Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Egypt, May 21-28, 2012
May 29, 2012
Having witnessed the parliamentary elections in January, I returned to Cairo with Rosalynn, John Hardman, David Carroll, and Avery Davis-Roberts for the election of a president. Our Carter Center team, including Field Office Director Sanne van den Bergh, has been present since November and will be here until the president is inaugurated and a new constitution approved. Compared to our previous 89 election missions, our role has been limited by late issuing of credentials and by other restraints that prevent our access to the news media, restrict time we can spend in each polling station, etc. As a result our mission covered only the voting and counting process, and could not assess the electoral process as a whole. We objected strongly but finally decided to participate because of the importance and complexity of this historic effort to establish a democratic government in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salafists together hold an overwhelming majority in the parliament, while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still retains great authority, and the courts comprise a third strong role in making decisions in the unpredictable and fluid political arena.
After some prominent candidates had been disqualified by the PEC, there were 13 men remaining in the contest as of 5/21, including former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa and former senior MB member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh who were considered the leaders, while MB's Freedom and Justice Party head Mohammad Morsi and Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq had been gaining strength. Four other viable candidates were Hamdeen Sabahi, Khalid Ali, Hisham Bastawisi, and Abul-Ezz El-Hariri. Fragmented polls indicated an unpredictable result.
When we arrived in Cairo we learned that SCAF leaders had decided not to meet with any foreign visitors, so we spent Monday receiving briefings from experts about political issues and recent changes, met with our long-term and short-term observers, and then with Head of Parliament Saad Al-Katatny. He was former Secretary-General of MB's Peace and Justice Party. In answering my questions, he minimized the authority of SCAF to make changes in the existing constitution re presidential authority, etc., but had accepted some of their recent decisions about cabinet changes to avoid a divisive confrontation. He understood that decisions of the PEC could not be appealed, and that the Constitutional Court could rule that the entire parliamentary election process had been unconstitutional and mandate new elections. The Speaker felt that cabinet members in the next government should be chosen after consultation between the elected president and the parliament, with final confirmation by the parliament. He said the elected Shura (upper house) was weak and useless and would remain so. I was surprised when he declared that the preparation of a comprehensive legislative agenda including taxation, budgets, health, education, security, trade, etc. should be the duty and prerogative of the president, not the parliament. He opined, however, that any proposed changes in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty would have to be approved by parliament and accepted by Israel.
The next day we met with Intelligence Minister Murad Muwafi, who has succeeded Omar Suleiman as the key link between Palestinian factions, Israel, and the U.S. He described the agreement worked out the previous Sunday between Hamas and Fatah. This would encompass 6 weeks of voter registration in Gaza (opposed until now by Hamas), formation of a "technocrat" government, and then a 3-1/2 month period for elections, after which Abbas would step down. He thought leadership struggles within Hamas would soon be resolved. He was (overly?) sanguine about Israel/U.S. acceptance of this agreement.
At the Presidential Election Commission we met with Chairman Farouk Sultan and Secretary General Hatem Bagato. This commission, comprising five senior judges, has extraordinary power and authority to shape (and possibly to influence) the presidential election. They have already disqualified some major candidates, and by law their decisions cannot be appealed to any higher authority. Although The Carter Center had been approved to witness the election, we did not get our credentials until 5/16, which prevented our normal observation of the voters' lists, qualification of candidates, and conduct of the campaign. They have also ordained that we and others cannot make any comments to the press about the election process or results, and limited all observers to 30 minutes in any visit to polling sites. This would prevent continued observation of a serious potential problem. They did say, though, that after the polls close we can observe counting and tabulation of ballots without any time limit. They also restricted the normal courtesies shown to me regarding my security detail. They estimated final announcement of results five days after voting.
We found Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri much more relaxed than in January, having received substantial grants and loans from the World Bank and Arab nations, expecting no serious problems in obtaining an IMF loan of about $3.2 billion, and because he will no longer be responsible after the new government is formed. He claims to have full authority (without SCAF intrusions) in selecting cabinet ministers and running the government. He has survived efforts by parliament to displace him or to make substantive changes in his decisions. He and his ministers stated that the problem in delivering natural gas to Israel was that private Israeli purchasers were four months behind in their payments.
May 23 was the first of two election days, and Rosalynn and I visited about 20 polling places in one of the older parts of Cairo. As in the parliamentary elections, a judge was in charge of each site. Men and women voted separately in all the sites we witnessed, but there was mixed voting in some other communities. A big problem was handling the enormous crowds of voters, but the procedure was adequately in order. It was estimated that our 102 observers visited about 909 polling sites in all, and did not have any trouble with the 30-minute rule. The turnout was less than expected (about 50%), possibly because of having 13 candidates with about 35% of polled voters undecided.
Later we met with women's rights activists, leaders of the High Election Commission (responsible for the recent parliamentary elections and the forthcoming constitutional referendum), and economists. We discussed the possibility of having our next Human Rights Defenders conference in Cairo, emphasizing the rights of women. We were assured that The Carter Center would be approved to witness (without limits) the referendum to approve the new constitution. Egypt's reserve funds are rapidly shrinking (from $36 billion to $15.2 billion in the last three months), and everyone is waiting on a new president to take action re an IMF loan, costly subsidies (about $50 billion annually), and other key issues. One unprecedented event was that the military provided $1 billion to the Central Bank. (Undoubtedly the first time in history!) It was reported that the military are the biggest landowners in Egypt and that retired officers serve as CEOs to many businesses, but control not more than 5% of the nation's GDP. Unlike the troubled European nations, Egyptian corporations and families have very little debt, it is an emerging nation with growth potential, and has a stable and competent banking system. The inflation rate, however, is at least 15%.
We spent most of Thursday with a wide array of Christian leaders, headed by Orthodox Coptics, who were understandably concerned about Islamic victories and relying on Constitutional safeguards to preserve a "civil" government with guaranteed freedom of worship, construction of churches, etc. They were fully supportive of the superb statement issued by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in January that expresses commitment to four crucial freedoms. We then met with Dr. Amed Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam, who has profound influence over Sunni and other Moslems and is president of Al-Azhar University. This is the oldest in the world (founded in 972 A.D.) and has more than 120,000 students. He was proud to champion political freedoms and other human rights - including those of women, which will be the subject of his next declaration. He will participate as appropriate in plans for our annual Defenders' Conference that will be about this subject and which we may convene in Cairo.
General Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, reported to us that he had been attacked with rocks after he cast his vote the previous day. He projects the image of a tough, law-and-order commander, and seemed to be gaining support at the expense of Amr Mousa. We then met with other international observer groups before witnessing the orderly close of a polling site and the counting of ballots. Four candidates had about the same support at the site we visited, which proved to be an early sign that a run-off would be needed. All candidate representatives were given a copy of the final count, which is an ultimate deterrent to any tampering with the voting results. In the evening, we were denied access to the consolidation of votes in Cairo, as were all others except the PEC and their staff.
Friday morning we met first with Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and with another senior MB leader Khairat El-Shater. They had returns from their candidate agents from 97% of polling places, and Morsi was obviously the leader, with General Shafiq apparently in second place. Assuming these are indeed the two final candidates, there will be a sharp choice to be made in the run-off. Morsi repeated the moderate positions he had made to me in January, including full support for the January human rights statement issued by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar. I urged him to support the treaty with Israel (he expressed deep concern about Palestinian rights), to promote the rights of women by including them in his cabinet, and to adopt the same status for the military as we have in America. After long and substantive conversations, I believe that Morsi has been underestimated by the general public (called a "spare tire") and the international community. He is forceful and well informed. He has a PhD in engineering from Southern California University and is Dean of Engineering at Egypt's Zagazig University.
During lunch with Secretary General of the Arab League Nabil Al Araby, we discussed the situation in Syria and Palestine, then met with domestic observer groups and leaders of the Salafists' Al Nour party. They opposed Morsi so far, but will support him in the run-off. Amr Mousa, the former favorite who lost most of his support to Shafiq, was in relatively good spirits and will remain engaged in politics in Egypt. We then had a long session with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and other members of the politburo, who are spending most of their time in Doha, Qatar. They were pleased at the Arab Spring developments, especially in Egypt, and hope and expect that Egypt's new leaders will be more supportive of their cause. They seemed confident that Meshaal will remain as unchallenged Hamas leader, and described the recent reconciliation agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in detail. A "technocrat" government (without party affiliation) will be formed with Abbas as president and prime minister, and it will make plans for local, parliamentary, presidential, and PLO elections.
Saturday was an exceptionally full day, receiving reports from our returning teams from around the country, getting briefed on a new and more progressive law on Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), meeting with young Tahrir Square leaders, a session with senior Egyptian officials on past and future foreign policy, preparing a press statement and holding a press conference, multiple interviews with news media, writing a speech and delivering it in the Opera House to a large audience of students from American University and others, answering questions presented by student leaders, and preparing for the visit to Khartoum.
Except for the restraints imposed by the PEC on us and other observer groups, our assessment of this first phase of choosing a president was that it was orderly, and we do not expect any challenge to the apparent results to be successful.
The next day I flew to Khartoum and met Lakhdar Brahimi and key staff of The Elders. In our meeting with President Omar Al Bashir I congratulated him on the successful elimination of River Blindness in Abu Kamal and discussed briefly our plans to train several thousand health workers. Then we presented a series of proposals to ease the threat of war with South Sudan:
Bashir replied to each proposal at length, saying he would participate in any authorized peace talks that were compatible with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. His people are on the way to Addis for negotiations. He said he had already decided to withdraw his troops from Abyei. He claimed there were no starving people in S. Kordofan, that they had a record crop of grain in Blue Nile, and that any needed deliveries would be made by the Red Crescent of Sudan. He acknowledged that Southerners had become "aliens" in Sudan when S. Sudan seceded, and had lost their government jobs and other privileges of citizenship. They would have to make their own decisions about where to live. He would not negotiate with SPLM-N, which was an army of S. Sudan which would have to withdraw from his country. There were unresolved disputes with the South re over-flight fees, pilots and crews had been abused in Juba, and there was also a dispute about railroad traffic to Yei. These unresolved problems prevented resumption of air traffic. Consultations re constitutional revisions were ongoing with political parties and the process would become official before final work was begun. There would be a new constitution before 2015. He reiterated several times that S. Sudan was attacking across the border and that this breach of security would have to be stopped before other key issues could be addressed or resolved.
Returning home, I felt that the election process was proceeding well in Egypt, with a brutal political battle inevitable as voters decide whether to accept an unknown future with the Muslim Brotherhood or a president from the pre-revolutionary days of Mubarak. Both likely candidates are reaching out aggressively to the 50% of voters who supported others in the first round, and will inevitably move to the middle of the political spectrum to gain this support. In Sudan, the real need is to continue talking instead of fighting, with increasing consensus within the international community on resolution of differences.