Observing the Revolution

February 19, 2012 • Features, Print • Views: 1230

by Erin Biel:

By the time I arrived at the women’s polling station, at around 9:30 a.m., the line was already winding down El Sa’id El Bakry Street in both directions and continuing along 26th of July Street.

Women had been waiting for three hours along these main thoroughfares of the Zamalek neighborhood in Cairo. Making my way around the crowd toward the front of the line, I found the source of the problem: No one was being permitted into the polling station. A few minutes later, I observed some minor movement.  One of the Egyptian women in line told me dubiously that the guards at the polls wanted to let the elderly in first.  It made no sense, then, that the group entering was composed solely of men, all clearly under the age of 55.

Thousands of women lined up along El Said El Bakry Street in Zamalek, Cairo, on Nov. 28, 2011, the first day of the Egyptian parliamentary elections. Many spent all day waiting in line to cast their vote. (Biel/TYG)

Four American classmates and I had been encouraged by our American University in Cairo professor, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent democracy activist, to perform “unofficial” election monitoring in Cairo on the first day of the Egyptian parliamentary elections. It was difficult as a foreigner to be granted an official election-monitoring badge. Egypt’s ruling military council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had originally refused to let foreign organizations observe the elections, claiming that it would be an infringement upon national sovereignty.

Ultimately they conceded, permitting the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republic Institute (IRI)—three American NGOs—and a spattering of other organizations to monitor the polls.

Unofficial observers, like me, were to tweet our observations via the “#egyelections” hashtag that bloggers and political activists used throughout the three month-long People’s Assembly, or Lower House, parliamentary elections.  This hashtag, though important in notifying ordinary citizens about election wrongdoings, had no legal recourse to back it up.  It was the judges stationed at each polling location who were responsible for identifying and addressing election violations.

As word of the illegal delay in opening the poll spread, I caught a glimpse of one of my female Egyptian friends further down the line. I approached her and told her about the men entering the polling station.

She responded, “We blocked off our entire day to wait in line, so we kind of expected this.”

More disconcerting than the voting inefficiencies was the stark contrast between the women’s and men’s polling stations.  There were about four men’s polling stations in Zamalek, compared to only one for women. Men could wait in line for fifteen minutes and be at the front of the line, ready to vote; women, like my Egyptian friend, could expect to wait all day.

I wandered over to one of the men’s polling stations along Mohamed Thakeb Street, just minutes away. Unlike the women’s polling station where I saw very few, if any, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) members handing out flyers, the FJP had set up shop about 30 yards from the men’s polling station entrance. With three laptops perched on a standard card table, the men offered to help voters find their correct neighborhood polling stations. They wore blue lanyards around their necks with FJP badges that were uncannily (perhaps purposely) similar to those that the election monitors and press were wearing. Their party had the strongest presence at the men’s polling station. At one point, a man jolted out of the queue to shoo away a twenty-something year-old FJP member who was holding up a campaign sign immediately next to the polling entrance, a violation of ethical campaigning rules.

A few minutes later, a man who spoke perfect English approached our group of five Americans and asked us amiably if we had any questions for him. He told us that, contrary to rumors I had been reading on Twitter, the ballots in Zamalek did contain official stamps. He claimed that the whole process was running like clockwork.

He went on to express his disdain for the FJP and all other Islamist parties, and also admitted that this was his first time voting, as he had never had the desire to vote in previous, less than legitimate elections. He told us of the widely held opinion that the elections, while important in their own right, did not mean a great deal to him in the greater scheme of Egypt’s transition. The more important task, he said, would be Parliament’s selection of a constitutional committee and the actual document that it produces. Many fear that the constitution’s drafting committee will have little, if any, power as a result of the “supra-constitutional principles” that SCAF has proposed. According to these proposals, the military would have veto power over the constitutional process and exclusive oversight of its own budget.

Concerns about SCAF’s power are real and well warranted. Since SCAF took over the government in February, there have been repeated reports of media censorship, sexual abuse of female protesters, and trials of civilians in military courts. It is imperative that SCAF grant Parliament the independence it needs in order to formulate a new constitution in which human rights are formidably enshrined. It is time for SCAF to go “back to their barracks”—phrase commonly invoked in Egyptian society—and promptly.

There is a widespread belief that SCAF will attempt to retain some level of power even after there is an ostensible transition from military to civilian rule. After all, the military has served as the foundation of Egyptian politics since the fall of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and every president since has emerged from the top ranks of the armed forces.

Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa program, emphasized SCAF’s wide involvement in decision-making: “They want to protect their immunities, protect their veto on defense-related issues, protect their control of the economy, and protect themselves against any investigations.  What I think they want is to formally hand over power to a civilian president that they know they can work with.”

Many would claim that SCAF has already found politicians it can work with, even though the presidential race is not slated to begin until March. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given FJP’s presence at polling stations like Zamalek, “Islamists” won over 70 percent of the vote for the Lower House of Parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP secured 47 percent, (235 of the 498 seats) of the Lower House, while the more hard-line Al-Nour Party came in second with 25 percent (125) of the seats. The “liberal” and secular parties, particularly the ones launched after the Revolution by the very youth activists who had been active in Tahrir Square, were relegated to single digit percentages.

A young boy looks on at the voters entering a men’s polling station in Zamalek, Cairo. (Biel/TYG)

These youth activists and other liberal Egyptians are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood is too conciliatory toward SCAF. On January 27th, the one-year anniversary of the Friday “Day of Anger,” these civilians clashed with FJP supporters. A crowd primarily composed of youth gathered in front of the Muslim Brotherhood’s stage in Tahrir, yelling anti-SCAF chants. They were drowned out by Quranic verses reverberating from the Brotherhood’s sound system.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has made public gestures in favor of women’s rights, a preservation of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, and freedom of religion, individual Brotherhood members have contradicted one another, and the Brotherhood’s true “platform” is nebulous. Nevertheless, high-level officials from the U.S. State Department have already engaged in regular dialogue with Brotherhood leaders, a clear acknowledgement that the United States accepts the results of the Egyptian elections thus far and is intent upon working constructively with the new parliament in the future.

Maintaining this ongoing dialogue with the Brotherhood is of particular importance as tension mounts between SCAF and the United States, attenuating the 30 year-old alliance between the two countries.

Many of the same organizations that SCAF formally invited to perform election monitoring, such as NDI and IRI, now face criminal charges for operating without proper registration and receiving foreign funding. 43 pro-democracy workers, 16 of whom are American, are to be put on trial and none are permitted to leave the country.

I shudder to think that perhaps one of the individuals I saw donning the NDI election monitor uniform of brown vest and blue lanyard in Zamalek could now be subject to these accusations.

The Egyptian Revolution is far from over. The Egyptian people have repeatedly demonstrated their dedication to having their voices heard, whether through month-long sit-ins or day-long lines at election polls. Now it is the point of seeing those demands through, and that will have to come via new political channels: the democratically elected Egyptian Parliament and, ultimately, the president. As these political figures take their seats in the parliament building, located just meters from Tahrir, it will be imperative that these representatives do not shut their ears to the calls for change that continue to emanate from the Square.

Erin Biel ’13 is a Global Affairs and Ethnicity, Race & Migration double major in Ezra Stiles College.  Contact her at erin.biel@yale.edu.

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