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Egypt rejects civilian observers over 'security' fears

Egypt's High Elections Commission rejects applications from two independent non-governmental organisations that hoped to serve as official monitors for parliamentary elections on Sunday.

CAIRO // Egypt's High Elections Commission has rejected applications from two independent non-governmental organisations that had hoped to serve as official monitors for parliamentary elections on Sunday.

The commission, a supposedly independent government body charged with co-ordinating the elections, told members of the Independent Coalition for Election Observation on Wednesday night that their application for official government permission to monitor elections had been rejected "for security reasons".

The Center for Trade Union and Worker's Services, which had also applied to be an official monitor, was also rejected on the same grounds.

Pro-democracy advocates said the rejections, as well as the increasing harassment of political opposition groups and security authorities' apparent bias towards ruling party candidates during the nomination and campaign periods, amount to a damning indictment of the fairness of the elections to the People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament.

"For a long time, we've been expecting that the coming elections will not only be forged, but they will be a complete farce," Magdi Abdulhamid, the co-ordinator of the Independent Coalition to Monitor Elections, which plans to field about 1,000 observers at polling stations throughout Egypt. "What happened affirms with absolute evidence that the High Elections Commission is far from being fair and it is certainly administered by the security authorities."

Human rights groups and western governments have echoed Mr Abdulhamid's concerns. Egyptian officials have repeatedly - sometimes angrily - rejected suggestions by foreign governments that Egypt invite international election observers to oversee the vote.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch criticised the Egyptian government for "mass arbitrary arrests, wholesale restrictions on public campaigning, and widespread intimidation of opposition candidates" that will make "free and fair elections unlikely".

Last Friday, law enforcement officials attacked members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist political organisation, at campaign rallies throughout Egypt's northern Delta region and arrested more than 100 of the group's supporters.

Election monitoring has emerged as a major point of contention between Egypt's political opposition and the ruling National Democratic Party. A 2007 constitutional amendment withdrew responsibility for election monitoring from Egypt's judiciary, which tends to maintain a certain degree of political independence from the government.

In the judiciary's place, the government established a nominally independent High Elections Commission. The commission is led by two judges, both of whom are named by the judiciary, and seven other members who are appointed by the People's Assembly and the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament.

For its part, the commission will deploy thousands of its own trained observers to monitor voting at polling points and has established a telephone hotline to receive complaints from voters.

Despite official assurances to the contrary, critics say the High Elections Commission is a nakedly political entity because most of its members are appointed by legislators, more than two-thirds of whom are NDP members.

"The High Elections Commission is neither neutral nor independent," said Ahmed Rizq, head of the Independent Committee to Supervise Elections, a group separate from that of Mr Abdulhamid. "It either implements the guidelines of the government or manipulates them."

Mr Rizq's organisation was denied an official supervisory role for its nearly 4,000 trained monitors several weeks ago. And while both Mr Rizq and Mr Abdulhamid had hoped for the official permission, both said they would proceed with their plans to monitor the vote and publish reports on their findings.

In fact, both NGO directors said official government sanction may not afford election observers much more access than ordinary, unaccredited observers. The final authority on whether an observer may enter a polling station remains with the local head of the committee that runs a particular polling station.

The badges given to the official election monitors stipulate that observers may "follow up" on the voting process, not "monitor" it - nebulous language that critics say will give security authorities wide leeway in dealing with the observers.

Mr Abdulhamid said he is now filing an appeal with Egypt's judiciary to overturn the High Election Commission decision. He said he is "99.9 per cent" certain that Egypt's administrative court will decide in favour of his organisation.



Updated: November 26, 2010 04:00 AM