Dispatch from the Polls: By Sabah Hamamou

Egyptian voters wait in line

November 28, 2011 will go down in history as that day that Egyptians went out to vote in the first parliamentary elections since the fall of the Mubarak regime.

Watching the elections unfold on screens – whether computer, television or digital camera – you can see some differences from past elections, but at the same time, a lot of things are still the same. Despite some calls for boycotting or deliberately spoiling ballots, the first day of elections saw massive turnout. When I arrived at my polling station, the al-Shimaa primary school, I was stunned to see a 100-meter line outside the building. At first I thought to myself, “Egyptians, will stand for their country,” but as the day went on, I discovered an alternate explanation for the unprecedented turnout: the threat of an LE 500 fine for failing to vote.

Since I had not updated my national ID card in time for the elections, I had to vote in my old neighborhood in the Basateen area, an impoverished area adjacent to the much wealthier community in New Maadi. As a result of this demographic mix, I saw luxury cars parked alongside Tok Tok carts, the primary mode of public transportation for low-income Egyptians, outside of the polling station. 

Two lines extended from outside of the polling station, a shorter one for the elderly, and a longer line for everyone else. Two low-ranking military officers kept a close watch on the crowd.

As I listened to the voters around me, I was surprised by the hottest topic of debate. No, voters were not talking about the candidates or the future of the country or the Supreme Council of the Armed forces (SCAF); instead, they were arguing about how long it would take to get to the ballot box! One elderly lady complained that she had already attempted to vote twice on Monday but was dissuaded by the long line. She pleaded with one of the military officers to let her into the polling station. Impressed by the patience and persistence of the many voters who stood in line for hours, I was later a little disappointed to find out that many of the people around me were determined to cast their ballots not out of enthusiasm for the democratic process, but to avoid a harsh government fine.

One young women wearing a black abaya revealed her true motivation for voting: “If it wasn’t for the fine, I won’t be standing here!” When I asked her how she could be sure that the government will enforce the fine, she said that public officials had reiterated warnings about the fine on television in recent days. 

Since I have not lived in the Basateen neighborhood for seven years, I needed to catch up on candidate research. I asked the voters around me if they could recommend the name of a single trustworthy candidate who had won the respect and trust of the community. One name was repeated, a candidate who belongs to Muslim Brotherhood but is running as an independent. I was about to vote for him before I noticed his name and campaign ad on a flyer distributed by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Most of the other voters were unaware of the candidate’s affiliation with the FJP, and in general lacked knowledge about the campaign platforms and ideological affiliations of the people they were voting for. Candidates from the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) seemed to have made a strong impression on voters, with one woman reporting that an independent candidate affiliated with the NDP had been distributing candy to children during the campaign period.

In the early hours of voting, I was disappointed to see some of the same dirty tactics that tainted elections under Mubarak’s rule. But by the end of the day, I found renewed hope in the words of a humble, uneducated housewife, the mother of four girls: “I’ve been studying for these elections for two weeks; I talked to almost everyone I know… I asked men and women and looked carefully at the flyers and listened to the talk shows and I’m going to vote for the FJP, because they are the people who fought the former regime.”

This housewife’s ideal candidate was someone who can move the country forward: “We are tired of poverty. I had to force my second daughter to quit school, in order to afford the education of my oldest daughter. My husband used to own a carpentry workshop but he was forced to close it when he couldn’t pay the tax or afford the necessary safety equipment.”

Another topic of heated debate in the line was the relative extremism of Salafis relative to the Muslim Brotherhood. While the ideological differences between the two groups are not always clear, I observed one major difference in the campaign strategies of the FJP and Salafi parties: The FJP seems more willing to violate the ban on religious slogans and propaganda in campaigning. When I asked a man distributing flyers for the Salafi Nour Party to stop this illegal practice, after a brief argument he agreed to hand over his flyers to me. But when I made the same request to a woman distributing Freedom and Justice Party flyers, she flatly refused. After a heated debate in which she pointed to numerous other cars blasting religious propaganda from loudspeakers, I had to give up.

Never in my life have I encountered more interesting political discussions than the ones I heard in line at the polling station, tacking every aspect of Egypt’s transition: the timeline for elections, the presidential race, protests in Tahrir, and relations with the United States…

I heard views from across the political spectrum, ranging from Mubarak supporters to diehard revolutionaries. “I’m Filul,” one 35-year old woman bravely pronounced, using the label that refers to remnants of the former regime. “I love Hosni Mubarak and I’m here to invalidate my vote, because the revolution has made Egypt unsafe.”

Another woman predicted an inevitable victory by the Brotherhood: “I’m not going to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are going to win anyway. I will vote for the Salafis instead … At least we should have diversity in the parliament.”

A third lady made it clear that many voters are basing their decisions on personalities rather than party platforms. "I was going to vote for Kutla Masriyya (the Egyptian Bloc), but now that I know that Naguib Sawiris (a prominent Christian businessman) is leading the coalition, I’m not so sure.”

Unfortunately these discussions did not help my decision-making process when I found myself faced with a list of 130 independent candidates inside the polling station. Forced to choose only two of these names, I picked one candidate who was familiar to me, a human rights lawyer. I also chose a female Christian candidate, Samia Shamarden Masood Yousef, based on my belief that democracy is about guaranteeing the representation of minorities.

Finally, I left the polling station at 5 p.m., at which point the line was much shorter. I’m not sure whether or not the SCAF will keep its promise of protecting the elections, nor am I certain that my vote will be counted in a transparent manner. I saw no civil society observers at my polling station. My experience today convinced me that it wasn’t Tahrir youth activists who started the revolution; rather, it was the social injustice and corruption that forced an uneducated housewife to pull her daughter out of school. As long as this injustice continues; as long as demands for freedom, dignity and social justice are not met; as long as this housewife, and many other like her who are suffering in poverty are willing to spend two weeks researching candidates they hope will bring about a better future, I know that Egyptians will not stop working to build their democracy … Insha ‘Allah.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sabah Hamamou is deputy business editor at the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram. In 2006 she studied at Northwestern University as part of a fellowship for Arab journalists. She was a 2009-2010 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2009-2010. Ms. Hamamou is the author of the forthcoming book, Diary of a Journalist at Al-Ahram.


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