Monitoring Elections in Egypt: Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58

Monitoring Elections in Egypt: Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58

by Tori Hornstein

Barbara Kennelly

Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58

Indelible ink, sometimes known as election ink, does not wash off easily. In fact, that’s the point. Go home, scrub away, try as you might, that ink – stuck in your cuticle and around your fingernail – won’t go anywhere for two to three weeks.

It may sound like a nuisance to us – perhaps even unsanitary – but according to former congresswoman Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58, strong, nearly permanent ink is one of the most important ingredients for a fair election in many countries around the world. Once a voter makes a finger print on a ballot, the tell-tale stain makes it impossible to vote again.

How did Kennelly, who is a distinguished professor of political science at Trinity, get involved in the purchase of ink pots for developing democracies? She is on the board of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a global nongovernmental organization that works in 135 nations to ensure fair, honest and efficient democratic elections.

When the IFES approached her to serve as a member of their board, Kennelly knew it was the perfect way to continue to build upon what she had learned, and work for a cause in which she deeply believes. “When I served on the House Intelligence Committee, I gained so much knowledge about so many countries around the world. I traveled quite a bit, I learned so much about foreign affairs,” she said.

Kennelly explained that the foundation maintains strict neutrality. It is not there to influence an election, lend support to a candidate or impose a culture or set of ideals. The IFES cannot meddle in a country’s progress. Volunteers and staff are simply there to assist, witness and support a corruption-free election process. The foundation’s stellar reputation and track record all over the word is why the IFES is one of only a handful of organizations allowed to operate in the delicate, nascent democracy blooming in Egypt.

Because of her role on the board and her experience in international affairs, Kennelly was able to visit the struggling democracy twice in the last year. Her experiences there and observations of the people’s struggle for freedom have solidified her passion to advocate for democracy whenever she can.

Kennelly provided a brief history of the conflict in Egypt and how it led to the involvement of IFES. After the highly publicized rebellion and fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the Egyptian military took control of the country until a new set of leaders could be elected. It was then up to the Egyptian people to set up a new government, elect a president and ratify a constitution. This environment of change made the nation a perfect place for the IFES to lend their expertise and resources.

From that point forward, Egypt became the second-highest-funded program in the IFES portfolio. Highly trained IFES workers on the ground began preparing for a momentous election, providing everything from ballot boxes to trained facilitators, and yes, even ink supplies.

The first free election in Egypt after the rebellion was held in November 2011 to choose the members of the People’s Assembly, which, Kennelly explained, is somewhat parallel to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Egyptian citizens hoped this first election would be the dawn of a new era for Egypt. According to the IFES, “Many see transitional-period elections … as a litmus test for the success and legitimacy of the transitional process.” A great deal of confidence and morale for the new nation was riding on the outcome. Kennelly described an inspirational scene of lines stretching through the streets as people eagerly waited their turn to vote.

But the results of the election were surprising, and for many, disheartening. Many elected winners represented the conservative, religious political party known as the Muslim Brotherhood which seemed out of place given the nature of the rebellion. The Brotherhood and its members were well connected with the military, and citizens cried foul. Many people suspected corruption.

As a result, protests and demonstrations intensified in the streets. With so much unrest and uncertainty, the nation’s number one industry, tourism, has almost ceased to exist. Cutting off this source of income has been visibly devastating to the people here.

“The first time I went to Egypt, there were tourists as far as the eye could see. Thousands and thousands of people in front of the pyramids,” Kennelly recalled. “But when I returned, there was hardly a soul. We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel for next to nothing. No one will do business while there are demonstrations going on.”

When Kennelly traveled to Egypt for a second time in January 2012, the nation was preparing for a another round of elections. This time, voters would be selecting members of the Shura Council, a governing body similar to the U.S. Senate.

Kennelly said the difference between the two elections was astonishing. During the second Egyptian election that she witnessed, voter turnout barely scraped 25 percent. This was a huge drop after the enthusiasm of the first election, in which more than 60 percent of the population participated.

Perhaps, Kennelly mused, it’s because citizens didn’t put as much stock in this election. Maybe voters didn’t think elections for the Shura Council mattered as much as the People’s Council.

But, in the end, Kennelly could not convince herself that was the case. She suspected that in reality, the protests, fear and poverty that have seized the country since the rebellion are the true detriments to voter turnout.

“It’s worrisome,” she said gravely. “I get emotional looking at them protesting. You just want for it to be healthy, prosperous. You want them to have tourism again.”

A silver lining to the situation seemed to be that the actual voting process itself is occurring peacefully – for those who did decide to put their faith into the system. Kennelly said the polling stations, despite the unrest in the streets, were actually quite calm and controlled. At least in this way, the work of the IFES was successful.

“I could have been in Connecticut,” she said with a chuckle as she described the polling station. The room was peaceful. A judge was present. Both men and women have the right to vote. Citizens had to present a national card to participate. But will it be enough?

The stories of Egypt’s rebellion, the passion of its protesters, and the cries for freedom in Tahrir Square are some of the most compelling stories of the Arab Spring. But one year later, many Egyptians feel frustrated and scared. There is still no new president. There is still no new constitution. Poverty reigns supreme.

“They have to settle down,” Kennelly says firmly. “They have to get their tourists back.”

Only then, with a steady flow of income, and people feeling employed and secure, will the nation be able to get back on its feet.

Her time in Egypt has clearly touched her. “I just hope they can achieve a peaceful democracy. That’s all I want to see,” she said.

Kennelly thinks there is something that we, as Americans, can learn from watching this struggle in Egypt. “People need to realize what a good system we have in the United States,” she said. “In Egypt, they’re fighting for a chance for a fair and honest election. They’re fighting so that their vote actually means something.”

A common American excuse for not voting is the notion that a vote will not matter in the end. Here in D.C., where residents cannot elect a voting member of congress, this excuse is even more widespread. But in the classes she teaches at Trinity, Kennelly challenges this attitude with her students. She says she cannot help but discuss what she has experienced in Egypt with them.

“We must realize that if we want to preserve the freedom we value so dearly, we must actually exercise our privilege to vote,” she said.

It is easy, she said, to watch politicians on television, and to become disillusioned with our political process. She knows that people get frustrated. But she thinks it is time for Americans to take some responsibility ourselves.

“We have a habit of complaining about the government. But we are the government. It’s us! So don’t complain,” she said.

Hearing her passion for the system, you cannot help but be impressed. After all, this is someone who spent more than 24 years as a public servant. If there is a woman who ought to be disillusioned by the system, it should be her. And yet, her message is quite the opposite.

“Do something about it. Vote. Run for local office. Get involved,” she said.

And the best part about voting in the United States? You don’t even have to get permanent ink all over your finger.