Apples and Oranges in Egypt’s Historic Election: Alia Allana

This guest post by ALIA ALLANA, a despatch for Kafila from Cairo, is the eleventh in a series of ground reports from the Arab Spring. Photos by Alia Allana

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“Votes and rocks: just two ways to get heard,” said Salma.

She rolled her eyes and pointed to a shop we were passing by. Its windows had been broken, a lot of the merchandise that used to be displayed was probably stolen, she said. We were on a road that ran along Tahrir Square; where four skeletons of cars lay on their sides burnt and charred, where shop windows ceased to exist and marble stairs were broken and the marble used as rocks: these were all mementos from the week of clashes that gripped the country and international audiences and brought into question the role of Egypt’s powerful Generals (the SCAF) and whether the first election after the revolution would happen at all.

It did and many had to walk past the scene of yesterday’s fight to exercise their franchise.

Salma too had her weapon, her right to a fair election and she was certain that this would be the freest election the country has seen in at least 30 years. The children in Tahrir Square made loud noises by throwing rocks, and she would make her noise silently by trusting those she would help win the election.

A line was drawn not just been secularist and Islamist, but between the Egyptian who would vote and the one who wouldn’t, but neither were apathetic. For those who turned out, voting in Egypt is not quite so simple. There are hundreds of parties and hundreds of candidates. The lists were made public merely a month ago, the election rules were still misunderstood by many.

It had taken the elderly lady, 52, a lot of time to understand the complex political process and unanswered questions still lingered: would her franchise be an emancipation from a political system that has traditionally bowed down to the generals? Would the constitution be written without guidance from the SCAF? It had also taken her a lot of time to get her head around the candidates’ party symbols: one candidate was an apple and another an orange – the two fruits needed to be distinguished. “I’m not used to having so much choice,” she said.

For the Egyptian voters, exercising their right to vote after decades of Hosni Mubarak’s sham system, there are many parties with different leanings to choose from. The parties dot the political spectrum from the liberal to the Islamist.

The Islamist have entered the political sphere with tenacity and organisation that passes any other party. As electioneering was under way, Muslim Brotherhood Volunteers stood outside schools campaigning, pontificating through hand held speakerphones, an act that violates election laws and norms. No one intervened to stop the men with microphones at three polling stations I visited in Cairo; all three boys wore a sash like beauty pageants.

But yesterday, in Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, I was informed that electioneering had come to an end. At the Media Headquarters of the Party, employees rampantly typed getting their last minute messages out through Twitter, Facebook and online means. They informed voters about locations and the exhaustive list of candidates that stood under the Freedom and Justice Party banner. The office, located in an apartment block looked more like a safe house of internet addicts or an internet café with dedicated minions.

“This is the Muslim Brotherhood’s turn to shine,” says Suleiman, outside a polling station. He smokes and frowns and is distrustful about a marriage between religion and politics. After the revolution, suddenly he started to fear his security as a Coptic Christian and in last month’s incident, where 29 Christians were massacred at the hands of the army, he thought the unthinkable: “I miss Mubarak, he was a devil, but he was our predictable devil.”

When I raised this issue with a member of the Brotherhood’s team, I got a dumbfounded look and then a curious statement aimed at projecting secular traditions and a departure from extremist roots: “If this were a party of Islamists with a purely Islamist agenda, I would need to have a beard,” he said. Yet, the only book on the table was the Holy Quran. His allegiance lay not simply in Islam but in the social projects the Brotherhood has undertaken. “If there were a Christian or Liberal who was providing better services, I would vote for him, I would work with that party,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle and resolution towards political participation, their bitter history where the past 80 years have seen them as a party attacked and punished, has been an attraction to some of the youth. The Muslim Brotherhood Youth has been able to attract thousands into its ranks since Mubarak’s departure.

“They have suffered more than the people of Egypt have,” says Nasser, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth. He was standing at the corner of Mohammed Mahmoud Street distributing leaflets with faces of candidates printed on them. He was tempted to join in the fight in Tahrir Square, tempted to throw stones but was talked out of it by elders in the party. The message the youth was given was to participate through the political process only.

Many have, however, boycotted the election defying what they consider to be a mere extension of Mubarak’s policies. They continue to call for a SCAF retreat and staged sit-ins on election day, but Mohammed Mahmoud Street is no longer in their control.

The street that has commandeered attention for the past week has a school off its side street where the constituency of Kasr El Ein votes. Walking to the polling station means passing a convoy of APVs and tanks, army and police officers. The men in uniform have been the protagonists in the struggle for freedom, but today they play a different role, today they are guarantors of security.

Adam, a young boy in the frontline of the fight, walked passed the soldiers swiftly, he didn’t look them in the eye. For days he had demonised these men, called them Mubarak’s Police Force: it is they who have brought him and his friends to tears by their batons and tear gas canisters. Two hundred of them have today formed a blanket of security in this one besieged area. “They protestors are unpredictable, they may come back, they may disturb the polling,” said a police officer. He wasn’t allowed to talk after that statement as a superior came and waved me off.

A parallel world exists between the people on Tahrir Square and those who are gathered to vote. Both sides want to bring about change in the system, yet operate on two separate wavelengths. Fatima, a travel agent, and resident of Mohammed Mahmoud Street details the terror she lived through over the past week, how her daughters fretted over dwindling drinking water in the house. “They have ruined our life, they have derailed the political process,” she said. She didn’t care that many boycotted the vote, enough were present to create an impact. “It’s their loss,” she said.

Disdain towards the Tahrir crowd was also voiced by Mohammed at the Dar El Salam polling station. This was his first vote ever, at the age of 62, this was the vote he had waited to cast for a lifetime. “How can they claim to speak for us?” he asked. Look at all these faces, he pointed to the banners with candidates’ faces on them, they have a better chance at bringing real change. Dar El Salam was covered in banners, the uneven, dirty floor with leaflets that made a carpet.

Dar El Salam is a downtrodden part of Cairo; it a far cry from the up-market Downtown where the protestors have been centered. The roads in this quasi-suburb are narrow, the buildings have no paint on them, the houses resemble shanty villas and water shortages are a norm. Mohammed said people like him needed change the most, not those with their flashy cars and fancy educations. “We are the forgotten faces of Cairo,” he said. The cab I took to get there had refused to drive me there at first, calling the neighborhood a ‘dirty place’.

Outside the Cabinet building where a young boy died a few days ago under the wheels of a police truck, a sit-in was underway. People continued to chant and protest. A mere 100 meters away, was a polling station where two young girls, Mona and Hoda, sat on the wall of the school and proudly showed their purple-inked fingers, even if the ink had stained their French manicure. Hoda confessed to being a “Tahrir addict”, she was there everyday, she was on Twitter following updates every few minutes but her decision to vote was tactical and telling of the system.

Her grandfather died 11 years ago. When she entered his social security number, his voting registration number also came up. “Imagine a dead man votes in this country,” she said. In order to counter the fake votes, she cast her ballot today “in a moment of hope”.

Despite voting irregularities, today’s elections have been cited as being Free and Fair. The elected body will write Egypt’s new constitution.

(Alia Allana is our lady of the Arab Spring.)

Previously in this series:

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