Tuesday, November 29, 2011


After the icy rains of Sunday night, Election day brought sunshine and an almost tranquil atmosphere in the Sadat metro station under Tahrir, which just a week before had been emptied of workers suffering from tear gas inhalation. I walked to a press conference with the head of the High Elections Commission, Abdel Moezz Ibrahim. “Today, we start a new and fresh phase, he said “with unprecedented security circumstances.”

Even to get into this conference, I had to leave my passport at a front desk and show another ID to several suited men on the way to the conference room. I’m beginning to suspect that Egyptian officials like holding press conferences in rooms they know will be too small, either to keep out latecomers and limit coverage, or else to give them the satisfaction of a standing-room only crowd.

After a few celebratory remarks, Ibrahim proceeded to deal with question after question, which mostly took the form of “I heard about” or “I saw this violation” followed by “What will you do about it?” or “Is this a violation?” They mentioned “provocative propaganda” given to voters in line by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour (Light) Party. “I didn’t receive any complaints in such matters,” Ibrahim responded. “I got this message on my cell phone asking me to vote for this party. Is this a violation?” The room murmured with snickers and gasps. “Do we need to prosecute the people who send the message or…” now a bit sarcastic, “the people who receive the message?”

Ibrahim stood firm. “We are going to study and analyze the problem” was his only response.

After five or six more questions, which Ibrahim answered by explaining that a few isolated incidents do not speak for the nearly two thousand polling stations, he finally got fed up when someone said, “I heard about rigging.”

“Rigging? Really?” Ibrahim was now very annoyed. The conference ended and several journalists cornered the only other interview subjects in the room, two women and a man in Carter Center T-shirts. They were resolute, too. “I’m sorry, we can’t say anything right now,” they told a young reporter.

Most people believe the elections are, if not perfect, at least relatively fair and non-violent, with self-reporting stations claiming roughly 50% turnout. More importantly, they have been fuel for the perspective pushed in most Western and Egyptian newspapers right now, that Tahrir square is marginal in the minds of most Egyptians. It is incredible how fast the press moves in Egypt these days, and how short memory has become. Only last week, correspondents were flocking to a war zone, and now they are at polling stations. It is almost as if the violence last week never happened.

That night, I took a walk with several friends through Al-Gamaliya, just north of Islamic Cairo. Known now as a heavily-Muslim and heavily-Muslim Brotherhood area, Al-Gamaliya once represented the Cairo of novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who as an 8-year-old watched the 1919 revolution from his family’s window. This is where all social classes of 1920s and 30s Cairene society commingled, before the rich moved to nice new areas and left Al-Gamaliya to the destitute but charming characters of later Mahfouz novels.

As the well-known cliché goes, the lower classes of Egypt have been well served by the Muslim Brotherhood’s social services, and most expect them to pay the organization back in votes (some call this indirect vote-buying, though the argument never is very convincing). As we approached the polling station around 6pm, a mass of people crowded at the door, trying to get in while others waited in a line that hardly could be said to exist. Two Brotherhood guys with short beards, clean newly pressed suits  and knitted prayer caps handed me fliers and flashed wide smiles. “It’s been a very good day,” they told me.

Another, very-similarly dressed man saw us and gave me fliers for the Salafi Nour Party (a more conservative religious party than the Brotherhood), on much cheaper paper but nevertheless printed by the thousands. “Can you tell us how to get to…” I began to ask him, before he cut me off: “No, I don’t live here, I’m sorry,” he said. “This morning I asked the shopkeeper if I could stand here, and he gave me permission.”

It was not hard to see how he got permission. The shopkeeper himself, a man with a long, grey beard in the Salafi style, with the mustache shaved off, waved me over and gave me yet another flier. “Islam! Islam!” he announced, as if giving a speech. “This is the year of the Party of Light and Islam, Godwilling.”

Pretty much every news piece I read over the last week described an assuredness by voters that they were resolute in their choice, and hopeful that their parties would be successful. Even revolution-generation activists, who surely know they will not get large numbers, say things like “The Brotherhood talks big game, but we’ll see.”

On Monday, I also talked to Zakariyya, a singer and veteran leftist activist from the days of Sadat. He gave an account of how President Sadat funded Islamic groups in the 1970s to marginalize communists and socialists. Now, decades later, the results of that decision might only really be seen for the first time if they sweep the polls.

Zakariyya was also open about his own dilemma on who to vote for. A few days ago, voters were told they had to choose one worker and one farmer to vote for, or else risk invalidating their ballot (this is a holdover from the socialism of Nasser- historical layers are endless here). Zakariyya’s brother, a former police officer, is running against his friend, a “Christian, who is with the revolution.” Neither is a worker or farmer. Zakariyya said he supports his friend, but cannot afford to face his brother if he doesn’t vote for him.

Then, on Monday, Zakariyya found out he could vote for whichever two candidates he wanted. The government said they would deal with the worker/farmer issue in their own way. This decision resolved Zakariyya’s dilemma, but only added a new layer to my attempts to understand the mind-boggling process.

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