"It will be nearly impossible for observers to do a credible job under the present conditions in Egypt. And even if the referendum goes smoothly, it is not at all clear that the vote will make a meaningful contribution to getting Egypt back onto a democratic path. Observers and foreign governments, including the United States, would do well to make sure that their engagement and statements keep the focus on the big picture of Egypt's worrisome trajectory."
The U.S. government, European governments, and international organizations interested in electoral fairness face a difficult balancing act with the January 14–15 constitutional referendum in Egypt. They want to observe the vote on the country's new constitution to encourage Egypt to return to a democratic path after the July coup in which President Mohamed Morsi was removed. Several teams of international observers, whose post-referendum statements will command attention from policymakers and the media, are lined up for deployment.
But there is a real danger that international players will lend legitimacy to a flawed and undemocratic process. They risk playing into the Egyptian transitional government's efforts to focus attention on the technicalities of the post-coup political road map while diverting notice from a deeply troubling context—widespread unrest, the recent declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt's largest political group) as a terrorist organization, escalating repression of secular dissidents, a draft constitution that gives the military broad powers, a drafting process that largely excluded Islamists, effectively no freedom for those who would campaign against passage of the referendum. And the likelihood of ongoing protests during the referendum, as well as of violent attacks against government targets, is high.