Burnt out cars, a pile of rubble outside a blacked shop front and an army checkpoint were just some of the obstacles that voters casting their ballot in a polling station off Tahrir Square had to negotiate on the first day of the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections yesterday.
But few seemed bothered as they strolled down Mansour Street past armoured personnel carriers and barricades coiled with razor wire and turned into Muhammad Mahmoud Street to vote. Both streets were the scenes of intense battles less than a week before. Although Sunday’s heavy rain had washed away the remnants of blood, the acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air. Undeterred, a steady flow of people turned out to vote at this polling station where queues were short and everything appeared to be going smoothly.
This was not the case in some other Cairo polling stations where lines of people began snaking around buildings even before doors had opened, the queues exacerbated by the late arrival of ballot papers and of the judges required to oversee the ballot.
‘I went to vote in Maadi twice yesterday but each time the lines were six blocks long so I didn’t bother,’ says corporate trainer Anal Ibrahim on the second day of polling. ‘Instead I went this morning at 6.30 am. The doors opened at 8 and it all went very smoothly.’
Cairo has not felt like a city gripped by election fever. Apart from a few placards and banners there has been little to suggest that this is a country on the verge of an historic election
For others it is not the queues that are the problem but the lack of information about what each of the parties stands for.
‘Waiting one hour or two hours to vote is not a problem for me,’ says Khaled El Adly a 28 year old mechanic standing in line in Shubra, a poor district of the city. ‘My problem is choosing who I will vote for. No-one has told us what they will do if they are in parliament. There were no meetings. No speeches. No papers.’
And for others the main issue of contention is the poor planning and coordination of the election itself.
‘I waited for three-and-a-half hours at a polling station in Zamalek only to find my ballot had not been stamped and that my vote would not count,’ says a man who works for a government department and chose not to give his name. ‘I’m very disappointed of course but I do not think this was deliberate, just the result of bad organization.’
Cairo has not felt like a city gripped by election fever. Apart from a few placards and banners there has been little to suggest that this is a country on the verge of an historic election. In Tahrir Square the crowd on the first day of the elections was much smaller than it had been on preceding days. There were still groups chanting and flags waving as well as clusters of people engaged in heated debate.
To vote or not to vote?
One of the central discussions among activists in Tahrir has been whether to boycott the elections. Would voting give legitimacy to an election that, no matter the result, will see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) retaining ultimate power? Or would opting out of the ballot open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to get an even larger majority of the vote than already predicted?
Other groups in Tahrir Square discuss the merits and composition of the proposed government of ‘national salvation,’ the way forward for the Tahrir-appointed civil presidential council chaired by Abdel Fotouh, Mohamed el-Baradei and Hossam Essa.
Feelings run high but despite differences of opinion all agreed that military rule must end and most agreed that the Tahrir Square occupation should continue until such time that it does.
‘To dismantle our tents before then would be to dismantle our hopes for a better future,’ says Mourad Haikal. ‘Whatever happens in the elections the important thing is that Tahrir should stay.’
This month’s return to Tahrir Square has not only succeeded in reawakening the spirit of defiance in Egypt and achieving some significant political gains but it has also cemented the position of Tahrir Square as a permanent practical and symbolic heart of the country’s freedom movement: a place to which people can always return and whose very existence will help shape Egyptian politics for generations to come.
The military leaders, no doubt fearful of being held to account for past crimes, are not going to hand over power readily
As prominent political activist Ahmed Abdel Maksood puts it, ‘the January revolution gave us the path. It showed us the way. We now have a weapon and that weapon is called Tahrir Square.’
There is nevertheless a long way to go. SCAF’s leaders, no doubt fearful of being held to account for past crimes, are not going to hand over power readily. Egypt’s leaderless revolution, so effective in overthrowing President Mubarak, has struggled to evolve a cohesive political leadership capable of challenging the organization and popularity of the Islamic parties at the ballot box. Ahmed Abel Maksood is confident that the FJP will win the most parliamentary seats but not gain an overall majority.
‘It is not because people believe in the principles they espouse,’ he says. ‘It is because Egyptians are a very religious people and the message the Brotherhood and Salafists are offering is “if you follow us, you are following God.”’
Although they claim to believe in pluralism and democratic politics, Maksood fears that the Islamic parties are attempting to ‘kill democracy by democracy’; namely by attempting to win a parliamentary majority by democratic means and then amending the constitution to usher in an Islamic State.
‘We must be patient. This stage of the revolution will not be over in eighteen days,’ one young woman tells a group in Tahrir Square. Her nostrils are clogged with tissue to soak up the blood from a nose bleed caused by inhaling tear gas some days earlier. Listening is a man who lost an eye to police bird shot last Tuesday. Beside her a vendor sells gas masks and nearby donors give blood in the field hospital beside the Mosque.
In the distance a young girl sits on her father’s shoulders chanting: ‘Be strong my country. Your labour maybe painful but the child you will bear will be called “Freedom”’.