Illusions of Democracy: When Is It Not Free or Fair?

From Women's Empowerment collection, lesson plan 5 of 8

(90-120 minutes + assignments)

Grade Level: 9-12, College

Subject Areas: Social Studies, Civics, Government, Geography, Global Studies, Sociology, Political Science, Language Arts, Economics, World History

Purpose of the lesson: In this lesson, students look at the “free, fair and regular” principles that might make an election democratic. Conversely, they investigate ways in which elections can be inefficient, manipulated or abused. They apply these lessons toward understanding the 2005 election in Egypt, and then research the electoral process of a country of their own choosing.


Students will:

  • Understand the criteria for democratic elections
  • Investigate stymied or failed elections
  • Examine and discuss the 2005 election in Egypt
  • Role play different constituencies and voices in the election process in Egypt
  • Research the electoral process in other countries, especially the abuses in countries that are not democratic, and the safeguards in the countries that are democratic

Skills: Stating and supporting opinions in class discussions and in writing; analytical reading and viewing; note taking; interpreting information and drawing conclusions; critical thinking; identifying cause and effect; identifying relationships and patterns


  • Computers with an Internet access and/or with DVD capability
  • LCD projector or DVD player
  • Flip chart (adhesive backed)/markers, whiteboard/markers or chalkboard/chalk
  • Discussion Guide
  • “Egypt’s 2005 Elections” Film Module
  • Teacher Handout A: Vocabulary
  • Teacher Handout B: Assignment Rubric
  • Student Handout A: “Egypt’s 2005 Elections” Note Taking Guide
  • Student Handout B: Quotes
  • Student Handout C: Panel Note Taking Guide


Use Teacher Handout B: Assignment Rubric to assess students’ projects. Students should receive the rubric to guide them in their article writing.

National Teaching Standards Addressed:

Grades 9-12

National standards from the following organizations were used in developing this lesson plan. See Recommended National Standards for full descriptions of standards employed.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

Center for Civic Education

National Council for the Social Studies

National Center for History in the Schools

National Geographic

National Council for Teachers of English/International Reading Association

North American Association for Environmental Education

Writer: David Maduli

David Maduli is an independent educational consultant who has contributed many curriculum guides and conducted various workshops for PBS programs. He has a master’s in teaching and curriculum from Harvard Graduate School of Education and continues to work as a veteran Bay Area public school language arts and social studies teacher.

Previewing Activity

  1. Introducing Democratic Elections: Have students read and copy down this quote from the whiteboard or projector:

    “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives... The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” — Article 21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

    Direct students to circle or highlight the keywords in the quote that describe what qualities would make for a truly democratic election. After they have indicated a few, allow students to “shout out” words as you list them to the side of the quote (i.e. periodic, genuine, universal, equal suffrage, secret vote, free voting). Have them discuss in their own words what these terms mean and add additional words to the list (e.g. fair, true, regular)

  2. What is Electoral Abuse?: Pre-teach the vocabulary for the article “Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Essential Principles” from the Democracy website using Teacher Handout A: Vocabulary. You can then guide students in reading the article or have them break into pairs to read. Direct them to use the reading to create a list of scenarios and situations in which elections are abused, inefficient, failed or otherwise not meeting the essential principles for a democratic election. Discuss together as a class, using the following guiding questions:

    • Are elections free, fair and regular in the United States? Explain.
    • In what ways are elections abused?
    • Why would a dictatorship or a country that is not necessarily democratic hold elections?
    • What is the impact of electoral abuse on the public? On the government?
    • What can the public do to expose and/or prevent electoral abuse by the government? What can politicians do? Why should they want genuine elections?
    • How does freedom of the press help promote free, fair and regular elections?
  3. Provide Background Information on Egypt and Briefly introduce the film Note that the film module will cover a movement in Egypt that was organized after the country’s first multicandidate presidential election in 2005 was marred by various electoral abuses. Have students read pages 2-4 of the Discussion Guide particularly The Film, which provides an overview of the 2005 election and the controversy surrounding the issue of an independent judiciary. You can also have students read the article “Egypt’s Ugly Election,” from the Washington Post as another source of background information.

    Viewing the Film

  4. Viewing the Film Module: Instruct students to take notes on Student Handout A: “Egypt’s 2005 Elections” Video Module Note Taking Guide as they view the “Egypt’s 2005 Elections” Video Module, and examine the fairness of Egypt’s elections as they’re doing so.

    Reflecting on the Film

  5. Review and Discuss: Debrief the module and notes by discussing together as a class, using the following guide questions:

    • What factors can increase or decrease voter turnout in an election?
    • Should the responsibility for insuring free, fair and regular elections fall on the government (including an independent judiciary), the political parties, the media or the citizens? Explain.
    • What are effective ways for citizens to safeguard the election process?
    • How effective do you think protests and demonstrations are in impacting the election process? (Compare the U.S. and Egypt.)
    • What are the major differences between elections in the U.S. and the 2005 election in Egypt?
  6. Panel Discussion: Moderate a panel in which you select several students to take on roles from the module (i.e. the women of, judges, demonstrators, bystanders, police, parliamentary candidates). Allow students time to prepare by reviewing the quotes in Student Handout B.

    Have the student panelists respond to these questions by expressing views from the perspective of their roles in the 2005 election:

    • What do you know about the election process in Egypt?
    • Is changing the election process something you feel is necessary or desirable? What changes to the government do you support that would impact the election process?
    • How do you feel about the election this year? How fair and free are the elections in Egypt?
    • What questions or statements do you have for other members of the panel?

    While watching, have students in the audience take notes on Student Handout C: Panel Note Taking Guide. Open up the questions to the rest of the class as audience members. Debrief by having audience members share the panel member they agreed with the most and why.

  7. Assignment: Research Project: Students should identify a country to research and evaluate its electoral process. They can select a country using the [Map of Freedom on the Democracy website] ( newmap/). While most students would select a country in the Not Free or Partly Free categories, it would also be interesting for some students to select Free countries to see what their electoral processes look like and how they safeguard their elections. Students can use the Country Profiles on the BBC News website ( as an additional resource site. They should present their research using visual elements, along with factual information and analysis. They should consider using PowerPoint slides, a blog or other Web 2.0 tools, a display board or a pamphlet.

    Information to include:

    • Type of government
    • Description of election process
    • Level of freedom of the press, especially in reporting on elections and the government
    • Safeguards and monitoring for elections
    • Participation level in elections from the electorate
    • Comparison with the U.S. electoral system

Students can:

  1. Investigate the 2000 U.S. presidential election. What were the elements and causes of a breakdown in the electoral process? How was the controversy resolved and what was the role of the Supreme Court?

  2. Research the 1876 U.S. presidential election. How was the president chosen? What impact did this election have on Southerners, both Black and white? This election was essentially a backroom deal that allowed the Republicans to win the election—provided they ended Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War.

  3. Research the history of Egypt’s judicial system and the political role of judges.

  4. Examine Egyptian women’s roles in politics and civics. Research other notable women or organizations in which women play a vital role in Egypt and other countries.

  • Film module: Egypt’s 2005 Election
Download lesson materials