'To vote or not to vote?' Egyptians ask as polling opens

Lina El-Wardani , Monday 28 Nov 2011

With the kick-off of landmark parliamentary polls on Monday, the debate over whether to boycott the country's first post-Mubarak electoral contest continues to rage in Tahrir Square - and elsewhere

Tahrir Square
The sun sets on protesters as they demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

“Who should I vote for?” is a question that dominates most conversations these days, in workplaces, supermarkets, places of worship and – of course – on online social networks.

“If I don't vote, will I have to pay a fine?” wondered Amna, a 32-year-old cleaning lady and mother of four. Amna is registered to vote in the governorate of Fayoum south of Cairo, but she currently lives and works in the satellite city of 6 October on the capital’s outskirts, a three-hour drive from her hometown.

"My kids have exams, so I can't just leave them to vote," said Amna, who doesn't really care who wins the elections as long as she doesn't have to pay a fine. For her, life hasn’t changed much since Egypt’s January 25 revolution, and she has no reason to believe it will change with the polls.

"Young people are still dying in Tahrir Square and police brutality is the same,” she said. “My brother was tortured by a retired police officer last march, just when we thought the revolution had put an end to the dictator," she added, in reference to ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Amna claims that her brother was tortured by a police officer when he tried to quit working for him as a gardener. She says her brother was tied to a chair and beaten until he lost consciousness before being hauled into a police station where he was accused of theft.

Not far from where Amna lives, in an upscale neighbourhood in 6 October City, a small shack stands next to a luxurious villa. The small room is home to a family of five: the porter, who guards the villa, his wife and three children.

Qutb Sayed says he will vote to avoid paying a fine, but until now he doesn't know who to vote for. “My boss tells me I should vote for the Wasat Party but I don't know any of the candidates, and I personally don't think anyone is working in Egypt’s interest,” he said.

“If you really want to serve the people, you don’t need a seat in parliament,” Sayed added. “You can serve them by going out to the countryside, where people have no access to clean drinking water or working sewage systems."

By contrast, Mohamed El-Sheehy, a 58-year-old banker, knows who he will vote for: the liberal-oriented Egyptian bloc.

"I finally decided on who I would vote for after consulting a friend who is a university professor," said El-Sheehy, who will be casting a ballot for the first time in his life. “I never voted before because I knew that the polls were rigged [in favour of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party], but I’m very hopeful about elections this time around.”

“People really want change; I’m sure this parliament will be representative of the new Egypt,” the banker, who lives in Cairo’s upscale Mohandiseen district, added. “Even if I didn't know who to support, I would have cast my vote for any new name."

Meanwhile, in Cairo’s flashpoint Tahrir Square, more than a thousand activists have maintained their weeklong sit-in to demand that Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) hand over power to a civil authority. Hundreds also remain camped out in front of the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo to voice their rejection of newly-appointed prime minister Kamal El-Ganzoury.

At both sit-ins, however, activists are divided over whether or not to vote in legislative polls that kicked off on Monday.

Those who support taking part in the polling view elections as the only constitutional means of seeing the back of Egypt’s ruling junta, which has governed the country since Mubarak’s February ouster. Those who call for boycotting the races, by contrast, believe that elections will only serve to bolster the SCAF’s legitimacy.

Many of the latter believe that holding polls under military rule cannot guarantee fair elections, especially in light of recent SCAF heavy-handedness, including ongoing military trials for civilians, the forcible dispersion of demonstrations, and the killing of dozens of unarmed protesters. Two recent confrontations – the 9 October Maspero clashes and last week’s clashes between protesters and security forces – were marked by uncharacteristic violence, unseen since the days of the January uprising.

Last week’s clashes ended up triggering what many have called the “second wave” of Egypt’s ongoing revolution, culminating in running battles on downtown Cairo’s volatile Mohamed Mahmoud St. By the end of the crisis, at least 45 people lay dead and over 3000 injured.

When asked whether she planned to vote, activist Fatma Abed, who is currently tweeting electoral updates to followers, said: “I personally won’t vote as I don’t feel up to it – my husband [activist Malek Mustafa] lost an eye in the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud St. But for those who want to cast a ballot, I feel it’s my duty to raise awareness about who to vote for.”

Like Abed, veteran human rights activist Aida Saif El-Dawla also plans to boycott elections, but for different reasons. In a phone interview on a popular talk show, she recently described polls conducted under military rule as “farcical.”

“Why should I vote when 12,000 people can’t take part in elections because they’re languishing in military prisons?” asked El-Dawla, who runs the Cairo-based El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims. “Why should I vote when hundreds are being tortured, killed and raped in prisons – even after the revolution?”

Leftist activist Wael Khalil, however, believes that elections represent the most legitimate way to secure the SCAF’s departure from power.

“According to our contract with the SCAF, parliamentary polls are a step on the constitutional path towards an elected, civil authority,” Khalil said on the same TV talk show. He sees Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls as an opportunity for Egyptians to practise their democratic right to elect their representatives for the very first time.

Like Khalil, activist and Islamic researcher Ibrahim El-Hodeiby also plans to cast his vote. On his twitter account, El-Hodeiby said that the ongoing Tahrir Square sit-in and the elections both represented “steps against the SCAF and towards the revolution’s success.” 

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