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Credible Elections for Egypt

This op-ed was published in the Feb. 11, 2011, issue of The New York Times/International Herald Tribune.

Even at this point, after the dramatic announcement by the armed forces, no one can predict the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian drama. But there is a clear picture of the existing situation and a few obvious options for the future.

Most Egyptians would like to see an end to public disturbances, restoration of basic human rights and a peaceful transition of authority to a more representative government.

It seems that both sides at least publicly accept the concepts of a few constitutional revisions, some easing of government oppression, and a more genuinely competitive electoral system to prepare for choosing Egypt's future political leaders.

Other reforms are needed, and agreement on them must be negotiated between what is still President Hosni Mubarak's appointed government and opposition leaders. A reasonable date for elections must be set, changing the constitution if necessary, and an independent commission established to oversee the process. News media must be given new freedom, peaceful public gatherings authorized, and opposition political parties permitted.

Before these specific reform proposals can be accepted and implemented, there must be a resolution of some more generic issues. Are the basic demands of the opposing voices for freedom and democracy to be accepted?

There were indications coming directly or indirectly from President Mubarak that any amendments to the constitution would be quite limited; that it was premature to lift the emergency law that has been used to limit freedom of assembly and expression of views for 30 years; that Egyptians were not culturally ready for democracy and that such proposals came "from abroad"; and that there would be a limited time during which the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and other places would be permitted.

What can be done? The international community has a great interest in assuring that the transition to a new regime will be orderly and peaceful, and that the next government will represent the will of the Egyptian people: democratic, secular, transparent, at peace with its neighbors and with corruption in check. It is crucial, for instance, that Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel be honored and that the military stay intact, but removed one major step from dominating the government.

In order to assuage legitimate doubts about the fulfillment of political promises that will permit honest and fair elections, domestic and international election observers should be allowed to monitor the entire process.

In recent years there have been great changes in the acceptability of international engagement in such domestic political transitions, especially in countries attempting to overcome legacies of autocratic rule or recovering from civil conflict.

The Carter Center has been active in observing 82 troubled or transitional elections, including the process that peacefully transformed Indonesia, the largest Islamic nation, from long-time dictatorial rule to a genuine democracy. Egypt will provide a major test of this proven approach, but it cannot proceed unless Egyptians agree to a foreign presence free to observe and assess whether the domestic political process honors Egypt's existing commitments to international laws and covenants.

One major electoral obstacle in Egypt has already been removed: a powerful incumbent orchestrating election results and then refusing to accept an unwanted decision by voters. Since neither Hosni Mubarak nor his son will be candidates, we will not see a repetition of what is happening in Ivory Coast with the defeated incumbent clinging to power.

The international community can offer a clear list of steps that are necessary for holding a credible vote this year and for building a democracy. The United States and its allies also have an obligation to respect the right of all legitimate parties to compete in the election, including those that may be critical of U.S. policy, and to respect the results so long as they can be credibly certified by Egyptian election officials and verified by impartial domestic and foreign observers as meeting international standards.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, is the founder of The Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

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