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Two Vital Steps on Path to Democracy in Egypt

This op-ed by Dr. John Stremlau was published Feb. 16, 2011, by CNN.

The resignation of President Hosni Mubarak was only the first step on what will be a long, difficult path toward genuine democratic governance -- one that will need the support of the international community.

Fail-safe formulas for peaceful transitions from autocratic to accountable governance don't exist, but since the late 1980s, scores of countries have turned this corner by conducting credible national elections, many for the first time.

Two conditions present in virtually all of them are a national agreement on a political framework and extensive observation by international monitors. Thus far, the many parties to tensions in Egypt have barely begun to negotiate the terms of an election, yet one sentiment they have expressed is a suspicion of foreign involvement. Tunisia, however, appears to be making progress on both.

A framework agreement to support meaningful elections must be negotiated among all of the major political actors, with sufficient domestic legal standing to guide the process and to provide the means for resolving disputes over its implementation through to the validation of the final vote.
Political and legal reform are sometimes needed, but without respect for the rule of law and sufficient means to enforce it, no meaningful election is possible.

The second condition, international monitoring, can work only if all the major political actors also agree to it in advance and the monitors' role is restricted to assessments of the integrity of the electoral process. If allowed to do their jobs, observers can contribute to domestic and international confidence when domestic authorities rule on the validity of election results.

In the past three months, Guinea and Ivory Coast held their first ever openly competitive elections, after decades of one-man rule; and in Sudan, national elections and the just-completed referendum in south Sudan have been integral to implementing a still-fragile peace accord ending decades of civil war.

All of these electoral processes were based on complex agreements painstakingly negotiated under international scrutiny, with voter registration, electoral management and final balloting closely tracked by international observers, including the Carter Center.

Egypt and Tunisia are not recovering from war. And with neither Hosni Mubarak nor his son Gamal as candidates in Egypt's September presidential election, neither country has to deal with a powerful incumbent accustomed to winning, whatever the odds.

Egyptians and Tunisians may be spared the terrible costs resulting from an incumbent refusing to accept the result of an internationally validated vote, as is currently being contested in Ivory Coast.

The challenge facing interim leaders in Egypt and Tunisia will be to guide a process that draws in all major factions and to forge a consensus agreement that will allow a credible electoral process to proceed. The interim leaders must then abide by the terms of transition agreed to by all major factions and remain strictly nonpartisan during the political campaign, as Gen. Sekouba Konate did in service to the people of Guinea.

A European Union parliamentary delegation recently visited Tunisia and welcomed an invitation by the Tunisian government to host an EU election mission to help ensure appropriate conditions for holding multiparty, free and transparent elections. The Egyptian government should do the same.

Ensuring that international and domestic observers can monitor all aspects of an electoral process can be an important confidence-building measure among domestic factions suspicious of each other. It is also the first step in implementing promises of transparency, accountability and inclusion.

The Obama administration has shown a consistent preference for inclusive agreements among all significant factions on basic election principles, with an implementation strategy and timetable.

It has engaged in the hard work of quiet diplomacy to encourage and, more importantly, sustain these agreements, while facilitating as many international partners as possible, including regional organizations and the United Nations, to lend their support. And it has welcomed the growing role of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations willing and able to support the process.

To be successful, however, the United States must respect the right of all parties to the agreement to compete in the election, including those critical or hostile to the U.S., and to respect the results so long as they can be credibly verified by impartial observers as meeting international obligations for democratic elections.

Egypt may be the biggest test of this strategy, but it cannot proceed unless Egyptians agree to a foreign presence free to observe and assess their domestic political affairs.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Stremlau.

Editor's note: John Stremlau is vice president for peace programs at the nonprofit Carter Center, which has observed 82 elections in 34 countries.

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