international analysis and commentary

The ballot’s message to Tahrir Square

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“Take it or leave it”. This is the way Hazem Mounir, director of the National Council for Human Rights, described the atmosphere surrounding the beginning of parliamentary elections in Egypt, on November 28, following clashes between protesters and the army in Tahrir Square.  The high electoral turnout the next day, which reached 52%, seems to confirm the Egyptians’ willingness to take the chance to cast their first “free and fair” vote in the post-Mubarak era.  

This first stage of the election process represented an important step forward from the widespread use of physical intimidation in past election cycles. Indeed, these have always discouraged the majority of citizens from voting: in 2005, the turnout was as low as 25%; in 2010, it did not even reach 20%.

Moreover, the presence of judges supervising the electoral process – rather than government officials – definitely helped to increase voters’ confidence in the election’s fairness. This element, coupled with the demise of the Mubarak regime, encouraged many Egyptians to cast their votes for the first time in their lives.

Some violations, naturally, did take place. These were documented by the National Committee for Human Rights and by the Ibn Khaldun Center, which coordinated 1,800 election monitors in collaboration with 36 different human rights associations. The violations ranged from party activists campaigning inside polling stations to veiled women casting multiple ballots.  Nevertheless, the scale of the violations does not appear so significant as to undermine the legitimacy of the elections. 

Fayoum is a rural area 100 km away from Cairo, characterized by strong conservative tendencies. I was stationed there by the Ibn Khaldun Center to observe the elections. This experience provides some important insights into the current status of Egyptian political life outside Cairo.

In several polling stations, for example, many voters – especially the elderly – did not understand how to cast their ballots. Most of the time, in fact, the judge had to intervene and actually cast the ballot himself after asking the voter his or her preference. Numerous voters entered the polling station holding an electoral flyer received just minutes before, while others were willfully misled when they asked for help to cast their votes.

These episodes illustrate how easily voters can be influenced and manipulated when a low education rate is combined with a very weak democratic political culture. In such a context, it is inevitable that the most well-organized parties secure victory. Indeed, the Salafist Al-Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party absolutely outnumbered any other group in terms of banners and physical presence near the polling stations in Fayoum.   

Some voters complained that the campaign carried out by Islamist parties did not separate religion from politics. People with whom I spoke said that Islamists had tried to win votes by portraying themselves as representatives of Islam rather than by speaking about their party’s platform. Indeed, around the city, there were many banners saying: “Islam is the solution.”

The election process is sending an important message to Tahrir Square: Egyptians want to complete the political transition as quickly as possible and they want to actively participate in that transition. One of the electoral observers in Fayoum commented on recent political events by saying that “the elections need to take place in order to realize the country’s institutional transition; we want both the elections and the people in Tahrir Square.”

However, if any one thing emerges clearly – from looking at Fayoum’s example and at the reported violations all over Egypt – it is the need to enhance people’s political awareness regarding electoral procedures and candidates’ programs in order to bring about true change in Egyptian society. Indeed, if the people in Tahrir want to have an impact on the nature of this transition and to complete a real democratic revolution, they certainly have to engage Egyptian people outside the Tahrir “circle”. They must focus on raising political awareness.

The parliamentary elections will be a long process on the path of redefining post-Mubarak Egypt. If the people of Tahrir Square want to play a positive and constructive role in Egyptian society rather than represent a mere focal point of protests, they should work widely to strengthen citizens’ civic education and political consciousness. This does not necessarily imply that the protagonists of the street movement need to create their own political party or even support the existing ones; but by involving all Egyptians in the democratic process, they can help guarantee that the democratic revolution they have been fighting for actually sees the light of day.

The positive turnout of the first electoral stage does not represent a success for Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who have been accused of completely failing to live up to their promises to Egyptians to improve human rights. However, the elections are definitely the result of a process started on January 25, with a popular uprising that has featured demonstrations, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and labor strikes. How the people of Tahrir Square respond to the ballot’s message now will prove crucial in the development of Egypt’s revolution.