Behind the scenes of Egypt's presidential elections

Mary Mourad, Thursday 21 Jun 2012

Across the country's polling stations thousands of staff work under tough conditions to ensure the electoral process runs smoothly


Four trips to the ballot box behind us, and who knows how many more to come. While millions of Egyptians queue at polling stations, behind the scenes are over 100,000 staff and members of the judiciary who are toiling hard to secure the electoral process. These workers endure two long days in mostly poor, uncomforable conditions only to spend the nights that follow counting votes.

Opening of polling station1

7:00am At every station expected to see 5,000 or more voters there is a supervising judiciary representative to take receipt of the ballots, voters lists, indelible ink (people have to dip one finger to avoid fraud) and transparent voting boxes.

Six to eight employees also come for the process of registering would-be voters then count the ballots and organise the queues. Army and police officers and soldiers secure the arrival of the material and regulate the flow of voters outside the voting stations, most of which are public schools.

Many employees arrive before breakfast and then once at the polling staff send someone from the cleaning staff -- if it exists -- to bring sandwiches. At many stations one can see a pile of food waiting in one corner which the employees aren't able to touch due to long queues and potentially angry early-bird voters who have been standing in line since who knows when.

Basateen polling station

At one special station placed in Ali Mubarak Preparatory School in Basateen, a poor neighbourhood south of Cairo, the election team arrived to find no chairs or desks. Seating had to be brought in from the nearby cafe. Moreover, the empty classes had been turned into garbage storage facilities since the school year was over, so the staff brought brooms to clean up before the voters came in.

8:00am The stations open. The first day of voting already saw queues when the doors open, many of them elderly voters. One judge at the Mohamed Farid Sarhan School in Helwan decided to wait two more minutes for staff to gulp down their sandwiches in a hurry. At 8.03am the station was open and voters were being registered by the staff, usually teachers from the same school or a nearby school, who had similarly bolted their breakfasts.

11:45am With reduced voter pressure and prayer time nearly, most staff usually enjoy a short break although the station doesn't close for a single minute.

Sandwiches stored since the early morning are finally eaten at haste. With heat rising above 35 degrees in Cairo, and even higher in the south of Egypt, the poorly ventilated classrooms can feel like suffocation chambers.

In a station in Dar Al-Salam neighbourhood, the judge brought his own fan to handle the heat.

Despite windows being opened and use of fans where they were present, the heat is still intense. Al-Kanal School in Maadi, a well-off neighbourhood in the south of Cairo, had one air-conditioned room. Staff would periodically go there for short breaks from the blazing heat.

3:00pm The heat and humidity reach their peak with very few voters now coming. This allows staff and judges to take a slightly longer break for prayers and lunch: once again delivered sandwiches, mostly beans and falafel, brought from nearby stores.

5:30pm The heat finally dissipates and voter numbers start rising again. In many stations, queues form similar to those in the early morning.

7:00pm It's getting dark. Schools and classrooms require the lights on. At poorer schools where no lighting exists, special lamps are brought in from outside. Some voters use their mobile phones to see if they need extra light.


8:00pm Staff, monitoring teams and judges are feeling the fatigue, while in many cases last-minute queues are still forming. Some of the tired staff could be seen taking quick naps in the stairwells or in other quiet spots. It is not unusual to stumble across them washing their faces in an attempt to fight off sleep and tiredness.

9:00pm Closing time takes place on the dot, except for less fortunate stations where voters decide to come just seconds before stations shut their doors and form queues that last past midnight. This, when they have two full days to cast their ballots.

11:00pm At this point on Day One the boxes were being stored and locked in a safe room in the school. At Ali Mubarak School in Basateen, there were no doors to the station and the judge had to seal the boxes, count everything and have the army sleep next to the boxes to secure them. That required another extra hour the next morning to open the seals. On Day Two, the boxes were being opened and voting cards being unpackaged, divided into two piles, counted and then re-counted for confirmation.

The biggest change in this process since parliamentary elections in November 2011 is the decision to count votes in the station and not move the boxes to a central location. This process needs at least one to two hours of transit, in addition to perhaps an hour to organise the box and papers in the new location. Then the boxes would be opened and counting would begin. The change this time allowed for better control of the process and reduced risk to the boxes. Most stations required 3-6 hours to make the count but some lasted as long as 12 hours.

All hands on the box

Supplies and services

Every now and then someone comes bringing a sack filled with goodies to share, the most precious of which are large bottles of cold water or blocks of ice. These barely last a few minutes among the extremely thirsty workers and dehydrated voters. Sandwiches and biscuits come as well. The convivial atmosphere excludes noone and puts judge, police and army on equal footing: all are thirsty, hungry and tired.

Luckier voters and staff at some stations have access to water boilers and some glasses, allowing for a constant supply of tea and coffee. At one station, the kettle was shared by all voting committees in the school, with workers and staff coming in and out with cups to be filled.

At the Ali Mubarak School in Basateen, the bathrooms were woefully dilapidated, with garbage spread across the floor and puddles of water.

Bathrooms at Basateen station

Queue battles

The elderly, disabled, tired or sometimes just busy try to escape the line and enter the station. In most cases with an obvious disability, this is forgiven. But queue-jumping is not taken lightly.

At Amira Fawzeya School in Maadi, police quieted angry crowds.

Queues at Amira Fawzeya School in Maadi

Last hours

As soon as the stations closed on the second day and the counting started, roles were switched. Police guards begin to relax, while laidback representatives of the judiciary and candidate representatives get ready for the final stretch that could last three hours or more.

At Sayeda Aisha School in Basateen, female teachers were sitting, fighting sleep, watching the second count by the meticulous judge and trying to keep their eyes open until the number of votes is matched to that of voter attendance.

Counting till late night


No voting for staff

Staff were not necessarily posted to the polling stations where they were designated to vote and so many found it hard to cast their own ballots.

Some 130,000 Egyptians, including judiciary supervisors, could not exercise their voting rights because they were unable to leave their posts.

Although solutions were proposed, such as adding the names and ID details to the records allowing them to vote where they were working, this was never enforced.  


Employees were promised as much as LE1,000 (almost $180) for the two days work, a considerable improvement on the salary paid to workers over the parliamentary elections.

During November’s polls, wages were initially set at LE150, which is just $25 a day. However, after pressure was put on the commission managing the elections, it was increased to LE250 ($42).

Payment was delayed in many locations and in some cases staff refused to continue to work until they were paid. Employees also reported that they received considerably less than the agreed salary.

During the presidential elections, however, no complaints were received regarding payment.

Anti-fraud measures

The effort and energy put towards preventing fraud was significant. More initiatives are expected in future elections.

New pre-sealed ballot boxes were supplied for the presidential elections thus reducing any chances of the boxes being tampered with without the knowledge of the presiding judges.

In the parliamentary elections the judges sealed the boxes themselves, making them vulnerable to accusations of interfering with the ballots.

One of the key reforms, was including empty fields for the last two digits of the individual’s ID number on the voter lists.

These then had to be filled in by the employee as the individual came into vote providing proof that the polling station team had processed the physical identity card, greatly reducing electoral fraud.

Women supervisors checking fully-veiled women were present in every relevant station, no significant exceptions were noted. During parliamentary elections many stations did not include dedicated identity-checking staff.

Allowing the media and international monitoring teams into the stations to document the process was a great point of pride among election staff.

Counting votes

With all the other measures in place, the indelible ink that every voter had to dip their finger into after casting their ballot to prevent them voting more than once, seemed more of a tradition than a necessity.

The final number of votes per presidential contender was officially handed to candidate representatives. In the majority of cases, the press was also shown the results.

However, there were still reports of journalists and monitors being refused entry to stations, of photography being banned for “security reasons” and judges refusing to give interviews. 

Egypt has some way to go in refining its electoral process, particularly in speeding up procedure and reducing two-day voting periods to one day at the ballot boxes. Nonetheless, progress has clearly been made.

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