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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.


Sleeping child in Tahrir Square

A new Gallup poll reveals that most Egyptians are not enthusiastic about the recent resurgence of anti-government demonstrations, even though they may share protesters' frustrations with the slow pace of political change. In September, 84 percent of Egyptians said continued protests were a bad thing for the country. However, Egyptians still express strong support for the original protests in Tahrir Square, with 75 percent of Egyptians saying they support protesters who called for Mubarak's resignation last January.

The poll, based on interviews with 1,049 Egyptians conducted between September 16 and 23, also indicates that Egyptians are less optimistic about their future in the post-Mubarak Egypt than they were a few months ago. In September, 51 percent of Egyptians expected their lives to improve as a result of the revolution, down sharply from 72 percent in June.

Photo Credit: Reuters

A parliamentary candidate uses the symbol of a latop

The first day of parliamentary elections dawned cool and rainy, but warmed up by 8 am, bringing out Egyptian voters whose sunny mood matched the mild Mediterranean weather and the cartloads of neon-bright oranges and guava that festooned the streets of Port Said on November 28.

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While the protest in Tahrir Square enters its eleventh day with the aim of bringing about an end to military rule, thousands of Egyptians are engaged in a parallel democratic exercise: voting in Egypt’s first post-revolutionary elections. Today, Egypt is writing an important line in its history, as the Egyptian people proudly decide their own political destiny for the first time in their seven thousand years of history. I cannot stop thinking about how this parliamentary election may change the future of Egypt for the better or – God forbid – for worse. It all depends on the actions of Egyptian voters over the next 48 hours.

One can hardly predict the results of the first parliamentary elections since the historic nonviolent revolution that has changed the lives and attitudes of the Egyptian people forever. It is equally difficult to estimate the real influence of the current protests on the attitudes of voters. At the same time, it is clear that these elections will have extraordinary significance for Egypt’s political landscape, drawing a new map of the power centers and interest groups that will dominate the domestic political scene for the forseeable future and could also transform political dynamics across the Middle East region as a whole.

As a candidate for the People’s Assembly, I am running for the Downtown Cairo district on the list of Eladl (Justice) Party. Eladl is a party recently founded by young revolutionaries who decided to build on the success achieved with Mubarak's overthrow by transferring the spirit of activism to the political decision-making arena. I joined Eladl Party as a founding member and director of its women’s organization in April. At that time, the decision to run for elections was not on my wish list because I did not meet the minimum age requirement for candidates (30 years old). In July, however, the SCAF issued a new regulation that decreased the minimum age for eligible parliamentary candidates to 25 years old. At that point, my party leaders and I started to think about the possibility of moving me from the realm of civil society to formal politics.

The decision to run for parliament was not an easy one for me as a human rights activist, a young revolutionary and above all a young woman who lives in a society that hardly accepts women in leadership positions. Entering the world of politics was not an easy decision, neither for me nor for other young candidates with backgrounds in civil society activism.  Stepping out of the role of monitoring and evaluating the performance of public officials and decision-makers to become a decision-maker oneself requires as much courage as our grandparents had in crossing the Red Sea behind Moses – a leap that only true believers can make. Those who decided to run and those who will vote at the polls tomorrow are true believers in democracy who represent the glorious future of Egypt and will help this country move beyond its painful legacy of authoritarianism. These parliamentary elections are as valuable and necessary as the revolution itself.

Although there are certainly plenty of dirty games being played in the world of politicians, the best thing about electoral campaigning is that it allows you to intimately communicate with fellow citizens whom you might not have the opportunity to meet under ordinary circumstances.

Of course, not all interpersonal interactions on the campaign trail have been positive ones. Over the course of my campaign, I have had to deal with death threats sent to my cell phone and filthy attempts by my rivals to distort my image by spreading false rumors about me, claiming that I am not patriotic enough because I work for an American non-governmental organization that I am not a devout Muslim because I encourage women to stand up for their rights, and because I am passionate about creating understanding and dialogue between the West and the Muslim world.

While campaigning has not always been easy, the experience has come with many positive results. Interacting directly with voters has brought me satisfaction and personal growth, as well as the confidence to be an effective leader. Although I have had years of experience working with grassroots networks as an NGO professional, I was always in the position of being a provider or a teacher. Now through my election campaign, I have found myself in a student’s role, learning from the many people I encountered who did not hesitate to share with me the minute details of their lives and encouraged me to speak my mind and overcome my fears. Each one has a unique story and creative ideas that inspired me to change from within.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned from my voters is that winning a parliamentary seat is not as important as winning the hearts and minds of your own people.

Dalia Ziada is competing in the November 2011 parliamentary elections as a candidate for the Eladl Party, a new party founded by young revolutionaries to affirm a moderate Egyptian religious and political ideology.

Photo Credit: Olivia Arthur, Time Magazine

Freedom and Justice Party rally in Port Said

This Mediterranean city is poised to host an electoral battle between Islamists and secularists that is emblematic in many ways of what is happening throughout Egypt.  Although there are thirteen electoral lists competing for the four proportional representation seats allocated to Port Said, the same few came up over and over again in conversations with activists and domestic civil society observers.  On the Islamist side of the spectrum, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP, Brotherhood) and Nour Party (Salafi) are the contenders.  The Wasat Party (moderate Islamist) also has made a positive impression.  Among the non-Islamists, the Wafd has a long history here but its reputation has been tarnished by decades of political deals with Mubarak and his predecessors.  The Free Egyptians (liberal) also reportedly have gained popularity.  Several observers predicted that no party would sweep the district but that four out of these five would get the seats, perhaps two Islamist and two secularist—which might be more wishful thinking than hard analysis.

Some aspects of the campaigns in Port Said over the last few weeks are appealing and innovative, while others are troubling.  Parties have done the usual distribution of pamphlets and posters, but some (particularly Nour) have been more creative—for example, setting up kiosks in many of Port Said’s seven neighborhoods in which a volunteer with a laptop will help a puzzled voter locate his or her correct polling station and get a quick lesson in how to vote.  FJP reportedly has done a great deal of door-to-door campaigning, always bringing male and female volunteers to provide separate briefings for family members according to sex.
The uglier aspect of the campaigns—use of sectarianism—also is unfortunately emblematic of a larger issue in Egypt.  The FJP and Nour have made extensive use of mosques as campaign platforms, and imams reportedly have used Friday sermons to warn that voting for a non-Muslim or even a non-Islamist is sinful.  Christians reportedly have been instructed in churches to vote for the Free Egyptians, while Nour reportedly has gone around town tearing down that party’s posters.
But the real danger of sectarian confrontation here surrounds one of the two individual seats rather than the proportional seats.  George Ishak, the Christian founder of the Kifaya movement and an avowed secularist, is in hot competition with Muslim Brother Akram al-Shaer.  Each apparently has a significant phalanx of youth supporters who have been facing off at campaign events, and local observers fear the competition could turn violent and openly sectarian if the two candidates go to a runoff.
Young people are active in Port Said, as elsewhere in Egypt, and I heard from those I met today much frustration.  Ahmad, a young local activist who was limping painfully from two bullets he carries in one leg from last week’s clashes in Tahrir, said mournfully of the contest to begin tomorrow:  “These are not the elections we fought for, but it is my duty to go and serve as a domestic monitor in the hope that someday we can make the process better.”  He worried that the FJP was creating an image of Islamist invincibility by exaggerating the size of electoral gains in Tunisia and Morocco, and complained bitterly that the liberal parties were hurting their chances of capturing the youth vote by running “all old people.” (In truth, by the look of the campaign photos there are few if any candidates under 40).  Ahmad said that some of his fellow activists would boycott the elections due to continued military rule, and that others who go to vote will wear black as a silent protest in solidarity with “the martyrs of Tahrir.”
Another question is whether ex-National Democratic Party candidates will gain any seats.  Ibrahim Darwish, a former military officer running for the Shura Council within the newly-established “National Party” (al-Hizb al-Qawmi), thought that his fellow citizens would make their choices primarily based on the reputations of the specific candidates on each list.  His party had carefully chosen physicians, teachers, and civil servants with a record of public service, and he was proud that his was the only list to place a woman second.  Offering a view contrary to that of most other observers, Darwish said Islamists had turned off the public by overspending on campaigns, leaving the typically-independent Port Saidis with a feeling that they were being bought.  “Most voters are still undecided,” he concluded.
In fact, many things are still undecided about these elections, apparently including how ballot boxes will be secured overnight on Monday—a major source of concern for parties and civil society groups, who fear that thugs will overcome security officers to get access.  Today I heard at least three different plans for what will happen:  boxes will be sealed and secured in place, or they will be gathered into a central room in each polling station, or all will be gathered into one central place in the district and then redelivered the next morning.  One rumor I heard today is that the FJP is so worried about its votes being discarded on Monday night that it has instructed its base to turn out on Tuesday only.        
Michele Dunne is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an official observer of the first stage of the parliamentary elections. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Photo Credit: Ikhwan Web
Campaign posters

Protesters continued their sit-in outside of the Cabinet building for a third day straight to protest the appointment of Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri and demand an immediate end to military rule. Field Marshal Tantawi warned that the military "will not allow troublemakers to meddle" in the polling process, set to begin on November 28. Meanwhile, Mohamed ElBaradei announced that he is willing to drop his presidential bid in order to take charge of a national salvation government.


1) The crowd in Tahrir Square thinned considerably on November 27 as rain began to fall. Protesters continued their sit-in outside of the Cabinet building for a third day straight to protest the appointment of Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri and demand an immediate end to military rule as well as the formation of a national salvation government. [The Guardian, English, 11/27/2011] [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/27/2011]

2) The Revolutionary Youth Coalition and 23 other political groups have called for a “salvation million-strong protest” in Tahrir Square on November 28 to demand that power be immediately transferred to civilians through the formation of a presidential council and national salvation government. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, and the Salafi Nour Party all announced that they will not participate. [Al-Masry al-Youm, English, 11/27/2011]


3) Speaking at a press conference on November 27, Field Marshal Tantawi confirmed that elections will begin on time and promised that the military’s role will not be changed in the new constitution. [al-Ahram, English, 11/27/2011] 

4) Field Marshal Tantawi warned of “extremely grave” consequences if the current unrest does not end quickly.  Tantawi stressed that elections will proceed on time and said the military "will not allow troublemakers to meddle" in the polling process. [VOA, English, 11/27/2011]

5) SCAF member Ismail Othman announced that 95 percent of the armed forces will be deployed to maintain order and security during the polling process. [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/27/2011]


6) The first stage of elections, which will last until December 5, is set to begin on Monday, November 28. Although the High Electoral Commission has not provided figures for the total number of candidates contesting the first round, unofficial estimates indicate that 2,362 independents and 193 party-based candidates will compete for 168 seats. Eligible voters in the first round account for approximately 35 percent of the total number of registered voters, estimated to be around 50 million. [al-Ahram, English, 11/27/2011]

7) A spokesperson for the Coptic church denied that it was directing Christians to vote for particular candidates. In a sermon on November 27, Pope Shenouda urged Copts to vote for "a suitable candidate," whether Muslim or Christian. [The Guardian, English, 11/27/2011] [Al-Masry al-Youm, English, 11/27/2011]

8) The Salafi Nour Party and Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party failed to coordinate on individual candidacy races in the final days before the start of elections, after the parties formed a committee two weeks ago with the intent of backing the strongest Islamist candidate in each district to avoid splitting the vote. Plans for coordination fell through after the FJP refused to withdraw support from a number of its candidates. [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/27/2011]


9) Mohamed ElBaradei announced that he is willing to drop his presidential bid in order to take charge of a salvation government and “guarantee trust and neutrality during the transitional period.” [Al-Ahram, English, 11/27/2011]


10) An investigation conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reveals that security forces deliberately targeted the eyes of protesters while attempting to disperse the crowd in Tahrir Square using birdshot pellets and rubber bullets. Kasr al-Aini Hospital alone reported 60 eye injuries, and EIPR’s report claims, “The high rate of eye injuries leaves no doubt as to a pattern of intentionally aiming birdshot pellets and rubber bullets at the eyes of demonstrators.” [EIPR, English, 11/27/2011]

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera

Campaign propaganda from the Ittihad Party

Cairo—A couple of noteworthy examples of campaign propagnda I came across today, less than 48 hours before voting is scheduled to begin on Monday, November 28:

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Cairo -- Electoral systems are slippery things.  Political players often try to grab hold and point them in one direction or another to obtain an electoral advantage, and sometimes regret their decisions later—witness the famous 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, in which Fatah shaped a system to its liking only to find out it played to the strengths of Hamas.  A day of meetings to discuss the system that Egypt will use for its first post-revolutionary elections left me with a number of questions about technical points that might prove important:

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Mohamed ElBaradei in Tahrir Square

Clashes broke out again after Central Security Forces attacked thousands of protesters staging a sit-in outside of the Cabinet building to condemn the appointment of Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri. The SCAF announced on November 25 that each stage of the parliamentary elections will be held over two days instead of one to avoid "overcrowding and security issues." Meanwhile, the head of the High Electoral Commission revealed that the SCAF is considering postponing the first round of voting in Cairo and Alexandria, and ten of the judges commissioned to supervise the elections have decided to back out of their commitment, saying that elections should be delayed in light of the current unrest. 

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As a Cairene surrounded by the intensity and dynamism of the second wave of mass Tahrir protests, one tends to forget that other parts of the country are fighting their own battles that, although, smaller in scale, are just as intense and significant to those residents fighting for their rights. After only three days in Alexandria, I could not help but feel that the people were fighting a more difficult battle in the war that is Egypt's revolution against the old regime. The uphill struggle facing revolutionaries here involves the media and local politics.

While news agencies - both national and international - focus on the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces' (SCAF) dealings with the protesters and political factions in Tahrir, only a few heads turn to Victor Emanuel Square at the end of Smouha street outside the office of the Central Security Forces' (CSF) office. The hundreds of protesters pale in comparison to the thousands present in Tahrir. The fewer CSF officers available to deal with the demonstrations, however, results in a heightened sense of fear as they respond with arguably more ferocity. With hardly any consistent reporting and a systematic effort to break mobile phones and confiscate recording devices, protesters face an authority trying to maintain their level of impunity. Despite only three confirmed deaths, the intensity of the injuries witnessed rivals those seen in Tahrir, including broken arms, internal bleeding, concussions, lacerations, and of course gas inhalation.

The other factor at play involves the leanings of a substantial portion of the population towards the Islamist parties. Many in Alexandria do not entirely trust the Muslim Brotherhood to represent their interests, but few can argue the fact that its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) remains one of the most organized political groups with one of the strongest campaigns. Those who would not choose FJP candidates tend to lean towards the Salafis and their Nour Party. With expectations that Islamist parties will win a large portion of parliamentary seats, many of their supporters in Egypt's second largest city resent the protesters and argue that they have intentionally engineered the demonstrations to interfere with the elections timetable. 

Sadly, the resulting dynamic leaves Alexandria's revolutionary youth vulnerable to brutal authoritarian tactics by security forces with little support from their local neighborhoods. Nonetheless, approximately three thousand demonstrators gathered in front of al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque to attend the "Million Man March" that took place this Friday, marching to the military headquarters in the north of the city, spending hours calling for freedom from oppression. Despite a lack of organization and internal support, those in Tahrir would no doubt admire their tenacity and national pride ... if only someone could see them!

Tarek Radwan is an Egyptian human rights activist specializing in international law and conflict resolution. He has worked for Human Rights Watch's MENA division and the United Nations mission (UNAMID) in Darfur as a Human Rights Officer. He currently provides consulting services on civilian protection and Middle East issues.

Photo Credit: LA Times