CAIRO – Rights activists in Egypt are struggling to ensure they will be able to monitor parliament elections Sunday that they expect to be plagued by rigging. But they are hoping for help from would-be voters themselves through an Internet map tracking violations at the polls.
Egyptians who witness any cheating, police intimidation or violence will be able to send messages via mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter to volunteers staffing a website called U-shahid.com, who will then post the location and nature of the violations on a map of Egypt.
It's a step, but even activists admit it's only a small one to at least document what happens.
Past elections in Egypt have been riddled with vote rigging in favor of the ruling party, ensuring its hold on parliament, according to human rights groups. The last parliamentary election, in 2005, saw police closing off entire polling stations to ensure opposition voters could not get in, sparking riots at some sites that left at least 10 people dead.
Rights activists expect this time will be no different, though the government insists past votes were clean and that this one will be fair as well. Already before the voting, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign rallies by candidates of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, and more than 1,000 Brotherhood activists have been arrested. The government has forced the closure of several independent TV stations. The government has rejected calls — including from its ally the United States — to allow in international monitors of the balloting.
"When media is being restricted, when monitoring is refused — all this puts a question mark over the elections," said Hafez Abu Saada, the head of Egypt's oldest rights group who has mobilized 120 Egyptian NGOs and trained volunteers to try to monitor the vote.
"It's obvious the government wants to carry out the elections in the dark and the results won't reflect the real desires of Egyptians," said Abu Saada, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Local monitors must get permission to work from the Election Commission, which has set strict limitations on what they can do. They can enter the polling stations to watch voting, but they are barred from questioning election officials or voters or surveying the voters.
And the commission has been slow in accrediting monitors.
Abu Saada said Wednesday that 1,116 volunteers from his organization applied to monitor, but the committee has so far approved only 69 for all of Egypt. He said that if further accreditations don't come, his monitors will try to work in the field anyway on election day.
"All indicators show that we will fail to monitor, but we have to try, to participate and then explain to the world why we have failed," Abu Saada said.
The U-Shahid site is inspired by a Kenyan program called Ushahidi that in 2008 mapped reports of violence around the country in the wake of elections there. The Egyptian site's name means "U-Witness" in Arabic, while the Kenyans is a related Swahili word meaning "testimony."
One of the U-Shahid organizers, Israa Abdel Fattah, said that while she hopes it will have the same success as Kenya's version, she's realistic.
"We have our Plan B. The phone number may be turned off, our website may be shut down," Abdel Fattah said. "But we have to try — we are documenting this for history to tell the world that we do not have democracy or freedom and that the Egyptian people are being violated by their government."
Worries are particularly high this year because of new changes in how elections are handled. In the past, a judge was present at each polling site, acting as a monitor, and since judges are seen as independent this was believed to at least prevent tampering at the sites — though once the ballot boxes left the building, it was a different matter.
But in 2007, the government passed a constitutional amendment that removed the judiciary from the polling stations and relegated them to only an indirect supervisory role.
Activists fear that will make tampering with the vote easier — though, ironically, it could reduce violence, since police would have less need to close off stations to opposition voters, the cause of most of the clashes in 2005.
The ruling National Democratic Party holds a powerful majority in the current parliament, but its top rivals the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in seizing a fifth of the seats in the 2005 vote. Many believe the government is determined to ensure the fundamentalist Brotherhood is squeezed out of the new 508-seat parliament.
The Brotherhood believes that in 2005 it would have won far more seats if the vote had been unmarred by violations. The group is banned, but is nonetheless Egypt's strongest and best organized opposition movement, running its candidates as independents. The recognized, secular opposition parties are weak, with only a handful of lawmakers in the current legislature, and have little popular following.
Egypt's government staunchly rejected allowing international monitors in to watch the vote — even sharply rebuking a rather tepid call from Washington to let them in.
Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that Egypt should "put itself in the strongest position possible, by acceding to international norms and ensuring that there is international representation."
Egypt's Foreign Ministry replied angrily, saying in a statement that the U.S. was acting like an "overseer" and was not respecting Egypt's sovereignty.
"It seems that the U.S. insists on not respecting the privacy of the Egyptian society and making statements that incense Egypt's nationalism," it said.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this story.