In a Surprise, Calm Prevails in Egypt’s Elections
By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
November 28, 2011
CAIRO — Unexpectedly large crowds of Egyptians on Monday defied predictions of bedlam and violence to cast their votes in the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The apparent success of the initial voting surprised the voters themselves. After a week of violent demonstrations against the interim military rulers, many said they had cast their ballots out of a sense of duty and defiance, determined to reclaim the promise of their revolution, even as the ruling generals said they intended to share little power with the new Parliament.
“The revolution started so that our voice has a value, so we have to do what we are supposed to do,” said Lilian Rafat, 23, who stood in line for more than four hours, even though she put the chances of a legitimate result at only about “50 percent.”
But the large turnout on Monday, despite long delays and sporadic violence, raised the possibility that when the last phase of voting is completed in March, the process may result in the first broadly representative Parliament in more than six decades. The opening appeared to bring the Muslim Brotherhood, a once-outlawed Islamist group, one step closer to a formal role in governing Egypt. And, for the first time in 10 months, it offered the promise of moving the debate over Egypt’s future off the streets and into the new legislature.
For now, though, the act of voting itself appeared to vent to the public’s anger after a week of clashes that brought hundreds of thousands out in Cairo to demand that the military hand over power to a civilian government. Abandoning talk of a boycott, protest leaders urged supporters to go to the polls. And the diversion, along with a swell of pride in the historic vote, drained the continuing occupation of Tahrir Square to just a few thousand demonstrators.
“It is like a play, it is like a sham. We are pretending to be voting,” said Rabab Abdel Fattah Mohamed, 30, a doctor demonstrating in Tahrir Square. “I know these elections don’t mean anything, but I am still going.”
The military pointed to the seemingly successful vote as validation. Egyptian state television called the turnout a mark of approval for the military’s current transition timetable: transfer to an elected president by July, after the military has had a chance to shape the writing of a new constitution that it has suggested should enshrine its power and autonomy from civilian government.
“We are betting on the Egyptian people,” said Gen. Ibrahim Massouhy, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as he visited a polling place in Shoubra, a neighborhood of Cairo. “We know our people very well. That is why we are insisting on elections,” he said, calling the day a triumph.
But some voters said they hoped an elected Parliament could stand up to the military council, and some activists insisted that the new body would become their most potent tool.
“Candidates do not go through this whole process just to become pictures on the wall,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. “The legitimacy of being elected will allow them to start a political conflict with SCAF,” he said, referring to the military council.
The outcome is not a foregone conclusion and final results remain months away. Some warned that violence and fraud were still possible. The first round of voting for the lower house — including the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria — will continue Tuesday. After a runoff next week, two more rounds will follow, ending in January. The elections for the upper house are scheduled to start in January and be completed by March.
Adding to the uncertainty of the day, the Egyptian authorities suggested that they might fine people about $80 if they failed to vote. Some voters, like Wael Ashraf, 23, said that was why they had come to the polls. “The revolution didn’t help — do you think elections will?” he said.
Many polling places around Cairo, Alexandria and other cities opened hours late because ballots, voter rolls or supervising judges failed to arrive — in some cases, not until 6:30 p.m. At least 11 polling places in the cities of Cairo and Fayoum did not open at all, according to the Web site of the state-run newspaper Al Ahram. And many places stayed open hours after polls were supposed to close to give voters a longer chance to vote.
Al Ahram reported that judges in some polling places donated ink and wax (to seal the ballot boxes) because the authorities had failed to supply them. In at least one poorer neighborhood near Cairo, soldiers fired into the air to disperse an angry crowd trying to get in to vote. There were also reports of scattered clashes, including a dispute in Asyut in the south that led the family of a candidate to burn down a polling place and kidnap a judge.
The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated unrivaled organization and sophistication. Teams of young members sat with laptop computers at strategic points, such as outside mosques, around Cairo to help voters locate their polling places, helping anyone but providing the information on slips of paper advertising their candidates.
Lines of as many as a dozen Brotherhood members wearing the insignia of the group’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party stood outside polling places to help maintain security, and in some places they performed services such as walking elderly women to designated lines.
The party’s secretary general, Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, said on Monday night that 40,000 members had turned out to secure polling places in Cairo, and afterward members volunteered to clean up the litter left behind.
In the Islamist stronghold of Alexandria and elsewhere, the Brotherhood is competing with several new parties established by the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis. Less organized and new to the political scene, the Salafis’ relative strength is one of the major questions hanging over the polls. Egyptian law requires parties to nominate female candidates, and many of the ones on Salafi lists put a picture of a flower instead of their face on their campaign fliers, deferring to conservative Islamic notions of modesty.
Several liberal parties are competing in two main coalitions. But most suspended or slowed their campaigns to focus on last week’s protests, potentially falling behind as the Brotherhood sprinted on toward the vote.
Although the Brotherhood declined to join the protests to avoid any delays in the elections, its leaders have said they intend to use any seats they gain in Parliament as a platform to continue pushing for the military’s speedy exit. So, the completion of the elections could restore the unity of liberal and Islamist calls for the generals to leave power.
Of course, in most places incumbents — former members of Mr. Mubarak’s party — are also running, hoping past patronage and name recognition will overcome anger at their association with the old government.
As voters stood in long lines at the polls, the potential for a democracy to flourish under military rule set off as much discussion as the contest between parties. “We are asking for change, so we have to convey our feelings,” said one woman, putting the chances of a credible election at about “75 percent.”
“No, no, no!” said Magda Mokabel, 39, waiting nearby. “There is no justice, no integrity, no confidence,” she said. “But I came because then I will have done my duty, so I will ask to claim my rights.”
Mayy el Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo, and Liam Stack from Alexandria, Egypt.