Egypt's Vote Puts Tahrir Square in Perspective

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Goran Tomasevi / Reuters

Egyptian voters queue outside a polling station in the working-class Shubra district in Cairo on Nov. 28, 2011

"This is not supposed to happen," said Mahmoud Salem, the blogger and parliamentary candidate otherwise known as Sandmonkey, as he stood in line outside a packed polling station in the upper-middle-class Cairo district of Heliopolis on Monday morning. The source of Salem's distress was the man walking along the queue of a couple hundred prospective voters, handing out fliers for a candidate from the Wafd Party. Another man hung campaign posters across the street, while a block away, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) ran an information booth for anyone who was confused. "The last two days, you weren't supposed to be campaigning at all," said Salem, 30. "But it was a festival of campaigning."

Monday's parliamentary election — the first relatively free, democratic race in Egypt's history, and perhaps the biggest bellwether of a long and turbulent Arab Spring — rang in harsh truths for some, a tide of satisfaction and new hopes for others.

A little less than one-third of Egypt's 85 million citizens live in the regions eligible to vote in this first round of polling. In sharp contrast to the violence and ballot stuffing that made so many of the elections staged by ousted President Hosni Mubarak a sham that few bothered to participate, many thousands of Egyptians stepped up to vote for the first time in their lives on Monday. In many districts, lines stretched around the block, inching slowly forward, the men and women ever determined to reach their goal. "This is the first time for us to elect," said Mohamed Ismail, an FJP supporter who was voting in a middle-class neighborhood of downtown Cairo. Ismail works in Kuwait but had returned home to engage in this act of democratic citizenship.

Still, to observers — and, indeed, many voters — it was a messy success. To accommodate a population still reeling from more than a week of heavy protests and clashes, Egypt's military rulers extended the voting period in an already drawn-out process to two days per phase — turning the election for just one house of Parliament into a convoluted nine-day process that will drag on until January. Many voters, confused about polling stations or even the basic rules of voting, complained of government hotlines that didn't work, and some scrambled for advice from parties. Ballot boxes remain in the polling stations overnight — a ready-made opportunity for ballot stuffing, some fear.

And for many of the liberal youth activists who at one point claimed leadership of the revolution, the election felt like an all-important hurdle that had come a moment too soon. "I still believe we should have postponed it for one week until things calm down," said Salem. "It feels wrong to vote when the people who fought to get us this right to vote are getting killed and injured, and no one is held accountable for it."

Only a few thousand demonstrators continued to occupy Tahrir Square on Monday, where hundreds of thousands had massed since Nov. 19, calling for an immediate end to the military rule that replaced Mubarak and the appointment of a civilian government with the power to oversee a transition to democracy. Some demonstrators boycotted Monday's polls, others stood in line only to write rebellious commentary in the margins of their ballots. And even for those, like Salem, who willingly made the jump from anti-Mubarak youth activist to active participant in the democratic experiment, the latter carried plenty of disappointment. "I think everyone pretty much has a name, but they're not sure what the name stands for," he said of voter selection inside the polls. "We don't have enough time to talk to the people, and they don't have enough time to know who we are."

Indeed, many voters expressed only a vague resolve to select one party or candidate over another; some citing only name recognition as their reason. To accommodate a high rate of illiteracy and similar names, each candidate is matched with a symbol. But in Salem's district alone, there are 94 candidates — so many that one candidate is represented by a desktop computer while another, Salem, by a laptop. "Vote for the scissors!" one man yelled to a queue of voters outside one Cairo polling station.

Standing in line in the relatively wealthy district of Heliopolis, Salem turned to the voters behind him. "If anyone knows anything about the other 95 candidates, say something," he said to the group of strangers. "God knows," somebody else replied.

For those who weren't sure, the Muslim Brotherhood was ready. At most polling stations on Monday, the Islamist group's FJP had set up a help desk, reprising the role that is the source of its grassroots popularity — providing the social services that the government had failed to provide. "The government made a site on the Internet, where you can enter your national ID to find your polling station. But many people in Egypt don't know how to use the Internet, so we made this for them," explained Mustafa Qabil, a volunteer at a FJP station in south Cairo that included seven laptop-computer help stations set up inside a tent. In some districts, the party even provided volunteers to maintain order in the queues.

Amr Hamzawy, a prominent liberal intellectual and one of Salem's rival candidates in Heliopolis, made a point of stopping to yell at every FJP booth he came upon as he circulated in the district. At one polling station, he pleaded with an electoral-committee official to refer the Brotherhood's election-day campaigning to the electoral commission. "To be honest with you," the official replied, "They can't do anything either. You can't control the street."

Indeed, Monday's vote may prove to be a vindication of the Egyptian street — but not, perhaps, the street that Tahrir activists such as Salem or Hamzawy had imagined. Spurred by months of organized campaigning and years of grassroots outreach, supporters of the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties turned out in force.

"Elections are going great. There are no thugs, no violence," said a woman wearing a full-face veil, who gave her name as Um Abdallah. Like most Egyptians voting on Monday, she said she never voted in prior elections, held under Mubarak. "Our voices wouldn't have gone to those who deserve it," she said. But the revolution, she said, had ushered in new freedoms and new opportunities, a chance for Egypt to finally choose leaders who express its character and ambition.

"What I'm looking for is someone honest — not someone who's going to take money from the people, and not someone who's just going to sit in the chair and forget about the people," added Abdallah's friend, waiting in line behind her in the working-class Cairo district of Shubra. "The people in Tahrir are not all Egyptians, by the way," she added. "They're paid to be there." — With reporting by Robin Al Kayyali / Cairo