Published on Arab Voices

Egypt's elections: A would-be voter's trip to the polls

ImageYesterday was a special day for many Egyptians. In our district, it was the day you could vote for your district representative in Parliament, something you could never really do before. Well, that's not exactly true. Under the old regime you could vote for your district representative, but he would be from Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) and win with 99 percent of the vote. At least, that's what would happen in our district, exactly the same way the President would win with 99 percent of the vote. To me, this was always an amazing outcome since I never knew anyone who voted, and I never voted either. For 30-plus years during Mubarak's time no one voted, but the same NDP people always won and by a huge margin. But, that was then and now is now. Since everyone was touting that parliamentary elections this time would be free and fair, I decided to go vote and see for myself.A bit of background before I tell my story. Most Egyptians like myself never voted for anyone or anything.  Like me, all my friends had never seen a polling station, never registered to vote, and never really had a voice. So, the concept that I actually was going to vote was in itself very daunting.But, who do you vote for? Do you vote for a block of people, or individuals? And, these blocks, and these individuals, what do they stand for? What are their beliefs? How would they work to improve my district and the lives of the people in it?  How can you get all this information with so many candidates running? I figured it was time to do some research and where better to begin than the internet. Quickly, I discovered that there was a government web site explaining how you can nominate yourself for a seat in parliament, how you can register to vote if you just want to participate, and where your nearest polling station is.Very organized I thought, very professional, minus some spelling mistakes, links that wouldn't open, and a browser that was consistently telling me that downloads from this polling site were full of computer viruses that blocked me from going further. This site, too, for both nominees and voters, had lots of rules. There was so much in there about what you could and couldn't do, it somehow didn't feel very democratic. For example, one rule for nominees was you could identify yourself in three ways: by name, by a voter number that voters could select if they wanted to vote for you, or by a symbol for people who want to vote for you who can't read or write. And, when it came to symbols the voting committee website was clear, you couldn't pick an animal. Yes, no animal symbols at all.Well, shucks. There went my opportunity to finally vote for the guy whose symbol was a camel. In the NDP days, the guy that always won used the symbol of the camel and what better way to attract Egyptian voters than that. And, having the camel symbol next to your name signified you were a true Egyptian with things like lions and giraffes seeming so distant and foreign to who we are.With over 50 percent of Egyptians  being illiterate, the use of symbols in the voting process carries a high level of importance. But, since nominees can't use animal symbols, they were forced to be a little more creative.So, the choices voters in my district were given covered the spectrum of the following symbols that were in and of themselves very telling:The tank: Likely an ex-military guy and for me, my first vote ever wouldn't be for a candidate from the military, thank you very much.The handcuffs: Likely an ex-policeman.  No police candidates either, I'll pass on that one too.The camera:  An ex-intelligence officer. Enough said.  
The wrench: Likely a union guy appealing to blue collar workers. Not a guy I can likely identify with.
The dress: OK, a veiled female candidate. Interesting, it would be nice to have more women in the Egyptian parliament.
The pants: Alright, what does this mean?  A guy who wants more pants than dresses in Parliament? Definitely, not getting my vote.
The light bulb: Here we go. A bearded religious zealot who wants to show me the way.  
The palm tree: OK, no beard and he looks more religiously tolerant. At least his symbol, like the camel, signifies a candidate who is truly a moderate middle of the road Egyptian. A definite maybe there.Additional browsing helped me to understand a few more things that seemed interesting. One, I couldn't vote on-line, a second, as I browsed more pages, it seemed that on-line at least it was the religious right that had the most developed web content, and a relatively well-developed concept of how they would govern.  Scary yes, but at least they were being transparent about who they were and their intent.Not being able to vote on-line meant I had to go to our polling station, only about 15 minutes from our house. Voting was to be in a school that was close by and to open at 9:00 am. The polls would close at 7:00 pm.I arrived at the polling station at about 2:00 pm only to find a line that would likely keep me there past closing. Darn it, I said to myself, what if I don't get in?  But, quickly we were all reassured that all those in line would get in regardless of closing times. The long-bearded man behind me in a white galabaya said to me "You see democracy never closes." I nodded my head in complete agreement with his bold observation.As we got closer to the polling station the atmosphere got more festive. The light bulb guy had a kiosk giving people free sandwiches. And, it was tameya, too (cooked beans and salad falafel), what a real treat. You got the sandwich with no sell job, and since the light bulb was the religious zealot guy, I was impressed.A little further up, the palm tree guy was giving out dried fruit, dates not being one of them. Odd I figured, but maybe they were out of season, or just too expensive.The white galabaya guy, eating the last bite of his tameya sandwich, asked me if he could have mine too. I passed it back and he was most appreciative. He said "Thanks brother you don't strike me like the kind of guy that would eat tameya anyway. You were going to throw it away weren't you?" And, then he went on to ask me if I was Egyptian and I reaffirmed to him I was. He seemed relived and said "Good, I sure didn't want you to stand here all this time only to be told only Egyptians can vote."  I guess to him I seemed a bit out of place.The veiled lady in front then took her opportunity to turn around and say to me "Vote for the light bulb he won't be corrupt like the others.  He is a man of God." But, the galabaya guy behind me said he would have none of it. He told her off quickly and said it was against the rules to try and influence others in line. He closed his scathing remarks by saying "I'm voting for the light bulb too and so are most people here, but please let this kind brother make up his own mind." The veiled lady never spoke again.In the remaining hours that passed more food and soft drinks followed which all seemed to go to the galabaya guy without question.But, now I was only a few people away from casting my vote. Who was I going to pick?  I figured it didn't matter because I had a choice. My leaning was the palm tree, or maybe the dress, but spontaneity would decide it.Then, I was called to the front of the line, by then realizing virtually everyone was picking the light bulb. But, that's OK, this is democracy. Maybe he wouldn't be my choice, but we all had a choice and the majority wins.Finally, as I handed my registration to the guy at the desk he gave me a look that clearly told me something was wrong. My national ID card was for our old address, not in this voting district. He explained that if my voter registration and my ID card didn't match, I couldn't vote. Oh, what a right mess.As I walked out of the school having still not tasted the experience of having my voice heard, the galabaya guy came up from behind me and said "I told you only Egyptians can vote."I said nothing, but somehow the whole experience left me feeling very out of place. The light bulb guy was going to win by a huge margin and to me this wasn't the Egypt that I had hoped it would become. The galabaya guy left me with one final pearl of wisdom as he walked away, "Welcome to the new Egypt brother and you better learn quickly how to adapt. And, thanks a lot for the tameya."What a nice guy.


Khaled Sherif

Chief Administrative Officer

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000