Millions of Egyptians “swarmed to the polls” today to vote in the first election since the Jasmine protests that ended Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule.
“So far, it is the best election that Egypt has witnessed in the last 60 years,” said Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “There is a very impressive turnout and equally impressive is how people are behaving in a very civil way.”
The celebrated dissident and sociologist heads the Ibn Khaldun Center, which mobilized some 9,000 activists to observe the poll.
“It’s easy to predict this will be a higher turnout than any recent election in Egypt,” said Les Campbell, of the US-based National Democratic Institute. “We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation.”
The ruling military initially refused to permit foreigners to monitor the poll but eventually relented, allowing democracy assistance groups such as NDI, the International Republican Institute,* the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and several other foreign groups to “witness” the process.
Voters’ biggest complaint was the long wait, AP reports, but there were also clear irregularities, notably illegal campaigning outside polling stations:
Supporters of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood’s political arm, were seen with laptop computers helping voters with information on where they should cast their ballots but writing the information on large cards with the party logo on one side and the name and photos of its candidates on the other. Party supporters also appeared to be allowed to maintain security at some places or help the elderly vote.
One group in particular was guilty of electoral violations, said Amr Hamzawy, a founder and candidate of the liberal Egypt Freedom party.
“It’s primarily coming from the Muslim Brotherhood who have been violating the rules and regulations of the high elections commission,” he said. “But we are reporting all these irregularities to authorities. Today I feel confident that this was the right thing to do, and I feel very hopeful.”
The high turnout reflects voters’ repudiation of the Tahrir Square demonstrators’ politics of permanent protest, said veteran democracy advocate Hisham Kassem.
“This is the end of Tahrir today,” he said. “The [protesters] that are trying to hijack political will … now they are a minority.”
“This is a vote of confidence,” Kassem said of the turnout.
Instead, voters in Egypt talked of duty and defiance, of a determination to exercise the rights they believed their revolution had earned them even though few expressed much confidence in the integrity of the vote count. At a polling place in the Cairo neighborhood of Shobra, voters laughed at their own stubborn determination to cast ballots they had little faith would make a difference: “If a sick person is dying,” ran a joke making its way down the queue, “you still have to get him to the hospital.”
Egyptian public opinion is sharply polarized, with 32% of poll respondents likely to vote for an Islamic party, 30% for a liberal party, 11% for a pan-Arab party and 10% for a nationalist party, according to the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center survey.
But the Brookings poll is conducted in urban centers and other accounts suggest that the election may allow Egypt’s largely conservative rural voters to empower the country’s two largest illiberal blocs. As this Wall Street Journal report observes:
….as in much of rural Egypt, two political forces appear poised to dominate Monday’s parliamentary vote, just as they have for much of the past century: the Muslim Brotherhood and a small clique of powerful families, feudal landowners with longstanding ties to the former ruling party and security services.
The host of new parties that have sprung up since the revolution, including the leading Liberal secular parties and those most representative of the youth leaders who sparked Egypt’s uprising in January and have occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the past nine days, have barely penetrated the popular consciousness here.
Some observers fear that voters will have been confused by the overly complex electoral system, comprising individuals and party lists, independent candidates contesting one-third of parliament’s 498 seats, two-thirds reserved for winning party lists and half of the seats reserved for farmers and workers.
“I expected to go in and see party affiliations or ‘individual’ next to names, but it was just a bunch of names and symbols,” said one voter. “When I saw the candidates list, I had the same feeling as an exam at school — where you didn’t study a chapter because you didn’t think it you would be tested on it.”
The process may not only confuse voters, but could also lead some to question the results, said Mazen Hassan, a political scientist at Cairo University.
“We’ve moved from probably the simplest form, which was a majoritarian system, to probably the most complex of electoral systems, which is a mixed system,” he said.
“There are mathematical calculations that everyday Egyptians won’t be able to follow,” he said. “If justice needs to be watched and understood, that will be difficult. Not all people will understand how votes translate into seats.”
While some accounts suggest that secular and liberal parties could perform beyond expectations, Egypt’s democrats have been unable to match the Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational prowess.
“The Brotherhood has been organizing for over 30 years. There are 5,000 schools [polling stations] in Alexandria, and the Brotherhood has six people at each one,” said Hazem Hilal, a candidate with the Kotla coalition of largely secular parties.
“This parliament will only be for one or one and a half years, and its main goal will be to write a constitution,” he said. “People are divided. If the constitution will not serve a (secular) country, then we have failed in this battle.”
The Brotherhood — once banned, but now Egypt’s best-organized political force — faces competition from Islamic-oriented parties both to its right (founded by the ultraconservatives known as Salafis) and to its left (the Center Party and the Egyptian Current, each founded by moderate former Brotherhood members).
Among the liberals, there are two major coalitions. One, the Egyptian Bloc, is an anti-Islamist alliance of culturally liberal parties with economic policies ranging from business-friendly to state-run socialist. The other, the Revolution Continues Alliance, includes the Egyptian Current and a party founded by young leaders of the revolution. And there are many smaller parties and a profusion of 6,000 candidates for about 500 seats.
But the Tahrir Square protesters have inadvertently strengthened the Islamists and the armed forces, a leading activist tells The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl, while stubbornly clinging to the activists’ vanguardist delusions:
Ghazali Harb ruefully concedes that the “second wave” so far has only strengthened the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — which has refused to participate in the new demonstrations. “Those who are in Tahrir Square have gotten nothing from the second wave so far,” he said. “So it gives us reason to stay.”
The organizers’ theory is that revolutions are made by an active minority, not the larger masses that may turn out to vote for the Islamists or stay home. “The square represents those who are the central mass who can move the whole country,” said the 32-year-old organizer. “This is the 12 million that can move the 80 million.”
The Brotherhood is benefitting from its strategic patience, its long-term presence in the poorest neighborhoods, and its provision of welfare assistance which directly addresses the material needs – the dignity agenda – of ordinary Egyptians.
“They are the biggest party because have served society for a long time, even during the days of repression,” said Yasser Talaat, waiting to vote in southern Cairo. “The liberals are on television and in the newspapers, but the Islamists are working in the street. I am giving them my vote.”
The Islamists’ superior organization has been in evidence on the pavements polling stations, where the [Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party] had positioned representatives with laptops who searched the electoral data base to help direct voters to where they are registered to cast their ballots. They also gave advice to illiterate and undecided voters—something which critics say amounts to influencing the vote.
Supporters of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party reportedly voted in large numbers, prompting some observers “to expect that the democratization of Egypt will bring a government far more conservative than Mubarak’s.”
The Brotherhood claims to respect democratic principles and procedures, and it has hinted that it would collaborate with other parties in framing Egypt’s new constitution should it emerge as the leading party.
But the Islamists practice a double discourse, said veteran dissident Hisham Kassem. The former publisher of Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s largest independent newspaper suggests that the Brotherhood’s commitment to pluralism will prove to be short-lived and paper-thin.
“In the past, Mubarak’s opposition, where I come from, did not trust the Brotherhood because of their track record of reneging on deals,” he said. “Once they are in a position of power, their discourse changes completely, and their attitude in negotiations.”
* NDI and IRI are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.