Egypt has seen the initial round of its first supposed ‘free and open’ elections. Following a week of violence that saw a 120-hour battle between the Egyptian state forces and the protesters on Tahrir, up until the last minute, voters, judges, candidates and journalists weren’t sure the elections would go ahead.
“I haven’t even put up a quarter of my campaign posters”, said Gamila Ismail, an independent parliamentary candidate for the area surrounding Tahrir, the night before elections took place. “People are lost, they don’t know if voting an independent is a vote worth making.”
The judges running the polling stations were reportedly given the final list of candidates and the amount of ballot paper a few hours before the stations were due to open. On Sunday night people exchanged frantic Twitter messages asking for maps, as the election website went down.
Tension was high as fights broke out in the constituencies. At least two parliamentary candidates were attacked. One, Refaat El-Basyouni, was hospitalised, another candidate’s son was stabbed to death whilst he was putting up his father’s campaign material.
However Monday and Tuesday went ahead as planned. There was a heavy military and police presence. Long queues of voters were seen at many polling stations. Turnout is expected to have been over 70%.
In comparison to last year’s elections, which saw at least eight deaths, the first two days of the voting process, which will take over a month, have been comparatively quiet.
Nevertheless as the sit-in continued on Tahrir, candidates pulled out, polling stations opened late or were closed and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) turned out in full force, it was clear that Egypt’s first foray into ‘democracy’ had not been plain sailing.
“I’ve boycotted the elections since last Friday”, said Shady Essam, 26, a parliamentary candidate in Mansoura, whose brother Ramy (known as the singer of the Egyptian revolution) was detained and tortured by the army back in March.
Aside from the excessive use of violence against protesters by the police force and the army, which saw over 40 people killed and thousands injured, Shady was increasingly concerned by the laws regulating the elections and the power the new parliament will have. “The legislation gives the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and the felool (ex-regime remnants) power to take a large part of the parliament”, he explained.
The constitutional declaration, a document penned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in place of a full constitution, is also a worry, Shady explained. “Article 58 of the declaration essentially states that the SCAF have legislative, executive and judicial authority over parliament and the people. Even emperors don’t have this power.”
In the SCAF’s 28th communiqué to the people, Shady explains, they promised to hand over power within six months to a civilian government, which they haven’t. Emergency law was supposedly reduced to six months, again a promise they failed to deliver. “They make a referendum but do not fullfill it and after that they kill us. We need a new government with full authority and full power, then I will run in elections.”
Those boycotting the elections face a dilemma. Monday and Tuesday saw a strong Islamist presence at the polling stations. I witnessed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) members (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) with laptops outside at least one station, taking down people’s ID numbers and ‘showing’ them how to vote.
Campaign flyering in the queues (an illegal activity) was also prolific. In Alexandria, journalists reported Muslim Brotherhood representatives handing out toys to children as the parents voted. There were also instances of the Muslim Brotherhood giving food to voters.
“With the events on Tahrir, yes, the credibility of the FJP has been questioned”, said Hossam, 39, head of Egypt’s wing of Allianz insurance company who I met in a Down Town polling station. Despite the events in the last week and going to a French Catholic school, he was voting FJP, “They have a good plan for the country”, he explained.
This sentiment was repeated by a lot of the voters I spoke to, many of whom didn’t know anything about the alternatives in their area, such as the independent candidates. Campaign time has been short and interrupted by major clashes between protesters and the SCAF.
Certainly, this was a sentiment shared by some of the protesters I spoke to. “After the massacre I wasn’t going to vote, it took me four days to decide what to do”, adds Rahim Hamada a 30-year-old photographer who has been sleeping on Tahrir for most of the week. “Boycotting is the right thing to do but if this parliament is responsible for writing the constitution I don’t want it to be written in an Islamic way.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to win, he added, “if they left their brothers dying in the streets [of Mohamed Mahmoud] to win the elections they’ll do anything.”
There was not enough support for the boycott, explained Gamila Ismail who postponed her campaign for a few days following the violence but decided to run in the end. ‘My constituency is Tahrir, I consider myself a revolutionary candidate,’ she said, “We need to find a way to take the revolutionary ideas and make sure they spread widely.”
Despite being the scene of some of the worst state-led violence since the 18 days, there were diminished numbers on Tahrir during Monday and Tuesday voting periods.
Nevertheless the five-day battle on Tahrir has done damage to the Muslim Brotherhood’s reputation.
From the beginning of the sit-in the MB made an official statement saying they would not be joining those on the square. They have been accused of working very closely with the SCAF. MB members who participated, like Magdy, a protester who was arrested and tortured by the army and police a few days ago, were told that their membership would be reconsidered if they continued to stay.
During his detention, the Central Security Forces called numbers in his phone, including Muslim Brotherhood members, to tell friends and family that he had died. MB representatives phoned his wife to say that, if he was in fact dead, she wasn’t allowed to say he was a member, they had disowned him.
“As far as the Islamic revolutionaries are concerned, people who used to love the FJP do not so much now”, Magdy added. He was going to vote FJP but has since changed his mind.
What is being referred to as ‘the second wave of revolution’ in Tahrir is facing other problems aside from the elections. As witnessed during the previous sit-in of July/August, it is clear that non-revolutionary groups have infiltrated the square again.
There are reports of women being sexually assaulted. Last night the ‘midan security’ forcibly removed the street vendors from the square by attacking them with large sticks. Protesters told me that both the vendors and the security forces had been permeated by secret police and thugs.
Groups of ‘baltagiya’, who were initially thought to be the vendors retaliating, then turned up under 6th of October Bridge at around 11pm. There was a several hour battle with rocks, Molotov cocktails and reportedly gunfire. ‘I think the square has been infiltrated since Thursday,’ says Nazly, 28 a protester on Tahrir who, together with another girl, was beaten up on Mohamed Mahmoud street a week ago. ‘I’m convinced those who attacked me were thugs posing as the Popular Committee. A lot of the harassment has been very systematic. It’s deliberate tactic to break up the sit-in.’
As the thug-led violence on the square escalates, people tend to go home, leaving the square vulnerable to attack from the SCAF. This happened on the 1st of August when the diminished numbers on the square were forcibly cleared by army and police working together.
“We’ve been under the SCAF’s rule for 9 months. The police hasn’t changed, nothing’s changed, people say their opinion and get arrested” said Khaled Said’s mother, whose son’s death inspired the Egyptian revolution in January. “Last year’s elections are being repeated all over again. It’s worse than Mubarak’s time. We need to stay together, we need to stay strong.”