by Stephen Rosenbaum
Many national and ethnic entities lay claim to the fact that their meetings never start on time. The July 20 workshop on Enfranchising Persons with Disabilities, held in Cairo, Egypt, was no exception. But, more important than a delayed meeting is the delay that Egyptian voters—disabled and otherwise—have faced in getting their votes counted at the ballot box. In the aftermath of the nation’s January 25 Revolution, with hopes running high, it is more important than ever to make their votes count.
I arrived an hour after the starting time announced by the International Foundation of Electoral Systems, the meeting’s sponsor. IFES provides technical assistance to countries around the world to “enhance citizen participation and strengthen civil societies, governance and transparency.” www.IFES.org. It was not quite 10:00 a.m. and already I was perspiring heavily. Glad to be at an air-conditioned Hilton in Cairo’s Zamalek district, I climbed the marble staircase to the second floor. The meeting room was set up with standard conference fare—from pastries to powerpoint and folders to flipchart.
The workshop had not yet begun. Attendance was sparse. Having deplaned from San Francisco just two days earlier, I learned about this meeting from an email to a colleague who thought the organizers might be worried about filling the room. The elevator was in working order, but that may be the extent of what mobility-impaired Egyptians expect, even in a modern, upscale hotel. I tried to imagine the narrowness of the bathroom stalls. And the lack of curb cuts, kneeling buses, para-transit vans and entry ramps to the lobby. While it sounds like a bad joke, there actually are disability advocacy organizations here whose offices can be reached only by stairs.
The assembled group was about equal parts IFES staff, international consultants and local NGO activists. Despite their small numbers, there was a cross section of the disability movement represented, from those with mobility or mental health impairments to the intellectually disabled.
Those in the know have mastered the Arabic etiquette for “persons with a disability”—shakhs min dhawi al-I’aaqa. That mouthful is worth at least two of its English language equivalent. The media’s references to disability—like the general public’s—is a different matter. Beyond linguistic correctness, there is much that remains to be done regarding acceptance and access—to the electoral process, not to mention public transportation and accommodations, jobs, schools and government services.
For example, there is a law on the books that suspends the “political rights” of persons “being treated for mental illnesses” together with those under a form of conservatorship. In another provision, people with visual impairments, or other disabilities that may prevent them from casting their own ballot, must undergo a cumbersome process that violates the confidentiality of their ballot. They first express their opinion to the committee overseeing the polling station, whose secretary then records the vote and presents it to the head of station for signature. Of course, this presumes that disabled voters are able to negotiate their way to the polls on overcrowded buses, congested streets and high cobblestone sidewalks. Many polling stations, it seems, are located above street level, ostensibly for security of the voting officials.
An IFES briefing paper released in April notes that while the discriminatory and ambiguous legislation has not been repealed, the various exclusions were not mentioned in the definition of voter eligibility in a decree issued by the interim military governing council or SCAF, just before a national constitutional referendum held in March. http://www.ifes.org/Content/Publications/White-Papers/2011/IFES-Releases-Briefing-Paper-on-Post-Mubarak-Egypt.aspx
This, however, will not be the end of restrictions on people with mental illness. Like several other signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Egypt has an interpretation of Article 12, declaring that “persons with disabilities enjoy the capacity to acquire rights and assume legal responsibility (‘ahliyyat al-wujub) but not the capacity to perform (‘ahliyyat al-’ada’), under Egyptian law.” This exception could end up swallowing the rule, in any language. Moreover, with or without this declaration, there is no assurance that Egyptian ratification of the treaty will result in its implementation, with respect to political participation, or any other provisions. http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=289
The civil society leaders gathered at the workshop are hoping that a new Constitution will remove any offending language and that newly elected Parliamentarians approve a disability rights statute. (A scholar at Cairo’s American University later confided that no one has been able to actually put their hands on the text of the draft law.) Some of those seated around the conference tables were skeptical: Revolution or not, “in Egypt we have legal ‘tailors’ who tailor the law to their political interests,” quipped one NGO spokesperson.
The SCAF’s statement of constitutional principles, put out ahead of the drafting of the new Constitution, makes no mention of disability. (Annex 1 to the IFES April briefing paper). The principle concerning equal treatment and nondiscrimination does refer to race, origin, religion, language and creed, but the list is incomplete, given the myriad of conventions that Egypt has signed and ratified to date. When it comes to civic participation in this revolutionary period, the public discourse about inclusiveness and non-discrimination is not as comprehensive or pluralistic as one might wish: the role of persons with disabilities is far down on a list where secularists and religious, nationalists and Islamists, and Muslims and Christians get much more play.
For that reason, alliances must be formed. As elsewhere in the Global South, Egyptian NGOs are typically one-man or one-woman operations. (Speaking of women, one of the most savvy and succinct activists in the room was a woman who single-handedly seems to be introducing best practices to the Cairene special education authorities). The disabled community is small in number and they represent the disenfranchised of the disenfranchised. For that reason, they must join with seniors, those who cannot read, mothers with young children, and the poor, all of whom have been denied full access to the electoral process.
The civil society veterans all know about working in an environment which is resource poor, and either hostile or indifferent to the needs of their constituents. “We do not exist,” claimed one participant. “The media vilifies and stigmatizes us,” charged another. There will not be sign language interpreters at the polls this fall, nor Braille ballots. No touch-screen voting. No van-accessible parking spaces. Some of the modifications suggested in the standard powerpoints are simply not feasible.
A proposal that had strong support among the local activists was that there be at least one accessible polling station per district. This might contradict a recent policy (adopted to counter fraud and eliminate long lines) that one must vote only at a designated polling station. It also means that poll workers need to be trained in advance on how to accommodate a disabled voter, even summoning the polling judge who would likely be stationed upstairs. Someone suggested that family members, NGO activists and other “natural supports” show up at the polls with portable ramps or interpreters or signage—and someone to assist in casting a ballot without revealing one’s vote to a poll worker.
In the American context, this proposal might be read as letting Government off the hook, and a sacrifice of the all-important dignity aspect of accommodation. But, these makeshift measures speak more about taking matters in one’s own hands, and not waiting around for Government to act. It is noteworthy that the workshop was convened just days before the 21st anniversary of the enactment of the ADA, the world’s first national disability rights law. Pure coincidence. More than one speaker observed that the United States has not yet ratified the UN treaty, although President Obama worked in a reference to ratification in his annual remarks on the Americans with Disabilities Act. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/07/26/anniversary-americans-disabilities-act-obama-administration-recommits-en It is a reminder that there are many paths to a barrier-free environment and the answers are not always to be found in the US, or the Global North.
Perhaps that is a good thing, because American sponsorship and tutelage are not necessarily welcome in Egypt at this time. On the one hand, US donor agencies are viewed by some as too closely associated with the Old Regime, because their funds were channeled through the Egyptian Ministry for Social Solidarity. Suspicion about American motives in the aftermath of the Arab Spring comes as much from secularist leftists as right-wing fundamentalists. On the other hand, civil society organizations promoting socio-political change, and dependent on outside funding, have criticized the US for “caving in” to the Mubarak Government’s pressure to operate through the Ministry, and for putting the brakes on NGOs that were too hard-hitting. http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/479422
There was also consensus at the enfranchisement workshop that demands should be made of Government, the political parties and the media. Most important, election officials need training on accessibility and accommodation—be they appellate judges who sit on the High Commission for Elections or the polling station judges on the “ground floor.” (Well, I’ve already noted that they actually may be one storey or more above street level). This could easily be incorporated into the training they should be receiving on disputed ballots, fraud prevention, independent monitoring, better management and anything else on the list of IFES or other watchdog organizations. Too little in the way of uniform policy, and too much discretion in the hands of local judges, has tainted the process in the past.
In addition, all of the political parties must be approached by disability activists. They should be asked to state their positions on the enfranchisement of disabled voters in the upcoming elections, and more generally on the inclusion of shakhs min dhawi al-I’aaqa in society at large. They should be asked to comment on NGO position papers on disability rights or perhaps the draft law or on the amendment of archaic existing legislation. They should be asked if they would favor adding “disability” to the anti-discrimination list. Parliamentary and presidential candidates could be asked how they will conduct outreach to voters with disabilities and involve them in their campaigns—perhaps providing a sign language interpreter at a rally or a photo op with an NGO spokesperson or prospective disabled voter. Symbolism is important.
Finally, major media outlets (and social media sites) must be contacted. They should be furnished journalistic guidelines for describing people with disabilities in non-pejorative ways—including when disability is relevant to a story and not simply a matter of sensationalizing. They could also be encouraged, consistent with the UN Convention, to portray persons with disabilities in a manner that “combat[s] stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities and to promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.” http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=268
It may not be necessary to assemble in Tahrir Square to accomplish most of these objectives. The now-famous venue is where the January 25 Revolution commenced, and climaxed with the stepping down of President Mubarak on February 11. The demonstrations and occupation continue almost daily, with overflow crowds on Friday and sporadic bouts of violence. Protesters jockey for control of the messaging and direction of the Revolution: from nationalist revolutionary youth to Salafist elders. (On July 24, however, the official celebration of the Egyptian National Holiday, the square resembled more a family carnival than sacred protest site). Many of the ideological battles between revolutionary militants and the military council are played out there, with the former pressuring the latter to change a policy or reverse course on some action taken in its role as caretaker government. More often than not, the Supreme Council will bow to the will of the Tahrir faithful.
The good news for disability advocates is that the SCAF has already announced it wants to restore to the judiciary a role in election oversight and polling place challenges. In fact, the judge who will head the High Commission for Elections has pledged that elections scheduled for November will be conducted under the theme “A Judge for Monitoring Every Ballot Box.” IFES, however, is wary about the lack of polling staff training and confusion that ensued during the referendum earlier this year. In a website report published just days after the July workshop, the Foundation expressed concern for the lack of transparency in the upcoming elections. (It also deplored the low participation rates of women last March, but made no reference to the turnout of voters with disabilities). http://www.ifes.org/Content/Publications/Opinions/2011/July/After-the-Spring-Where-Reform-Stands-for-the-MENA-Countries.aspx
Disability access may not be at the top of the SCAF or High Commission agendae, but enfranchisement is, as well as transparency and efficiency. Their work is set to begin in earnest after the month of Ramadan, which falls in August this year. It is not a good sign that the military junta has already rejected international election monitors as an infringement on Egyptian sovereignty, an excuse used often by Mubarak, who consistently prevented outside monitoring over every election held during his three decades in power.
Surprisingly, this is a position that sits well with many Egyptians, proud of their independence and fearful of outside interference. There have been some voices raised against this decision, as neutral monitoring is deemed an important element of free and fair elections. Various models do exist for oversight by the likes of United Nations, African Union or international NGO observer teams. In the words of one of the assembled disability advocates, there is a need to safeguard against a “heritage of doubt,” which I understand to mean distrust of government, the judiciary, political parties and the media. Surely, there will be an agreed-upon way to insure elections are free of fraud and fear—and free of architectural and socio-psychological barriers.
The Arab Autumn could be a time to capitalize on the passion about political engagement, with the expectation that voter turnout surpass the typically higher participation in sports club elections. There are limited resources for elections in any country. Given the polling place hurdles, it is ironic that one can theoretically be fined in Egypt—as in a number of countries—for not voting. It would be better to spend resources in finding ways to include voters–rather than exclude them. The electoral process and revolutionary fervor can drive the educational process to end stigma for people with disabilities and achieve eventual integration. It is a time to build from the ground floor up—with reasonable accommodations. Let us hope the votes count this time.