CAIRO â€” Omar Abdul Moneim, an Egyptian in his early 40s, listened carefully as the instructor summarised the purpose of the crash course, aimed at teaching students how to minimise election fraud on polling day.
“Our country has a history of vote-rigging. I hope our presence at the polling stations will change that,” Abdul Moneim said.
This was no ordinary class. The 16 students attending came from varied social and academic backgrounds and included medical doctors, engineers and lawyers, most of them middle-aged. All were members of the pro-democracy movement Kefaya (Enough).
Fawzy Al Hatoot, the instructor, was arming them with tools they would need to observe the parliamentary elections that kick off on Wednesday and will see a record 5,310 candidates compete for the 444 seats up for grabs.
“Monitors have an important role supporting the democratic process,” Hatoot, a trained human rights lawyer, told his students.
Local nongovernmental organisations and civil society groups say they plan to deploy thousands of trained observers to monitor all stages of the four-week elections in the country’s 222 electoral districts.
One such group, the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections (NCME), a coalition of four NGOs, has formed a broader alliance with another group of 22 NGOs, and they have trained between them around 10,000 monitors.
“The coalition shall issue one joint report,” Mohammed Zarei, coordinator for the NCME, told AFP.
Egyptian-American sociologist and democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has also launched an international network to support democracy and observe the elections.
It groups 14 Egyptian, five US and four European civic groups, including Ibrahim’s own Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies.
On October 24, the electoral commission gave them the green light to monitor the polls, but obliged them to go through the state-sponsored National Human Rights Council (NHRC), a procedure rights groups rejected.
Some argued that in addition to its status as a government-appointed body, the NHRC’s objectivity could not be guaranteed since it was for the most part made up of members of President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.
The commission also wanted the NHRC to screen applications to ensure that monitors met certain standards.
Negad Borai, head of the Group for Democratic Development, a member of the NCME, described them as “silly conditions.”
Zarei’s NCME coalition filed a case on November 5 against the electoral committee’s decision authorising the NHRC to vet out prospective monitors.
“This council has no experience in the field of monitoring elections,” he charged.
The court ruled on Sunday that human rights groups and civic groups should be granted unfettered access to monitor the elections, but when Zarei sent a list with the names of observers for accreditation by the commission, he got an unexpected fax from the NHRC.
“The electoral commission forwarded the names to the NHRC and the council wanted us to send to them photographs of our monitors for the accreditation,” Zarei said.
“We won’t go through the council,” he said.
Groups such as the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary have opted to operate on their own, but agreed to coordinate activities with the broader coalitions.
Others, including Kefaya, which had been at the forefront of a national campaign to end Mubarak’s 24-year rule and demand that he does not bequeath power to his son, Gamal, will observe the elections in an unofficial capacity.
“Ours will be a different form of monitoring. It will be popular monitoring,” Wafaa Al Masri, a Kefaya leader said.
Still, she wants the group’s monitors to meet the basic requirements for the job and asked rights groups to train them.
“The emphasis is on neutrality and objectivity,” Adel Mekki, a human rights lawyer who has been training election observers since 1998, told AFP.
“It is also important that the observers understand their rights and duties and can detect violations,” he said.
“They must also be well-versed with the electoral law.”
NGOs advise their observers against intervening in the electoral process, not even to stop fraud.
They are also told to avoid any brush with officials, candidates or voters, but to simply record violations and report them to their respective groups.