Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Who'll Watch Egypt's Historic Vote? ; in the First Competitive Vote, Election Monitors Are Being Blocked from Wednesday's Polls

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Who'll Watch Egypt's Historic Vote? ; in the First Competitive Vote, Election Monitors Are Being Blocked from Wednesday's Polls

Article excerpt

The contest to watch in Wednesday's historic vote here, pitched to Egyptians and the world as a major step toward democracy, is not the race among the 10 presidential candidates. Most expect President Hosni Mubarak to sail easily into his fifth six-year term.

The true duel will take place between those who seek to monitor the polls, and those trying to exclude them.

"If we have to, we will use force to supervise these elections and if they want to forbid us they must put us in jail," says Ngad al Borai, director of a local nongovernmental organization that received $250,000 of the $4.5 million spent by the US in Egypt this year to ensure fair elections.

The government has ignored US requests to allow international election observers, and ignored an Egyptian judge's order to allow local civil society monitors into the polling stations. Few expect a clean vote, and a battle is raging to ensure a semblance of proper oversight.

Now civil society activists and thousands of the country's judges, who are the constitutionally mandated guardians of elections in Egypt, have squared off against the government-appointed Presidential Election Commission.

The election commission has been granted unimpeachable authority over Wednesday's polls, determining who can and can't vote, who will supervise, and the procedures for tallying results. On Sunday it rejected a Cairo court's ruling that observers from NGOs must be allowed to monitor the vote.

But the coalition of judges claims the right to preside over election issues. Many civil society groups and the opposition candidates have sided with the judges, while Mr. Mubarak's campaign insists that the commission holds the legal sway.

"The judges should be the first people to respect the law, and the law has given the commission a clear mandate," says Hossam Badrawi, a top official with the Mubarak campaign.

Critics counter that the commission is essentially above the law. If it can ignore a legal verdict to allow election monitors into the polls, then "this means they are working outside the country's legal system," says Mr. Borai.

The two sides' competing visions of what constitutes free and fair elections are destined to collide when the polls open Wednesday at 9 a.m. Egypt's judges have vowed to defy the commission's directions. They will let observers into the polling stations, and provide copies of the vote counts to representatives of each candidate - both blatant violations of the commission's election rules.

"The state doesn't believe in democracy or elections," says Hesham al Bastawissi, a judge on Egypt's highest appeals court. "The ruling party handpicked the people that they want on the election commission, and they have a candidate in the elections."

Mr. Bastawissi hasn't been allowed to supervise an election in Egypt since 1982, when he declared a parliamentary election void because of voting irregularities. …

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