domestic observers. There is no evidence that such problems substantially affected the outcome of this referendum, but they could affect the integrity or the credibility of more closely contested electoral processes in the future.
The legitimacy of these processes is for the Egyptian people to decide. Ultimately, a successful transition to democracy in Egypt will depend on meaningful opportunities for all political forces in the society to participate peacefully in a political process. The interim government and its opponents should seek opportunities to engage in inclusive dialogue that could help bring about broader participation in the political process, including in future elections. The process of preparing for upcoming elections is an opportunity to reorient Egypt toward effective, democratic institutions that are broadly viewed as legitimate across the society.
This statement details the preliminary findings of Democracy International’s election observation mission to Egypt’s 2014 constitutional referendum.
About the DI Election Observation Mission
With accreditation from the High Electoral Commission of Egypt (HEC), Democracy International established a referendum observation mission in Egypt in early December 2013. DI deployed a core team that began to observe the political context and the preparations for the referendum. Since arriving in country, DI’s representatives have held numerous meetings with relevant stakeholders, including the HEC and other entities responsible for the administration of the referendum process, political parties and social movements both in favor of and opposed to the referendum, civil society organizations including groups monitoring the referendum process, government officials, representatives of the committee that developed the revised constitution, diplomats, representatives of international election observation organizations, and diplomats and other representatives from the international community.
For the constitutional referendum itself on January 14 and 15, DI has deployed 83 accredited international observers to 23 of Egypt’s 27 governorates to witness all phases of the two days of polling including the conduct of voting and counting. DI’s observers include election experts, regional experts, and development and political professionals from 10 countries. DI’s mission was the largest international observation mission for this referendum.
Democracy International is a signatory to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers and has conducted its mission in accordance with these principles, which provide that election observers must be independent and impartial, uphold the values of democratic government, and respect the national sovereignty of their host country. In accordance with the Declaration of Principles, DI observers witnessed all phases of the referendum process, including the legal context and political environment for the referendum and the procedures for the balloting and counting on the two referendum days. In accordance with Article 11 of the Declaration of Principles, the decision to conduct international observation of the referendum did not imply that the process should be considered credible or legitimate.
DI’s election observation mission used an innovative process to collect information from around the country on polling days. DI’s observer teams used handheld tablets to record their observations through an open-source mobile data-collection platform. This enabled DI’s observation mission to receive information from teams deployed in the field virtually in real time. This data-collection method enabled the mission to analyze observer findings more quickly than has been possible in the past.
DI will continue to observe the process after the announcement of the referendum results. In addition to this preliminary statement, the mission will issue a comprehensive report detailing its findings on the entire referendum process in the coming weeks.
Legal Framework for the Referendum
On July 8, 2013, Interim President Adly Mansour issued a constitutional declaration setting forth a “roadmap” for drafting revisions to the constitution, holding a referendum on the constitution, and setting an expectation for future presidential and parliamentary elections. The constitutional declaration established the legal framework for the interim government, including the affirmation that existing laws were still in effect unless specifically changed. The constitutional declaration granted unilateral legislative power to the interim president, which has been used to enact election specific legislation.
Many political parties and movements questioned the legitimacy of the constitutional declaration and the roadmap from the outset, and many eventually decided to boycott the referendum. The interim government deviated from the roadmap in the timing of different stages of the process and by authorizing consideration of a new constitution rather than approving amendments to the 2012 constitution.
The High Electoral Commission has authority to conduct the constitutional referendum as defined under the electoral law. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for providing logistical and operational support for the election. In coordination with the Egyptian armed forces, the Ministry of the Interior is also responsible for security at the polling places and around the country.
Initially, as in past elections, voters were required to vote at pre-assigned polling locations. However, on January 6, President Mansour issued a decree establishing special (Wafideen) polling stations where voters could cast ballots outside their home governorates.
The national identity card and civil registry form the basis for the voter list. All Egyptian citizens age 18 and over are permitted to vote, except active duty military, persons convicted of crimes, mentally disabled persons who are institutionalized, and any citizens naturalized for less than five years.
The Constitutional Development Process
After the issuance of the July 8 constitutional declaration, a committee of experts was formed to propose amendments to the 2012 constitution, which were eventually submitted to a constitutional review committee, the Committee of 50. Although the constitutional declaration called for a committee that was representative of all parts of Egyptian society, the committee did not include representatives from some key political parties and social movements.
The Committee of 50 submitted the new draft constitution to the interim president on December 3. Although the roadmap called for a public referendum on the new constitution within 30 days, the interim president announced on December 14 that the referendum would be held on January 14 and 15.
The Campaign Environment
Democracy International has serious concerns about the political environment in which this referendum took place. The referendum took place against a backdrop of arrests and detention of dissenting voices. There was no real opportunity for those opposed to the roadmap or the constitution to dissent.
In November, the interim government adopted a new law severely restricting public protests. Since the adoption of this law, a number of high-profile activists and opponents of the roadmap have been jailed, and the police and other security forces have met public protests with violent responses. Some prominent groups were specifically prevented from campaigning against the adoption of the constitution. A number of members from the Strong Egypt Party, for example, were arrested for posting campaign materials urging Egyptians to vote no on the referendum. Other individuals attempting to campaign against the passage of the referendum were reportedly harassed or prevented from doing so. Some journalists were also arrested and imprisoned.
Egyptian media coverage of the referendum process was biased in support of the adoption of the constitution. Those opposed to the passage of the referendum were not afforded reasonable opportunities to express their opposition.
Limits on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech seriously constrained the campaign environment, and this constrained campaign climate made a robust debate on the substance and merits of the constitution impossible.
Civil Society and Domestic Observation
Democracy International has concerns about restrictions on nonpartisan national observation of the referendum process. Independent domestic observation can provide a check on the possibility of fraud and build public confidence in the process. Many civil society organizations, including organizations that had been accredited to observe Egyptian elections in the past, were denied accreditation to observe, often without any explanation to those groups. In some cases, the HEC denied these groups access to the process because of alleged affiliation with illegal groups or because the Ministry of Social Solidarity had suspended their legal registration. Other Egyptian
observer groups complained that they had received far fewer accreditations of individual observers than they had requested or that the HEC had claimed publicly were issued. Ultimately, there were relatively few observers in polling places for the two days of the referendum.
Electoral Procedures and Administration
The division of responsibilities for electoral administration and management among different governmental entities complicates electoral administration and hampers the HEC’s ability to control the process and effectively plan for electoral events.
The abbreviated electoral calendar also provided a substantial challenge to electoral preparations, including the development and announcement of specific polling procedures, the training of polling station staff members, and the accreditation of observers. Polling station procedures were not well specified and were inconsistently applied at polling places. A polling place procedures manual was finalized only days before the referendum, too late to serve as the basis for training of polling station workers, including judges or lower-ranking officials.
The addition of Wafideen polling places provides an opportunity for greater political participation, but the presidential decree establishing such centers was adopted much too late, only days before the referendum. This left the HEC insufficient time to implement or explain the process and made the process vulnerable to the risk of multiple voting.
The actual administration of the process on the referendum days appeared to allow those citizens who participated to express their will. DI observers did note specific concerns about the administration of the balloting in some locations, including the heavy presence of security forces inside polling places, problems with the layout of some polling places that could have jeopardized voters’ ability to cast a ballot in secret, and instances where campaign materials were prominently displayed inside or immediately outside polling locations. There is no evidence that such problems substantially affected the outcome of this referendum, but they could affect the integrity or the credibility of more closely contested electoral processes in the future.
Democracy International offers the following recommendations to improve the political climate and procedures for future elections.
- End the crackdown on dissenting political voices. The government, state-run and independent media, and the military and other security forces should end their aggressive campaign against parties and movements offering alternative viewpoints to the government narrative. Instruments of the state should not be used to suppress dissent.
- Review and amend the protest law.
The government should ensure freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The government should immediately review and amend the protest law to ensure that it does not restrict the very freedoms articulated in the new constitution.
- Promote broader political participation in the lead up to future elections.
The interim government should use upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections as an opportunity to actively encourage opposition parties and movements to engage in the political process.
- Strengthen electoral procedures to be more consistent with international standards.
Egypt’s electoral authorities should conduct a thorough review of polling day procedures to bring such procedures in line with international standards, including limiting the role of security forces, protecting the secrecy of the vote, and preventing campaigning within polling stations.
- Develop more robust operational plans and timelines and better training for future elections.
The HEC should improve its procedural and operational planning for future elections, including establishing more robust operational plans and timelines, and provide better training for judges and other poll workers.
- Review and revise the process for electoral complaints.
The electoral law should be revised to specify an effective, transparent and fair process for addressing electoral complaints.
- Safeguard constitutional rights.
Democratic rights and freedoms articulated in the new constitution should be fully respected and protected.
- Promote political reconciliation.
A successful transition to democracy in Egypt will depend on the willingness of opposing political forces to agree to participate peacefully in a political process. The interim government and its opponents should seek opportunities to engage in inclusive dialogue that could help bring about broader participation in the political process, including in future elections.
In Cairo, Cherif Barakat
cbarakat at democracyinternational.com