Egypt: Conflicting emotions behind a 1st-time vote

November 28, 2011 - 6:15 PM
APTOPIX Mideast Egypt Elections

An Egyptian woman looks at a ballot as she votes in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011. Voting began on Monday in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising nine months ago. The vote is a milestone many Egyptians hope will usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

CAIRO (AP) — Today was my first time voting in a parliamentary election in the 20 years I have been eligible. Getting to this moment was a journey from excitement to dismay, and finally empowerment.

Ten days ago, I was overjoyed with these elections. I sifted through candidate names and talked to colleagues and friends about who could best represent us.

There was no question about voting under Hosni Mubarak, the president for most of my life. Leave aside the rampant rigging — the candidates were recycled from previous elections, either hand-picked by the ruling party or ambitious independents with local connections who, as soon as they won their race, would just join the ruling party.

Violence was a staple of the polls, and riots at the ballot box often left prospective voters dead or injured. I got a taste of it in 2000 while covering a Cairo voting center. I got the worst beating of my life at the hands of two female toughs who were on the government payroll, as one of them confessed when we spent more than 12 hours together under arrest in a police station. It was the regime's way of driving journalists away from polling stations.

Even the registration process was intended to dissuade voting. We had to register in municipal offices during a single month early in the year long before the vote, and our names were vetted by the Interior Ministry. Voter rosters included names of the dead and many names were repeated. Names of some eligible voters sometimes just disappeared. The only time I considered voting was in the 2005 presidential elections, the first with multiple candidates. But the announcement was made, ironically, after the registration period closed.

With the fall of Mubarak in February, this was my chance to vote for a candidate of my own choosing.

But my excitement faded when protests erupted in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Nov. 19 as revolutionaries raised their voices against the ruling military that replaced Mubarak and were met by force.

More than 40 protesters were killed in the week leading up to the elections as people took to the streets to demand the military cede power to a civilian government. I was covering Tahrir when the protesters were chased away by attacking security forces. I ran for my life for several kilometers, my nose bleeding from a stone hurled during the melee as soldiers fired in the air to disperse us. I witnessed clashes between policemen and protesters and volleys of tear gas and sometimes bullets in a standoff that lasted for five days.

The bloodshed brought sharp clarity to the problems I have with the election: The vote and the parliament that would result had no flavor — it was a dish that should bring joy but had no taste.

Part of the reason was a feeling that the results were a foregone conclusion. Islamist groups, the most organized political force, have been far better prepared for the race, while other parties have been divided.

But for many, it was also a matter of principle. We wondered how there could be free and fair and free elections under a military that over the past nearly 10 months has done next to nothing to uproot the remnants Mubarak's regime. Even the importance of the next parliament was in question. Ruling generals spoke on TV of how little say it would have over the coming period.

Many people around me decided to boycott.

My best friend, Selma Abou-el-Dahab, said she would not vote. After I thought I had convinced her to cast her ballot, she said, "As I long as I live feeling that Egyptians' lives are cheap, I will not participate in theatricals that serve to solidify military rule."

I thought of the referendum on the process of the transition period that took place in March, the first vote of any kind after Mubarak. I did participate in that, and it was a day of celebration. Now, it seemed to me a shattered hope.

At a dinner in a restaurant on the eve of Monday's elections, my waiter said, "Nothing good has ever come of elections. They never bring those who deserve it." His comments rang true after a week of clashes and deaths: Again, elections were bloodied. Little, really, has changed.

Still, I believed my vote would make a difference. I wanted to be part of a new national consciousness to choose the future.

Early Monday morning, I arrived at the polling station an hour before it opened. The line of people waiting stretched around the corner. The determination of so many people to play a part in the transition to democracy settled any hesitation I might have had.

For a moment, I panicked when I couldn't find my name in the rosters — a sudden fear that the manipulation of the Mubarak-era was happening again. It turned out I was standing in the wrong line.

In the correct line, Abeer Mohammed el-Muadawi, a 38-year old freelance photographer, was voting for the first time, like me. For her it was settled. "Being here, I am supporting those in Tahrir. I am voting to replace the vote of one of those who died in Tahrir."

Putting an X by the candidate of my choice made the rationale for voting clear.

For me, it is the obituary for an era when I watched elections rigged, people killed casting their vote, and others smothered in apathy. It is also an introduction to the Egypt I am going to write about and live in from now on.