Known Unknown: Why the Egyptian Referendum is a Black Box

Interesting observations by Matt Hall for the Atlantic Council on a question nagging many – the quality of observer missions in the Egyptian referendum. Worth reading the whole thing, but here's the bit that clarifies the question of whether or not this referendum process has been less or more transparent than previous electoral events:

Al Ahram reports that approximately 5,000 Egyptians were slated to observe the referendum—a very small number considering there are upwards of 30,000 polling stations. Not enough, for example, to observe if the overnight seals on ballot boxes were unbroken while in the custody of the military—or to keep a keen eye on voter registries—as was standard practice in past elections.
Part of the explanation for the reduced ranks of poll watchers is that, unlike in previous elections where the bulk of observation was shouldered by party agents, for this vote the High Electoral Commission barred party agents under the specious rationale that the constitutional referendum was not a political party contest—despite the fact that political parties have been instrumental in campaigning, advertising, and mobilizing for the vote. On top of this, many of the experienced domestic groups with national networks decided to sit out the referendum owing to the overall oppressive environment, or had trouble securing government permissions. For example, the group Shayfeenkum (“we see you”), which has observed Egyptian elections since 2005, reported 60 percent of their applications were refused. And, of course, observation groups affiliated with the FJP have been banned since the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the party stems, a criminal organization.

Of the domestic groups observing the referendum, most have limited reach, resources, and technical proficiency. The only group that pledged to field a nation-wide observation mission, Tamarod, has no prior experience in the technical aspects of observation. Moreover, as the progenitors of the June 30 revolution that this election is meant to secure, their professional objectivity is suspect. Indeed their campaign spokesperson declared the objective of the group’s electoral observation is to prevent “schemes by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In addition to gleaning information for a national audience, domestic observers serve as essential antennae for international observer missions, who are always far less knowledgeable about local conditions. For better or worse, the statements of international missions often are taken as the final word on an election in international media and foreign capitals, and the veracity of these statements depends in large part on quality partnerships with local actors.

The referendum has clearly been, to say the least, problematic since both people campaigning for a boycott and those campaigning for a "no" vote have been subjected to arrests, access to state and private media has been extremely imbalanced, and the overall political context is a highly repressive one. As a result, part of the debate over the referendum has been whether it tells us anything of use. You could break down the debate in the following way:

  • Triumphalist: Those like the government, its supporters and most of the Egyptian media who see the results as a triumph for Egypt, a blow to the Brotherhood, an endorsement of Sisi and an affirmation of the roadmap.

  • Pragmatic: Those who see the referendum as revealing genuine popularity of Sisi and public support for military, and that even if undemocratic or populist it is a reality that foreign observers, disappointed revolutionaries and others need to understand. These stress the decent apparent turnout to point out that a large number of Egyptians do support the current regime, like it or not.

  • Skeptical: Those who see the referendum as largely meaningless due to the impossibility of campaigning for a boycott or "no" vote, and the overall repressive environment and hysterical press. In essence, while the referendum is being used for propaganda purposes, it tells us little about Egypt's political realities aside from that the army is powerful. This has been a dominant response among Western analysts, much to the ire of some Egyptians.

  • Rejectionist: Those, mostly from the Anti-Coup Alliance, who see the referendum as illegitimate and its results and turnout figures as rigged. The MB has for instance claimed that the turnout was only around 10%, rather than the 36% or so from official preliminary results.

The first and the last position clearly appear to be out of touch with reality. Caution would lead one to side with the skeptical view, like the above article, but the pragmatic argument is also worth noting. Even if unreliable as a test of where popular opinion stands, it is pretty evident that there are many Egyptians who back the current state of affairs, just as it is pretty evident that there many who are not happy about it. The combination of repression and outright electoral fraud (in the case of not allowing people to campaign as they wish if not in the polling stations and vote counting rooms) should lead us to dismiss this referendum as a reliable indicator of anything but the regime's ability to put mobilize a sizable constituency and put on a show of self-legitimizing pageantry.