As University of Kentucky diplomacy students follow Egypt's attempt to transition from dictatorship to democracy, they can get some behind-the-scenes perspective from one of their teachers.
Stacy Closson, below, a visiting lecturer at UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, spent eight days in Egypt last month as an official observer during recently completed parliamentary elections.
An academic with years of international field experience, Closson found the experience fascinating, inspiring and, at one point, frightening. She left with a better understanding of the Middle East's new political complexities — and why her fellow Americans should pay attention.
"Even after 30-plus years of dictatorship under (Hosni) Mubarak, people don't lose their taste for freedom," Closson said. "They seem very excited about the future prospects for their country."
Closson is a Truman National Security fellow who worked six years for the U.S. Defense Department. She was among 33 observers from the National Democratic Institute who watched the second of three rounds of parliamentary voting Dec. 14 and 15.
Other observers were there from two more U.S.-based organizations, the International Republican Institute and the Carter Center. (Despite their names, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute are non-partisan.)
Closson and another American woman — a congressional staffer — went to 25 polling stations in the Beni Suef region with an interpreter. Voting seemed to be orderly, with each polling station run by a "judge." Each political party also had poll observers.
Because election turnout was low during Mubarak's reign, voting was a new experience for many Egyptians.
"There was this initial excitement and pride that they could vote and know their vote could count," she said, adding that the main issues for most voters were freedom, dignity and jobs.
New liberal parties were much less organized than the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to end up with a majority of seats in parliament, Closson said. But one surprise was the strength of a more conservative Islamic party, Salafi al-Nour. It seemed highly organized, with plenty of cars, computers, cellphones and operating funds, reportedly from Islamic interests in neighboring gulf states.
When the polls closed, Closson and other observers followed election officials as they transported ballot boxes through busy city streets to a central counting center. There, they found perhaps 200 rowdy Salafi partisans creating a chaotic scene.
Only a few international observers were able to get inside the center to witness the counting. Closson wasn't among them.
"I still regret it," she said. "I think we would have gotten pushed and shoved, but we would have gotten in. But when the two-star general said he couldn't guarantee our safety, we decided not to push it."
The third and final round of parliamentary voting was last week, and results could be announced this week. "There are a lot of mathematical shell games in how they're going to allocate seats," she said. "I think it's going to be a political decision as much as a mathematical decision."
Egypt has scheduled a presidential election for June. But without a constitution, it remains unclear how the president and parliament will function and relate to powerful military officials.
Egypt is likely to end up with a government dominated by Islamists, but the faction that comes out on top will have a big influence not only on foreign relations but on internal economic recovery.
Tourism is one of Egypt's biggest industries, and last year's revolution has all but brought it to a halt.
"The hotels were empty except for us," Closson said. "You have more people in downtown Lexington than at the Giza pyramids. Even the camels where bored."
If Islamists carry through with threats to ban alcohol sales to foreigners and require tourists to dress conservatively, Egyptian tourism might not recover.
Once all the voting is done, Closson said, "The question now is how they're going to govern."
Why should Americans care? Egypt's transition could affect oil prices, Closson said. It also could have a big effect on Israel's security and what happens in other unstable Arab countries, especially Libya, Yemen and Syria. But she is hopeful.
"Egyptians are pretty steadfast people," Closson said. "They see this as the first step of a long process of getting more freedom."