By Sarah El Sirgany
BRUSSELS: It is too late for Egypt to invite European observers to monitor the parliamentary elections slated for September, a European Union official said.
The head of the Division of Democracy Support and Elections (DSE) at the European External Action Service (EEAS), Malgorzata Wasilewska, said an exploratory mission would need to be deployed four months in advance. Based on this mission’s report, the observation mission would be deployed about two months before election day.
“If elections were confirmed for September, it would be a challenge for us,” she said.
European officials have requested that their Egyptian counterparts send an official invitation on numerous occasions, during high level visits to Egypt and through the embassy in Brussels. Egyptian officials “responded positively,” Wasilewska said, explaining that she didn’t know if that meant the invitation is on the way, there were second thoughts, or that the elections would be delayed.
She said none of the other election-concerned groups they work with have been officially invited, although signs have shown that international observers were welcome.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had set September for parliamentary elections. One of its members had reportedly said last month that the election process would start on Sept. 30, without specifying an election day.
Some political forces, especially newly formed parties, have been pushing for postponing the elections to allow enough time to prepare.
In Brussels, officials said that generally elections would be better if all are prepared, but didn’t support postponing the process. Several officials here repeatedly stressed to a group of Egyptian and Tunisian journalists that the EU wasn’t looking to impose but to offer advice and — when asked — assistance.
Tunisia, whose former president Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 following a popular uprising, recently postponed elections previously set for July. However, Tunisia had extended an invitation to EU observers back in February.
“We were very happy that the decision to postpone [July elections] was achieved by consensus,” Wasilewska said about Tunisia.
Tunisia requested technical assistance and observers. Even though there was uncertainty about the date of the elections, the DSE deployed the exploratory mission, according to Wasilewska.
The DSE is “willing and ready” to send a mission to Egypt but only with an invitation and full authorization.
Wasilewska explained that a full mission would require signing two memorandums of understanding guaranteeing freedom of movement, access to polling stations and meetings with the concerned top officials, among other facilitations.
The mission would need at least two months or six weeks in the country prior to election day to be able to provide a proper assessment of the credibility of the process. She noted access to vote counting and aggregation, assessment of candidate’s accessibility to campaigning and media coverage, and whether or not voters were intimidated as some of the main issues that have to be examined before and after election day.
She stressed that the mission doesn’t comment on the results but the process. The aim is not to criticize but to provide a constructive assessment that would help in the following elections.
“It’s too simplistic to call a report positive or negative,” she said, also dismissing the “free and fair elections” as an unrealistic description. She noted the importance of recognizing the achievements and the challenges facing governments in organizing the elections, especially in such transition periods like the ones Egypt and Tunisia are undergoing.
It’s possible that the reason why Egypt hasn’t extended the invitation yet, Wasilewska theorized, was because of apprehension of an “unduly critical” report in the transition period, an understandable and common concern.
“There are often misunderstandings about the impact of criticism that comes out as a result of observation,” she said, noting that no country has had 100-percent seamless elections. “There is always room for improvement.”
Not extending the invitation isn’t necessarily a bad sign, she said. Along the same lines, a late invitation won’t necessarily be an indicative sign of the integrity of the electoral process.
Yet, Egypt could be missing out an opportunity if it doesn’t invite the European observers, as the report would help in pointing out the deficiencies and provide a detailed analysis for parties interested in helping in the run up to the following elections.
The invitation would show willingness “to engage in dialogue on how to improve the process,” she said, for example improving voters’ registry lists.
With the EU pushing for a “more for more” approach in its renovated Neighborhood Policy, Wasilewska assured that Egypt not sending an invitation “won’t close any doors.”
EEAS Division deputy head Francisco Gaztelu Mezquiriz said a day earlier that the current Egyptian government generally prefers the approach of “mutual accountability” over the also-proposed “more for more.” Egypt said it needs the assistance immediately, instead of tying it to the progress in implementing reforms, because “tomorrow might be too late.”
If no invitation is extended, the EU could — but not necessarily would — send a committee of experts closer to election day. The committee — usually consisting of two people and about a month-worth of work — wouldn’t have the same access as a full mission and its mandate would be limited to assessing the electoral process through meeting the relevant stakeholders.
Like other EU officials, she highlighted the role of civil society in monitoring the elections, whether in the absence or presence of European observers, saying local observers have more numbers and better access, which would mean a more comprehensive report.
A day earlier, Michael Mann, spokesman for EU High Representative Catherin Ashton, said that after Mubarak, the EU — which has always supported civil society groups with funding and technical assistance — “would now be able to do it properly.”