Friday, August 23, 2013

We’re watching you

By Gehad Hussein
in Ahram weekly
25-03-2013 06:26PM ET

“One day we want to see that there is no need for our organisation.” A dubious comment when one hears it at first, but come to think of it, this might be the best thought-out plan ever, especially for an Egyptian election-monitoring, corruption-fighting movement.
“We are watching you”. No, this is not a bad Avatar spoof. It is the translation of Egypt’s one and only election-monitoring initiative, Shayfeencom. Despite common preconceptions that the group was formed after the 25 January Revolution, Shayfeencom actually was founded back in 2005, during the highly censored and infringement-based Mubarak regime.
Founders were television anchor and politician Bothaina Kamel, marketing consultant Engi Haddad and human rights activist Ghada Shahbandar. They decided that they had to put an end to the violations and infringements of the presidential elections in 2005, and that if they could not, they had to at least show the authorities that the people could see and understand what is happening.
Back then, the movement was called the Afro-Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, better known as AEHRO, and its members filmed violations. What happened afterwards was a disaster: the Judges’ Club decided to support AEHRO’s case and marched to the Supreme Court to fight the disgrace of the judges that allowed such violations, a disgrace that stamps the whole judicial system. The march was attacked and several were arrested, such as former presidential candidate Hisham Al-Bastawisi, current Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekki and former vice-president Mahmoud Mekki.
The second major stand that was partly triggered and partly joined by AEHRO was in 2007 when journalists decided to fight for the freedom of the press on the steps of their syndicate. Women were beaten, sexually abused and some even raped. The case of these women was recently re-opened. Yet, the founders of Shayfeencom decided that they had to put their action on hold because it had become a matter of dignity, so they stopped being politically active in that sense.
After the revolution, the movement was reinstated and today it has a board of trustees consisting of 15 people and thousands of volunteers from over 16 governorates. The first elections monitored by the new Shayfeencom were the presidential elections of 2012. Ahmed Hafez, executive director of the movement, explained: “Our report shows that there was no systematic infringement, but there were several independent cases of violations. About 700 documented infringements were reported to the only legal entity we could: the National Council for Human Rights. They did not do anything with it. We’re following up, but we know they will not react, because there already is a president.” Since there were no direct violations from the judges themselves, no escalation was possible. One of the main problems was that the Civil Registry of eligible voters was not published. Without that document, nobody knows what goes on in the elections, because it reveals among other things, how many people are eligible to vote and how old they are.
The referendum on the constitution in December 2012 was slightly different, Hafez said. “In the referendum we decided not to monitor because what was built on falsehood is void, and the presidential decree that President Mohamed Morsi announced at the time was illegitimate. We cannot approve of something that is wrong since we are an anti-corruption organisation. Nevertheless, we kept our hotline open.”
 It turned out that there were systematic infringements: some judges left the booths and stopped monitoring them, some had two ballots in the voting room — one for yes-voters and one for no-voters, some boxes were brought in and out of the booths without permission, and some people were not allowed to vote in the first place. There was a total of 3,000 reported infringements, meaning there were over 30,000 violations, “and this is just the minimum ratio”, according to Hafez. “The last time we saw this number of violations was during the Mubarak era.”
After that Shayfeencom published a report saying that the constitutional referendum was forged in ways that might affect the results. It was — again — sent to the National Council for Human Rights which is currently led by Hossam Al-Ghiriani, the former chairman of the Constituent Assembly which drew up the constitution in the first place. Hence, nothing was done.
Today, self-funded Shayfeencom monitors all sorts of elections, from parties over syndicates to presidential elections. Not only is it expanding throughout the governorates, but it also received invitations from other Arab Spring countries to apply their experiences in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. “I think we are capable of becoming something much bigger. We grew so fast, it was like a roller coaster. And of course, if you have an international existence, you are much stronger,” Hafez concluded.
Self-governing in all aspects of life has become an unwritten rule in Egypt, and Shayfeencom is just another example of that trend.