Egypyt, democracy tests
Gianluca Solera - 15/01/2012
I was an International observer in the first round of the Egyptian elections for the Chamber of Deputies ( Maglis as-Sha’b ) in Alexandria, or more precisely a "Witness" as was written in my identification card. This is not breaking news in itself, but the news is the fun that it represented for me to discover that there is not a single way to conceive democracy. For a presumed democrat from the western shore of the Mediterranean, it is inconceivable to imagine an electoral exercise that does not satisfy rigorous European rules, but the more the wave of change demanding liberty and dignity enlarges towards to the neighbouring countries, the more we have to get used to rethinking ourselves too.
It all started the night of Sunday 27 November, when in order to have the Observer Card of the Network for Elections in the Arab World ( Shabaka al-Intikhābāt lil-´Ālam al-‘Araby ) on time, and considering that the authorities had only issued it the day before, I had to wait for the driver of a minibus carrying passengers from Cairo to Alexandria (who to earn some loose change had put the letter addressed to me on his dashboard) to stop on the corner of the boulevard under my house at three in the morning. It had a certain impact on me to go down in my pyjamas on the street at that time in the name of democracy. I had expressed the desire to observe the elections to understand from the inside this world in transformation, made of old, new and spurious elements. It is true that the activist world on Tahreer Square has little to do with the electoral machine. The previous Saturday I went to Tahreer Square and found a Miracle Field that wants to continue breathing, but whose enemies grow day by day. And like all "miracle fields", I found a blindfolded man, who the police had shot in an eye blinding him, a lame boy, limping due to the injuries received in the recent clash in Mohammad Mahmūd street, and many with their heads or arms in bandages. I saw banners with colour photos of martyrs and corrupt people, redrawn as if they were protagonists in a newly released film (but in this case, the actors really die or steal). I saw street artists painting and making photographs from the League of Revolutionary Artists, that no longer has a fixed location as the funds have dried up, and who keep its works in bags hoping that the street corner where they have newly established their workshop will not be taken away too soon. And of course there was no shortage of tents, with hospitals and kitchens, nor shortage of sellers of foodstuffs and walking open -air cafes with plastic seats. The electoral machine has been put into operation notwithstanding the tear gas and the people who have died, and maybe it is right, but naturally those guys had not won the election as they were too busy defending themselves from the Security Forces to exercise the right to demonstrate, and to imagine that a revolutionary government would follow a revolutionary motion. One of them, Ahmed, less than 20 years old, had come from al-Minyā and slept under a blanket on the pavement; for ten days he had been in Cairo and having finished his money lived on the rations received from the Tahreer boys. He was tired. Tired but optimistic. This was also a miracle of the Field. How can you be optimistic when challenging the Armed Forces and asking them to radically change the country? They still are, maybe because for them “life does not count more than the destiny of your country”. In Europe if someone says this, he would be considered unbalanced or idiot.
So were the elections correct? For sure they were cleaner with respect to the past – "the first clean elections in modern Egypt", has been said to me by many people who I met during the elections. In the nine voting stations that I visited in Alexandria, I did not witness any buying and selling of votes. The polling clerks and judges at each station were really dedicated, and there were long queues for an historic day for participation in a new exercise. No particular incidents to report. The electoral publicity inside the stations was almost absent. If I had observed elections in the countryside then maybe it would have been different, but at the end of the day, these elections were also a Miracle Field. And like all "miracle fields" I found the sellers of promises (the patrols pushing election propaganda at the entrance of the voting stations), overseeing judges of the stations who did not know the law ("Propaganda outside of the stations is legal!" – one of them said to me), voters who used the walls of a public building to eliminate the remaining ink from their thumbs after having voted (a real post-modern graffiti by creative hands, a symbol of the silent nature of these elections), amazing electoral symbols (I will list them below), and a counting operation in an atmosphere of the end of year lottery, with thousands of people concentrated between coming and going and the continuous shouting (the counting did not take place in the stations; the urns of the same district were collected in one centre, together with the staff and security forces).
That the parties inspired by Islam did well should not surprise anyone. Only someone who is distracted could tear up their clothes or shout again at the Infidel Enemy that is knocking at the door. Above all, it is absolutely normal that political forces gather together according to religious values as a source of inspiration for the social and political organisation of a community. We Europeans have had national-Christian, social-Christian or Christian democrat parties in recent history following on from dictatorships in the last century, and many of these continue to exist, with an important role in political life. We must not forget that in Muslim societies the attachment to values and traditions is extremely strong, and unfortunately we do not understand and accept this in the west. In September 2010, the Anna Lindh Foundation has published a report on intercultural trends in the Euro-Mediterranean region. At its core was an opinion poll carried out in thirteen countries of the region; one of the questions was: "Do you believe in an absolute truth?". If the majority of the participants in Europe replied no (in Sweden 84% and in Greece 81%), the Arab nations were for the yes (88% of the Moroccans, and 71% of the Egyptians). The fundamental question is another one: who has the right to represent the revolutionary process? Who is the legitimate standard bearer for the people: those who risked their lives and who poured into the streets to demand regime change, becoming martyrs, or those who won the elections? I believe in this sense that we have to say if the elections do not nurture the demands of the popular movement that caused the old regime to fall, and thus allowed for the calling of these elections, even if these were the most correct and clean in the world, the winners could never speak in the name of the revolution. For this reason, the two "miracle fields" must have a common intention, because if this does not happen, the country will go backwards again, and with that the spirit of renewal that has engulfed the Mediterranean and other European countries. "We do not want to substitute one dictatorship with another", Walīd a Tunisian observer working with the same organisation told me on 6 December, when the run-off took place for deciding the single-member constituencies where no candidate had obtained more than 50% of the votes the previous week. Walīd had not yet read the final results of the first round of the elections that would keep the Egyptian citizens busy for the next three months: Hizb al-Hurriya wa al ‘Adāla (liberty and justice party, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Hizb an-Nūr (party of light, a Salafist party) took Alexandria with two thirds of the votes perfectly in line with the national average: 66,2%. On the other hand, should we be surprised when 36.9% of the Egyptians did not know of other political movements than the Muslim Brothers and 7% of other political movements than the Salafists only a week before the election day; and should we be surprised when 39.9% only a week before the election day did not know how the electoral system worked, composed of closed party lists (proportional system) and individual candidates (single member system) - according to a survey carried out by the National Centre of Social and Criminal Investigation in twenty-six Egyptian provinces? Perhaps for this reason, and for sure due to the illiteracy diffuse across the country, the individual candidates were pictured next to symbols. There were so many of them, more than one hundred, that if I made the list, you would end up in a shopping centre: a fishing rod, a walking stick, an open oyster with pearls, a bedside alarm clock, a hunting rifle, a cactus, a table tennis racket, and obviously a tennis racket too, a mobile phone, a helicopter, a basketball, a football, a goal (but without a keeper), a fan, a CD, a music cassette, a toothbrush, a plastic water bottle, a fork, as well as a spoon, a sunflower, an umbrella, a lampshade, a ventilator. In this way, when you went to vote, if you had no clear ideas and could not read, you could choose the object of your desires.
Let us now go back to them, the Egyptians whom I met. Do’ā’ was observer on behalf of the an-Naqīb Foundation for Training and Support for Democracy. She was serving in a voting station of a popular district in al-Muntaza, at the al-Muhammadiya al-Ibtidāiya school. She was carrying a veil, but could not stand the Islamists, and that was why she was observer, with the hope that all women would vote against Hizb an-Nūr and Hizb al-Hurriya wa al ‘Adāla. When the voting stations were closed, I left the school and shortly afterwards I stopped to have a tea with my colleague Ayman. A group of lads supporting the Muslim Brotherhood found it curious to see an international observer in their district and they asked me to give an interview for their internet network, Mantaqaty al-Ān. They listened closely when I started to talk about excessive election propaganda. I believe that they did not even know that in another country to have such election campaigning on election day would be declared illegal; Hizb al-Hurriya wa al ‘Adāla was certainly the best organised, with a base at the entrance of each polling station, with yellow waterproof hats for the activists and supporters. On the other hand, on this issue I received varied replies: in the al-Gabarty station a judge told me it was completely legal to have propaganda outside (but who nominated him?), a representative of Hizb an-Nūr maintained that it was legal at least 10 metres from the entrance of the voting station, a local observer that it was allowed outside the stations but not in front of the entrance, the Egyptian coordinator of the organisation for which I was working that it was totally illegal from 24 hours before the vote, and an observer from an-Naqīb foundation from 48 hours before!
But it was at the vote counting in Victoria College where I met the most unusual people, an immense space measuring 100 by 150 metres protected by the army and police, where all the urns ended up from the al-Muntaza constituency, in the most western part of Alexandria. I have never seen anything like it: hundreds of people, maybe two thousand, total chaos, ordered disorder where the scrutineers were sitting in long tables to count the votes of the four urns of their own polling sections, and where at two in the morning there were still trucks carrying urns inside (voting stations had closed at seven in the evening). All the scrutineers were teachers. This was certainly a wise decision but there were no refreshments, coffee and one of them was sleeping on the table waiting for a new urn to arrive. The table I was observing was chaired by a poet ‘Othmān: "No fear, we are full of Energy, and will keep going until the morning". I myself at 02.30am gave up and went home... For sure the atmosphere was electric and spirits high. Sherīf, a young underwater instructor and representative of the Muslim Brotherhood took me aside for a chat at one point. Then he took out a pen and paper and made a sketch of the future Egypt, drawing a chart as if he were a stock market broker: after the collapse of the Mubarak regime and a difficult post-revolutionary transition, with an Islamic government Egypt would be isolated, and its decadence would accelerate towards an inevitable conflict with the west; but then it would start to get back on top, and Islam would be prevalent in the world. Someone who is used to reach 50m under the water must know something. Then I gave him a trick question: "Is the solution democracy or Islam?". He replied wisely: "the alternative is not between democracy and Islam, because the real Islam is democratic".
Egypt has certainly changed, and if what us neighbours want is stability, we will still have to wait a long time as mentioned by Sherīf. Certainly we will have to understand more and escape from our ideological thinking. The Egyptians have already done so. During the run-off on 5th and 6th December, when in a constituency there was the choice between a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and a Salafist, or between one of the Muslim Brotherhood and one from Fulūl an-Nidhām (the exponents of the previous regime; the Armed Forces allowed former members of Mubarak’s party, Hizb al-Watany, to be candidates), the young people with liberal ideas voted en masse for the Muslim Brotherhood, after the lay movements that inspired the days in January 2011 had not broken through. The Egyptian revolution is not yet finished, maybe it has only started, and its young guardians must pass through a difficult genesis. The time for miracles continues.
Translated by Jonathan Parker