The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Sarah Carr on the election trail

I am delighted to offer this guest post by the wonderful Sarah Carr, who blogs at Inanities.

I am a journalist, so my fate for the past two days was to drag myself between schools in Cairo looking at people, a bit like a paedophile.

We started out in Shubra, where long queues of people patiently stood in muddied streets waiting to attack the ballot box. It became clear early on who was dominating the whole affair. Outside virtually every polling station stood a small group of men with laptops providing information (voter number, which polling station they should go to) to confused voters. A useful service, but one whose legality is clouded by the fact that they information they provided was written on slips of paper bearing the insignia of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Even in Christian-majority Shubra liberal and leftist parties were strikingly absent, leaving last-minute rallying outside polling stations to the FJP and their confreres in Islam the Nour party. The same pattern was repeated in Sayeda Zeinaba, Ain Shams and Abdeen.

This was the FJP’s moment, and they knew it. Their members were positively buoyant. It reminded me of first-time winners at Wimbledon who go on about how all the sacrifice and hardship was worth it for this moment. Outside one polling station in Sayeda Zeinab, former stomping ground of the peanut-eating People’s Assembly speaker, Fathy Sorour, two smiling men, one of them holding a camera descended on me and another journalist.

We had just emerged from the polling station, and the man not holding a camera enquired as to whether we had noticed any irregularities inside. I embarked on a long description of how one FJP member had stood at the door of one room and controlled access to the room, guiding voters to the correct polling station room. I suggested that while this is a useful service, it is one better carried out by a government employee. For good measure I added that most of the violations I had seen over the two days were carried out by the FJP (but then what other parties were visible to commit violations). I stopped and asked the man who he was.

“A member of the FJP,” he said, grinning.

He listened to the accusations in good humour and then launched into a strange defence of the FJP’s motivations in these elections. I pointed out that ultimately they are in it to win it, and the man responded with a detailed description of how yesterday an FJP member had assisted a traffic cop in guiding snarled traffic outside the polling station. “It’s not all about politics!” he insisted.

My friend Sherif “Sharshar” Azer agrees. He described the election as “moulid el sandooq”, “the ballot box moulid”, a spirit reflected in the festive and self-congratulationary tone of radio coverage (not only can Egyptians queue for democracy in an orderly fashion, they can do so in rain-soaked streets!) and one report I heard that SCAF had wheeled out a military band to entertain voters while they waited. On state TV last night a correspondent, overcome with emotion, burst into tears as ballot boxes were being sealed prompting an unplanned return to an uncomfortable-looking studio anchor.

This isn’t sour grapes talking (I’m a boycotter) but the elections were, as usual, fucking boring to cover.

Sharshar, who works in an NGO, was initially enthusiastic about telling leaflet-distributing candidates that they were in breach of the law (campaigning must stop 48 hours before the vote) but soon flagged when we realised that everyone was at it, at every polling station. Also, it’s difficult to make your voice heard when a man with a huge microphone erected on a car is calling on voters to elect such an such a candidate in between snatches of an Om Kalsoum disco remix.

In fact the only events of note and excitement on both days was firstly, when Sharshar’s hub cap was half ripped off in a minor brush with a taxi and, secondly, when we saw three youths on the back of a mini pick up truck stacked with huge speakers playing rousing Shaaby pop music as one of the youths again encouraged people to vote for Fulan El-Fulany.

Shagga3 el democratateya” (“Support democratety”) a weary Sharshar mocked.

ASIDE: I also had an interesting insight into the Egyptian education system in one polling station on the second day of elections.

It being a slow day the bored judge overseeing voting allowed us to lurk about at the entrance to the school room where civil servants sat amongst half filled ballot boxes imbibing refreshments and twiddling thumbs. I read the posters on the walls and saw a handwritten one reading thusly, in English:

Circle the longest words in the following paragraph.

The butcher was cutting meat when he saw the lion. While he was sitting in the café. The photographer was drinking tea.

The subliminal association of lions with photographers might explain several facets of the treatment of the press during the Mubarak regime and beyond.

The voters I spoke to voted either FJP, Nour or Wafd. Some were not voting at all, like a man in Shubra who said that you have to know “candidates’ CVs” in order to be able to vote and all he knows about them is what they look like, “not like the old days when you knew everyone” he said, somewhat wistfully.

A journalist colleague said that she voted for the list, but not the individual candidate because she was confronted with 136 names and didn’t know any of them.

Another woman I know, Samia, said that she and her daughter deliberately ruined their vote for the same reason, and that they only voted to avoid the possibility of being fined LE 500. Samia seemed disgusted by the imposters who stared out at her from the voting paper, one of whom she described as a stocky-looking woman called “Om Mohamed”.

“Who are all these people?? I have no idea who they are,” she said despairingly, adding that a polling station employee had watched her daughter ruin her vote (by drawing a big X through it) and praised her.