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The limit of Egyptian hospitality

When I met with the European Union’s Chief Observer Mario David at a polling station in downtown Cairo last week one thing that he highlighted to me was how welcome he and his fellow observers felt. He described “the salute they give us… the welcoming smiles” he had seen during his time in Cairo. He …

Joel Gulhane
Joel Gulhane

When I met with the European Union’s Chief Observer Mario David at a polling station in downtown Cairo last week one thing that he highlighted to me was how welcome he and his fellow observers felt.

He described “the salute they give us… the welcoming smiles” he had seen during his time in Cairo. He added: “This is a country that is building its democratic process and I think that it is very important that an atmosphere of tolerance may exist here.”

This week we saw smiles drop as Egypt became a less welcome place for the EU observers as they were accused of “failing in their mission” and told that Egypt rejects the findings outlined in the mission’s preliminary statement on the election.

Three members of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) requested to attend a symposium held by the National Council for Women (NCW) on women’s role and participation in last week’s presidential election. Observing the climate before, during and after the election (as well as the polling itself), is part of the EUEOM’s methodology, which it is employing in Egypt on the invitation of the government.

A video clip uploaded by privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm showed what was quite frankly an appalling scene in which the chairperson of the government-funded NCW, Mervat Al-Tallawi, along with Judge Tahani Al-Gebali and political science professor Mona Makram Ebeid, berated the three EUEOM members in attendance for the content of the preliminary statement issued last Thursday by the mission.

Tallawi, whilst denying that the EUEOM members were thrown out of the symposium, stood by the statements heard in the video clip, which focused on the embarrassed and frustrated EU observers.

“We are proud of army, we are proud of our leader, and we are proud of the new president of Egypt, whether you like it or not,” said one of the angry women from the stage. “You should know that we do not accept this,” said another woman in reference to the preliminary statement, asking them “to take it back”.

In the words of the EU delegation (not the EUEOM), I would also suggest that Tallawi and Co. read the entire preliminary statement and brush up on how an observation mission operates, especially one that has signed a memorandum of understanding with the government allowing them absolute freedom to carry out their mission.

The delegation’s statement also noted that the EU is a “strong supporter of the NCW”, adding that it provides financial support for “their valuable work”. There is no obligation for Egyptians to be nice to the EU just because it provides financial aid for development projects. This is not the problem.

The issue is not what the ladies at the NCW said, as they are, of course, entitled to their opinion even if they have missed the point of the EUEOM. The issue is really quite plain and simple: this is no way to treat anyone, especially a group of people who were invited by the government (that funds the NCW).

The EUEOM members are not in Egypt for their own enjoyment and neither do they have an agenda to destroy the country. They were dispatched to do a job and they are doing that job, and regardless of the wider political reasons for the EU’s decision to observe the election it was just as (if not more) important to the Egyptian government that this election be fully observed.

The rejection of the report is unfounded, because if they had read the full report and understood the mission’s mandate, they would see that these criticisms are raised to be recommendations to the authorities for future elections. The EUEOM is not in Egypt to decide whether the election is legitimate or not.

It was not only the words of those on stage that was appalling to me, the way in which the crowd cheered, clapped and one even praised God while the EU observers walked quickly from the room was also quite disturbing.

One gets the impression that there are some in Egypt who are constantly on the defence and blindly assume that any criticism is aimed at tarnishing the name of Egypt. This is evident in the way journalists are harassed, how foreigners are looked on with suspicion and how dissenting voices within the country are met with demands to stifle them.

This is not to say that the EUEOM believes this is the opinion of the entirety of Egypt or that it should leave the country. In fact the core team of experts and the long-term observers are to stay for a few more weeks to complete their mission and present their findings and recommendations for future elections.

The point is: if you are going to invite a guest to observe the election in the current climate, be prepared to take some criticism. If you don’t like it, then it might be worth politely saying that you disagree with their findings. Instead, the women at the NCW decided to publically humiliate just three people from a team that is made up in total of 150 people for publishing a report that was backed up with factual data.

The foreign ministry attempted to address this in a meeting with EU ambassadors to Egypt on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said that Egypt welcomes “constructive and impartial feedback”, but added: “It is necessary for reports to be focused on the electoral process itself and not other political issues unrelated to the election”. The EU’s preliminary statement did not deviate from its methodology, which the memorandum of understanding is meant to protect, but seems increasingly under threat since the release of the preliminary report.

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