CAIRO // Election monitoring groups will deploy a veritable army of volunteers across Egypt to keep watch on what happens when voters go to the polls on Sunday.
Elections by themselves are a massive undertaking in Egypt. Out of a population of 80.5 million people, about 40 million are registered to vote for representatives to the 518-seat People's Assembly. Ensuring the balloting is free and fair in a country with a legacy of electoral fraud is an altogether different challenge.
As a result of a constitutional amendment in 2007, oversight of elections has shifted from Egypt's judiciary, widely regarded as independent, to the High Elections Commission, a panel largely handpicked by parliament, which is controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Furthermore, the government of President Hosni Mubarak has refused to allow international observers to help monitor the vote, saying it would infringe on Egypt's sovereignty. That leaves the country's own election monitors outmanned and overstretched, as well as the only independent guarantors of a clean election.
With voting just days away, the four main coalitions of volunteer monitoring groups are still waiting from Egyptian authorities for answers to important questions, such as whether they will be permitted access inside polling stations and the role of security forces in the streets outside, Ahmed Rizq said.
Mr Rizq heads the Independent Committee to Supervise Elections, the largest monitoring coalition, which will field about 4,000 volunteers on election day and cover 72 of Egypt's 222 voting districts. He said that based on previous election experience, the Committee and other vote-monitoring groups were unlikely to get answers to their questions until the day of the vote.
What the monitors know for certain, however, is that they will not be allowed to witness the vote count, creating the potential for corrupt officials to stuff the ballot boxes with the votes of the long deceased.
"There's more space for manipulation of the votes this time," said Mr Rizq, who also serves as manager of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre, an advocacy group in Cairo that encourages the development of civil society. "We still fear the control of the ruling party and the government over these elections."
Mr Rizq, of course, was referring to the NDP and its leader, Mr Mubarak, who said earlier this month that he was "looking forward to free and fair elections under the supervision of the higher election committee and monitoring by Egyptian civil society".
Government officials have said the High Elections Commission, comprising two judges named by the judiciary and seven members appointed by the People's Assembly and the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, has the authority and independence it needs to ensure a fair vote.
Mr Rizq said monitors have no choice but to take the president's pledge for a fair election at face value, even if "we do not completely believe him".
Vote monitors will use an array of sophisticated tactics on election day, including remote uploading of photographs and video clips to central websites to report violence and incidents of voter intimidation in real time, said Magdi Abdulhamid, the co-ordinator of the Independent Coalition to Monitor Elections, a non-governmental umbrella group that will field about 1,000 volunteers.
Mr Abdulhamid said the monitoring groups are prepared for the surprises that historically have accompanied voting here. "We trained them according to two plans. Plan A if they have official permissions, and plan B if they didn't get official permissions and they couldn't enter the [polling stations]," he said.
The High Elections Commission said it will grant access to polling stations to non-governmental groups that are properly accredited. Large monitoring groups, however, including the coalitions led by Mr Rizq and Mr Abdulhamid, are still waiting for word on their status.
Volunteers will also conduct their own polls of voters and compile their own estimates on voter participation rates to compare against the official result, Mr Abdulhamid said. If allowed inside the polling stations they will inspect the ballot boxes to ensure they are empty before the vote begins, and witness their sealing at the end of the day.
Nonetheless, the monitors agreed that the most difficult stage for monitors comes after the polls close.
Egypt's voter registration lists have not been updated, in many cases for at least 20 years, despite repeated requests in the past two months, Mr Rizq and other monitoring officials said. New names have been added, but the names of those who died remain on the rolls.
The manufacturing of votes from the names of dead citizens who are still on the voting rolls is "no doubt the strongest tool to forge the elections", said Safwat Girgis, the director of the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights, which will deploy 150 supervisors of its own next Monday.