A Voter’s Lament

Egypt's ruling generals may claim the ballot has been a success, but the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square know different.


Egypt’s elections weren’t supposed to be this way.

Our first "post-revolution" (sigh…) elections were supposed to be free. The overwhelmingly young people who led the January and February uprising would lead the nation into a future of freedom and justice, a nation for all its citizens, equal before the law. People would work together to eradicate corruption, poverty, sexual harassment, discrimination, petty crime — traffic, even. The sky seemed to be the limit. Today is the Icarian crash landing.

I wasn’t supposed to hear a candidate talk about "courting the Christian lobby’s vote" or some acquaintances talk about voting for the Muslim Brotherhood because they want someone "who can stand up to the Christians who want to take over the country."

These elections weren’t supposed to occur as we suffer under the military boot — one that even the most committed revolutionaries among us have no clear idea how to remove. One that has handpicked a 78-year old former Mubarak-era prime minister who, as I write, is reported to be mulling the re-appointment of a number of ministers who were in office when the January 25th revolution began.

They shouldn’t be taking place as families bury children who died over the course of the past week, when clashes with the army-backed police forces killed over 40 and injured more than 1,000 protesters who have demanded the end of the military rule and an immediate transfer of power to a civilian government.

They shouldn’t occur while bloggers like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Maikel Nabil, and scores of other civilian prisoners unjustly languish in military jails on trumped-up charges. On Sunday, the day before the elections, Alaa’s case was referred to an ad hoc "emergency" court and his detention was extended by a further 15 days, while Maikel, on his 99th day of a hunger strike, saw his retrial further postponed to Dec. 4. He currently survives on milk and juice.

Debates among activists who led the revolutionary movement about whether the election would legitimize military rule and whether to boycott had been raging for days before polls opened Monday. (My take: it might, yes; and no, I am not boycotting, though I hesitated long and hard.)

I did not want to vote, but felt I had to. After a sleepless night, I went to vote Monday morning, and stood in line for three hours, during which I witnessed a series of violations.

Many candidates were distributing flyers outside my polling station in Heliopolis, a quaint, middle-class and relatively politically liberal neighborhood in the east of Cairo. Some volunteer "popular committee for election security," with the army and police’s explicit approval, were organizing the lines while handing out flyers for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The FJP had set up a full-fledged booth 10 meters away from the station, despite rules forbidding any campaigning within 100 meters of the polls. (When I asked both the army general in charge of security outside and the judge supervising the vote inside the station, both told me a variant of: "It makes little difference, people here know what they’re voting for anyway." That might be true for my educated neighborhood, but is it the case everywhere?)

Inside the polling station, where two well-meaning polling officials insisted that I stand and fill my ballots on the window sill "to save time," I insisted on doing it behind the metal curtain set up for this purpose, but saw (and photographed) many people who agreed to the window sill. I cast my vote as instructed for two individual candidates, one of whom had to be a "farmer" or a "laborer" due to an archaic but impossible to abrogate system, and for one party list. After dipping my finger in the purple ink, I sat in the station for a while to observe (with the permission of the judge), then made my way out with a heavy heart.

Although many are hailing Egypt’s first free and fair parliamentary elections as a triumph for democracy, we have little to celebrate. Sure, the process was procedurally sound, and an election without the autocratic National Democratic Party that once dominated all political life here is worth taking part in. But rather than being about selecting a strong legislative body, these elections were an exercise in damage control. Many of us simply chose the least bad candidate, and sought to ensure that no dogmatic and divisive party dominates an assembly that will have little authority but will be tasked, through designating a 100-member committee, with drafting the country’s new constitution.

These were not the elections we dreamed of, or for which we fought, bled, and lost hundreds of noble souls for — most recently, people like 19-year-old Ahmed Sorour, who died under the wheels of a police armored vehicle during a sit-in on Saturday, or Rania Fouad, a volunteer doctor who was tending to patients in a makeshift "field hospital" in Tahrir Square on Wednesday when it sustained a teargas attack. Fouad went into a coma and died after the police prevented her colleagues from evacuating her.

A few hundred meters from Tahrir Square, where dozens of tents remain, a sit-in continues by the prime minister’s office. The few stalwart revolutionaries there are challenging the legitimacy of an army appointmented government, demanding an end to military rule.

For those of us who reluctantly took part in this electoral exercise, we did so not to legitimize continued military rule or that of its favored civilian appointees: warmed-over bureaucrats from the Mubarak era. We voted because these are our elections, not the generals’, nor the upstart politicians’, nor the religious parties’. We voted because our love for Egypt means that we will make our voices heard, come what may.

Now, with inked fingers, it’s back to the streets to protest. Minutes ago, a case brought against the Egyptian military by 25-year old Samira Ibrahim, who in the spring was subjected to the infamous and barbaric "virginity tests," was postponed until late December. A march in her support is planned for this afternoon.

The celebration will have to wait.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the founder of OXCON, a consulting firm focusing on fragile and post-conflict countries. He is also a non-resident Fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in DC, and cofounder of Afrilanthropy, a philanthropic advisory firm.

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