Egypt keeps journalists and monitors out of parliamentary polling stations

For months in advance of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Egyptian officials waged a rather strident campaign to fend off calls to allow international election monitors to observe the vote. The issue, they said, was out of the question and an insult to Egypt’s national sovereignty.

Instead, numerous officials said, an army of locally licensed election monitors and the combined focus of the international media would be more than enough to ensure that no electoral irregularities took place.

Journalists planning to cover the elections dutifully submitted to a tedious and bureaucratic process of applying for special Ministry of Information badges which, we were told, would allow us easy access into any of the country’s approximately 44,000 polling stations. In a parallel process, an estimated 6,000 prospective monitors from local non-governmental organizations received very impressive looking badges from the Higher Electoral Commission.

When election day came, it became very quickly apparent that there were no guarantees for anyone. Journalists across the country reported being turned away from polling stations by the police officers guarding the door. Licensed monitors reported the same phenomenon.

In Alexandria, I found a small group of monitors from a local NGO forced to observe a polling station from across the street after their cards were dismissed as insufficient.

“It has no value,” Mohammed Fawzi said of his monitoring badge. “They banned us from entering.”

Asked whether the officer had given any reason for dismissing the monitor ID, Fawzi, an architecture student at Alexandria University, smiled and shrugged. “It’s Egypt,” he said.

Instead Fawzi contented himself with observing the polling station from across the street, where he said he witnessed a pack of ranking officers establish control of the area and detain anyone taking pictures. To stay out of custody, Fawzi was forced to pretend he was talking on his cell phone, then sneakily take a picture using the built-in camera.

In a post-election day review of events, a coalition of local and international watchdog groups said examples like this were endemic across the country.

“The rather total lack of transparency about these elections puts the burden on Egyptian authorities to show others how these elections were not fatally compromised,” said Joe Stork, an official with Human Rights Watch who was briefly detained Sunday by police while documenting polling place violations.

It would be unfair to state that barring journalists and licensed monitors on election day was an official Egyptian government policy. After all, some journalists and some monitors were allowed in to some stations.

What’s probably more accurate is that there was no government policy at all. No matter what the Ministry of Information or the Higher Electoral Commission issued us, true power lay in the hands of each polling station’s supervisor and the police officers who controlled the entrance.

As one western television journalist told me, “It was all about the mood of the polling place supervisor and whether I could talk my way into the place. I don’t think my badge got me any (access) that I couldn’t have gotten without it.”