On April 13, the European Union delegation to Egypt and the head of Egypt's electoral commission signed an agreement to expedite setting up a complete Elections Observation Mission. Preceded by a somewhat unexpected trip by the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the agreement has one predictable aim: to observe the imminent presidential elections, the first round of which is due to take place May 26-27. The decision was hardly unanimous, and there were significant voices both in favor of the deployment and critically opposed to it.
The agreement that will govern the setup is due any day now. While it is technically non-binding, it will carry certain moral and political weight. Regardless of the pact, however, the debate will continue within the EU and elsewhere over whether the EU should be conducting an elections mission at all.
There are essentially three camps on this issue. The first is composed of the current Egyptian government and its allies, all of whom are eager for the EU to organize a monitoring operation. The Egyptian authorities want as much international observation as possible for external and international validation of the process. Although the military-backed authorities enjoy substantial public support within the country, Egyptian officials want their standing to be restored in the international community — a standing that has taken quite a beating in the past nine months. Regionally in the Arab world, Egypt is in a strong position, with only Qatar and Tunisia expressing any significant opposition or criticism of the current regime, though the same cannot be said for Western and African countries. Egypt continues to suffer immense criticism in many quarters. Elections that receive a stamp of approval from the EU would back the argument that Egypt is on its way to democracy.
Within the EU’s own institutions, however, there are two strong views. The first, an important, albeit minority viewpoint, is that the EU should not engage in any monitoring of the Egyptian electoral process. The assumptions behind this view are simple: The electoral process is not going to live up to the EU’s standards of "fair" and "free." Various institutions of the EU have closely followed reports of human rights abuses in Egypt, and many within those institutions privately consider such violations appalling.
Beyond that, the Egyptian constitutional referendum earlier this year severely disappointed many within the EU who identified the environment prior to the referendum as critically unbalanced. Campaigners against it, for example, were rigorously suppressed. Monitoring of the procedures involved will inevitably provide legitimacy to the current Egyptian administration, a legitimacy that proponents of this view are unwilling to provide.
The second view, which has won the argument and is the general perspective of most member states, is that the EU should indeed direct a mission to witness the elections process in Egypt. The presumptions underpinning this view are not that the Egyptian authorities will conduct a fair and free presidential election — even though, many will acknowledge, they expect fair and free elections would result in an Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presidency. Rather, many seem to expect that there will be substantial shortcomings in the polling process, and they want an observation mission to openly and comprehensively record them. The alternative would be, according to proponents of this view, to criticize the process from afar without much in the way of evidence. Many civil society actors in Egypt as well as in the EU who were critical of the regime of former President Mohammed Morsi but are deeply opposed to the abuses of the current government privately share this view.
This position, however, is based on an assumption that the mission will be critical of the electoral process if there are a number of violations. That is, however, not a foregone conclusion. The EU has a number of strategic interests in maintaining a nonconfrontational relationship with the Egyptian authorities, and many cynically consider the increasingly positive attitude of Ashton a reflection of those interests, despite the continuing reports of human rights abuses.
It is difficult to predict the outcome of the observation mission. The elections are still six weeks away, and a lot can happen before then, as well as during the actual vote. There is also the reality that the high representative or, indeed, any politician from the EU’s External Action Service will not lead the monitoring mission. Rather, the mission would be considered independent, led by a member of the European Parliament.
The political considerations that might otherwise inform the decision-making of the EU’s high representative for any number of reasons will not necessarily have the same impact on a member of the European Parliament. However, Ashton will do the choosing. A front-runner, according to various sources in Brussels, for leading the mission is Jose Salafranca.
Salafranca is the chairman of the Monitoring Group on the Southern Neighborhood and the Middle East, and also the official spokesman of the center-right EPP Group in the European Parliament’s Committee of Foreign Affairs. By all accounts, Salafranca is well-aware of the situation on the ground in Egypt, partly due to his responsibilities in the European Parliament, but that does not guarantee a negative appraisal in the event there are irregularities in the elections. A fellow parliament member privately described him as more of a diplomat than a politician, and his public statements on Egypt hitherto do not appear to have included the same sort of criticism that human rights defenders might hope for. He has not, as yet, been appointed and sources indicate he has not yet decided whether he would take the position if offered.
This mission, to be sure, is a critical one for the EU this year. It comes at an unfortunate time, when the EU is being criticized by all sides in the Egyptian arena. The Egyptian authorities, privately and publicly, are unhappy with any criticism from the EU or international bodies at a time when they feel they need assistance, not critique, in the midst of their "war on terror." The pro-Islamist, anti-governmental camp insists the EU is comfortable with the current government’s restrictive practices, owing to what it sees as minimal condemnation. The human rights and civil rights communities in Egypt are disappointed the EU has not been more critical, especially in light of the EU’s own human rights reports on Egypt.
An expert mission was deployed to Egypt in advance of the constitutional referendum. Its findings were not released, except to member states and the internal EU bureaucracy. A fully equipped observation mission, however, will not have that luxury. The report will have to be made public. Even before the mission arrives in Cairo, the burden upon it is clear. Will its independence from the political considerations of the EU’s official line override other considerations? We shall all soon find out.