Who'll watch Egypt's historic vote?

In the first competitive vote, election monitors are being blocked from Wednesday's polls.

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. He is one of hundreds of judges whom the election commission has excluded from supervising Wednesday's vote.

"All those judges who have demanded independence for the judiciary have been excluded," he says. "Nobody knows what will happen on election day. The only certain thing is that the elections will be fabricated."

Even if Egypt's judges stand united in defiance of the commission's orders, they remain too few to oversee all 10,000 polling stations. There are officially 8,000 judges in Egypt, but approximately 2,000 of those are working abroad. Of the 6,000 remaining, scores more have been excluded by the election commission. The shortage of judges will be filled with state prosecutors and government lawyers.

But Egyptians have reason to be concerned about the integrity of the vote.

Widespread fraud was alleged during the parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000. Ruling-party candidates bribed voters, police prevented opposition supporters from entering the polls, and bus loads of pro-government voters were moved from district to district, each one voting dozens of times, according to NGO reports and media accounts.

More recently, a critical report by Egypt's judges made a mockery of last May's nationwide referendum.

The government reported that there was 100 percent judicial supervision over the process, but the judges said that no more than one in five polling stations had an actual judge present. And while the government claimed turnout was 54 percent, Egypt's judges said the real number was closer to 3 percent.

It is unlikely that either number is accurate, however, because it is difficult to ascertain just how many Egyptians are registered to vote. The government says there are 32.5 million eligible voters, but it is unable or unwilling to say how many are actually registered.

"This is a problem," concedes Osama al Ghazali Harb, a member of the ruling party's influential policies secretariat and editor in chief of the International Policies journal.

"I think that there are no concrete and serious lists or statistics [on registered voters]," he says.

On the streets of Cairo, it is difficult to find an Egyptian with a voting card. The opposition alleges that the voter rolls are stocked with deceased voters and repeated names. Judges' demands to revise and update voting lists were ignored by the election commission.

It is an indication of just how far Egypt has to go, says Mr. Harb, to achieve the sort of democracy that he, and other Egyptians have begun to demand with increasing fervor.

"To have true democratic elections in Egypt, we need tremendous work to rebuild the whole structure of elections," he says.

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