← Back to portfolio

Egypt Election Monitoring, 2011-12

Published on

Egypt Election Monitoring

2011-2012 Parliamentary Election

The Carter Center’s presence in Egypt is relatively short lived, only beginning in 2011. The Center’s founder and namesake, however, has had a vested interest in the country since his presidency and his famous friendship with former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat’s successor as President after his 1981 assassination was Hosni Mubarak, a former air force officer who proceeded to turn Egypt into an authoritarian state. Thirty years later, he was still in office, possibly running for a sixth term and possibly handing off the reins of power to his son, as he was in his 80s. Political unrest had been building, however, and various actors became concerned about the country’s inevitable first power transition in over a quarter century. These actors included Mubarak loyalists and appointees, the military, secularists, and Islamists.

The unrest came to a head on January 25, 2011, when large scale protests broke out in Tahrir Square in Cairo against police brutality. As the protests grew in size, police security forces eventually were replaced by the military. Mubarak attempted to respond to the constantly growing public pressure by appointing Omar Suleiman as Vice President, effectively cutting off his son and his party from power, but calls for his resignation only grew louder.[1] As the calendar turned to February, the question became not if but when he would step down: immediately or at the conclusion of his term in six months. On February 11, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took over executive power, leaving Egyptians with a very uncertain set of circumstances. They had ousted Mubarak but had no plan to move forward. With the regime ousted, security also broke down. For example, Sinai had “not a single police station left standing” and order was not restored there until August.[2] The first step towards achieving an air of normalcy was a Constitutional referendum in March that had the aim of revising the existing constitution, setting up provisional institutions, and initiating the transition of power from the military to civilian government. It passed overwhelmingly with a 77 percent “yes” vote and parliamentary elections were scheduled for the end of the year. Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador to Egypt, called the referendum “an important step towards realizing the aspirations of the January 25 revolution.”[3]

The ensuing elections for the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, the lower and upper houses of parliament, respectively, were vastly important to the democratic process in Egypt and it was critical to establishing legitimacy and stability that they go well. They were, however, beset from the outset with difficulties. Before the election, the SCAF published what became known as the Constitutional Declaration, giving the military fairly sweeping powers and including items not on the referendum. This served to undermine that crucial sense of legitimacy, giving the elections a cloud of uncertainty. The Carter Center deplored this development as causing “confusion and alarm among segments of the Egyptian population…paving the way for future challenges to the constitutionality of the elections.”[4] Protesters even reoccupied Tahrir and one sign at the scene read “our mistake is that we left the square.” The movement ran out of steam without a coherent message, however, as the unifying purpose that was Mubarak’s ouster gave way to increasing political divides.[5] Political actors began to form parties in the leadup to the elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, a highly influential Islamist group, created the Freedom and Justice Party. When combined with influence from the Salafist Nour Party, this had the effect of politicizing many Islamists. Secular groups, on the other hand, were fractured among many parties. As the elections got closer, unrest increased as many were highly skeptical of the election process and the military’s role as a caretaker of the country. This unrest, largely sectarian, came to a head in the Maspero protests, in which 25 people died protesting the burning of a Coptic church.[6]

The Carter Center opened its presence in 2011 with the aim and mission to observe the parliamentary elections and assess the electoral process “against the laws and international commitments of Egypt.”[7] Their initial findings of the state of the country were not positive: around 12,000 citizens went through military trials since January and the SCAF used an Emergency Law as essentially a blank check to crack down on dissent. According to the Center, the Emergency Law’s “existence produced a chilling effect that stifled free expression and assembly.”[8] The Center also elucidated profound issues with the legal framework that was to be used for the elections. The judiciary of the country was to function as the election authority, which makes sense in certain respects until one broaches the issue of appeals. If someone appealed a decision by the election authorities to the courts, then those courts would effectively be judging themselves. The election commission gave itself immunity from appeals, though, simply compounding the issue.[9] The Carter Center was also concerned with issues of disenfranchisement. Military and government officials were not allowed to vote. Individuals who turned 18 between the publication of the voter registry and the election itself were not allowed to vote. Individuals declaring bankruptcy were not allowed to vote. The voter registry also likely did not include large numbers of rural women: “the vast geographic size of some rural districts coupled with limited access to campaign resources and traditional restrictions on women’s travel” were major issues.[10] The Center also noted that the election authorities made little effort to train poll workers or to provide anything resembling a voter education program. Civil society organizations attempted to fill some gaps but with limited funding and less coordination, these did not reach many people. Such organizations did, however, make positive contributions, including getting out of country voting approved. While none of these issues compromised the elections, Egypt’s political situation meant that a premium should have been placed on transparency and fairness in order to establish credibility.

The campaign itself was rather short, disadvantaging smaller parties, and rule violations occurred, including breaches of the campaign silence period, illicit religious campaigning, and campaign finance violations, but enforcement was nonexistent and many had no faith that it would be. According to the Doha Institute, “many doubt the security forces’ ability to protect voting committees and ensure the free will of voters.”[11] The media was curtailed by the government and by the “SCAF’s unwillingness to accept criticism.”[12] On Election Day itself, the Center observed several issues. Poll workers were not properly trained in many procedural matters, meaning polling was late and inefficient. Egypt has an extremely high illiteracy rate and workers did not know how to assist illiterate voters without compromising secrecy. Female voters who were veiled expressed an unwillingness to be identified by a man, and female poll workers were not always available. Turnout for the people’s assembly elections was respectable and polling was relatively calm, if imperfect. Shura Council turnout was abysmal, however, and many voters viewed that election to be unimportant, and subsequently expressed only a “muted level of engagement.”[13]

There were many issues with the elections, but afterwards, the Center declared that the “results appeared to be a broadly accurate expression of the will of the voters.”[14] The Center also published a set of recommendations for future elections, including the establishment of a fully independent electoral authority, a clearer and more efficient legal framework guaranteeing fundamental rights, comprehensive poll worker training and voter education programs, and overall increased transparency, among other things. The Center expressed hope in the elections as a “formative step in Egypt’s struggle for democracy but had reservations about the broader context in which the elections were held.”[15] The next step in that broader context was deciding the executive leadership of the country.

2012 Presidential Election

In the aftermath of parliamentary elections, the new legislature was tasked with forming a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, but conflict between Islamists and secularists in the body stalled the process past presidential elections scheduled for May, which the Carter Center was invited to witness.[16] These were to be the first democratic presidential elections in Egypt’s history and, as such, the occasion was momentous and critical. The process seemed, however, to be rather rushed, as there was a general desire to have a president decided upon by the end of military rule on June 30th. The Center intended to observe the whole process but did not get its accreditation until May 16, just a week before the actual date of elections, and so could not offer its comprehensive services to the whole process. No witnessing organizations were given the proper credentials until April 23, over a month after election preparations began on March 7. This meant that “the Carter Center was unable to assess critical pre-election phases, including voter registration, candidate nomination, and virtually the entire campaign period prior to the first round of voting.”[17] Jimmy Carter himself led a witnessing mission of over 100 individuals from over 30 countries. Starting in March, 23 individuals applied for presidential candidacy, but only 13 were approved. Notably, only one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s two candidates, Mohamed Morsi, was approved.

For the presidential election, a new organization called the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) was formed, which operated under the judiciary and was controversially immune to appeal.[18] Many of the issues present in the legislative elections persisted in the presidential one. There were fines for not voting but also highly limited voter education, which seemed unfair as election authorities were requiring an action from citizens without giving them the proper tools to apply that action.[19] The PEC was very opaque in its procedures, often telling the Carter Center of its activities but barring actual access. The Center adopted the opinion that this opaqueness combined with unclear rules on procedures threatened due process because “vague laws…fail to provide guidance to electoral stakeholders who seek to understand and follow the law.”[20]

The election itself took on the format of a majoritarian system, in which a candidate requires 50% of the vote plus one. In the event that nobody achieves the requisite numbers, a runoff will ensue between the top two finishers. The election took place over the course of two days, May 23 and 24, covering approximately 50 million eligible voters and 13,000 polling stations. The parties themselves were active in voter education, but the media was actively constrained, leading to twitter becoming a prominent news source, both to great benefit and great harm as “the positive role of information from Twitter and other sources was sometimes offset by the spread of rumors and misinformation.”[21]

In the first round of elections, the Carter Center observed fairly widespread issues in polling, but these were mostly the result of poor training, and the Center lauded the fact that as much as 40 percent of the poll workers who participated were women. Witnessing organizations, however, faced many challenges. Paramount among these was being barred from the national aggregation center. Morsi ended up winning round one with 24.8 percent of the vote, followed by Ahmed Shafiq, with just over 23 percent. Notably, over 50 percent of those who voted chose opposition candidates, highlighting the dissatisfaction and fractionalization of Egyptian politics.[22] Round 2 was marked by several major government initiatives. 2 days before the June 17 date of the runoff, the Supreme Court declared that approximately 1/3 of the People’s Assembly was elected unconstitutionally and, therefore, the whole thing ought to be dissolved. Even with this major setback for Egyptian democracy, the runoff occurred in a calm environment and Morsi was declared the victor. Just hours after polls closed, however, the military made a declaration that it was to exist completely independently from Presidential authority and maintained the power to legislate in the event that parliament (which was dissolved) could not perform its duties. It also gave the military the power to appoint the Constituent Assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution.[23] The Center decried this act, arguing that free and fair elections only work if they are upheld by the authorities and the military’s wanton declarations subverting civilian authority undermined the democratic process.

Developments Since Monitoring

The aftermath of the presidential election elucidated an unsure future for Egypt. The elections were a major win for the Muslim Brotherhood, and secular members of parliament clashed with Islamists, leading President Morsi to decree that all of his decisions were, in essence, final. This led to massive protests and clashes between Morsi’s supporters and secular foes. This clashes only escalated with time, their scope rivaling the Tahrir square protests just a year prior. The Defense Minister gave an ominous warning in mid-2013 that, if Egypt became ungovernable, the military may intervene.[24] True to this sentiment, the military removed Morsi from power on July 3, placing Supreme Court Chief Justice Adly Mansour in his place. The coup received mixed reactions worldwide, but tensions in Egypt exceeded all expectations. As reported by the New York Times: “Within hours, at least seven people had died and more than 300 were injured in clashes in 17 provinces between Mr. Morsi’s supporters and either civilian opponents or security forces.”[25] By the end of clashes in August, anywhere between 650 and over 1,000 people had died. The military regime drafted and passed a new constitution in early 2014 and later that year, SCAF commander Abdel Fattah el-Sisi resigned his commission with the intent to run for president. Sisi would win that election in a landslide (almost 97 percent of the vote) after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was banned from participation. Soon after, in 2015, parliamentary elections were held after the legislature had been on a three year hiatus. Al Jazeera reported, however, that the vote “is being held in absence of any real competition” and, indeed, voter turnout barely hit above 25 percent.[26] Sisi has vowed to right the ship in Egypt but, with a hobbled economy and a severely destabilized region, only time will tell.

Contribution of the Carter Center

Observed some of the most important elections in Egypt’s history and helped to lend credibility and legitimacy to the process.

Reported on potentially harmful inconsistencies and electoral violations with the aim to improve Egypt’s electoral process.

Helped to apply international pressure on Egyptian authorities to run responsible elections and to hold true to its international and domestic commitments to its people.


[1] “Timeline: Egypt’s Revolution.” Al Jazeera. February 14, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/01/201112515334871490.html.

[2] Final Report of the Carter Center Mission to Witness the 2011-2012 Parliamentary Elections in Egypt. The Carter Center. September 21, 2012, 8.

[3] “Egypt Referendum Strongly Backs Constitution Changes.” BBC. March 20, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-12801125.

[4] Final Report of the Carter Center Mission, 10.

[5] Shahid, Anthony. “Not Satisfied, Protesters Return to Tahrir Square.” New York Times. July 12, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/13/world/middleeast/13tahrir.html.

[6] Khalifa, Amr. “Maspero: A Massacre Revisited.” The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. October 9, 2014. http://timep.org/commentary/maspero-massacre-revisited/.

[7] Final Report of the Carter Center Mission, 13.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Ibid., 135.

[11] Rabbo, Ahmad Abed. “Egyptian Political Parties and Parliamentary Elections 2011/2012.” Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. December 6, 2011. http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/f3e63fe9-eecb-49cc-884f-01bdc7a340eb.

[12] Final Report of the Carter Center Mission, 52.

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] Presidential Election in Egypt: Final Report. The Carter Center. December 21, 2012. 8.

[16] The Arabic term for “observer” is very close in meaning to that of “supervisor,” creating an unwanted implication, so the Carter Center agreed to refer to its activities in Egypt as “witnessing” but the two terminologies in this scenario are functionally the same.

[17] Presidential Election in Egypt, 4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 22.

[20] Ibid., 24.

[21] Ibid., 44.

[22] Ibid., 61.

[23] Revkin, Mara. “SCAF Constitutional Amendments Legitimize Martial Law.” Atlantic Council. June 18, 2012. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/scaf-constitutional-amendments-legitimize-martial-law-full-text.

[24] “Egypt Crisis: Mass Protests over Morsi Grip Cities.” BBC. July 1, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-23115821.

[25] Kirkpatrick, David D. “Army Ousts Egypt’s President; Morsi is Taken into Military Custody.” New York Times. July 3, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/04/world/middleeast/egypt.html?_r=0.

[26] “Egypt Votes in Parliamentary Elections.” Al Jazeera. October 18, 2015. ttp://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/egypt-vote-parliamentary-elections-151018050133559.html.