I took a stroll through our neighborhood this morning to see the early activity surrounding our four public schools hosting parliamentary elections. Polls opened at 8am, and I crossed the street, walked a block, and began to observe.
A few things stuck me immediately. First, a long line. Over 100 people were in cue, side by side. Second, they were all men. I thought this was peculiar. Third, the guard. About four or five soldiers manned the entrance to the school, while two or three policemen monitored traffic and paid general attention to the surroundings.
Fourth, the propaganda. Opposite the school were about twenty volunteers for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, distinguished by their bright yellow hats with the party logo. Some were distributing leaflets, some seemed around just to establish presence. The main contribution, however, was to set up a table with two laptop computers, helping voters identify their polling station.
Some have complained about the odd distribution of voters through various districts, with family members in one home often in three different places. Still, the government has established a website in which one’s national ID number will provide the exact location for voting. The Muslim Brotherhood effort provides an uninformed voter which neighborhood school to visit. It also provides them with a leaflet for the party, on the back of which their volunteers write down the polling station info, to help with ease of access. Last Friday at church two laptops were set up in the courtyard to provide a similar service, without the leaflets.
Interestingly, the electricity to run the laptops was provided by the private school across the street, where our daughter attends kindergarten. Private schools do not serve as polling stations.
Leaving this location I walked down the street for about three blocks to visit a second school, which cleared up my confusion about gender participation. Actually, two schools here were back to back, both receiving only women voters. Two lines were formed, each having at least 200 people. I saw a few people from church, waiting their turn, optimistic and excited about this their first vote ever.
Returning back home I passed by the first school with the men, with the line just as long as when I left it. I noticed a fourth school around the corner, however, which also serviced male voters. Only about 50 were in line here, however.
Standing on the corner keeping observation there are two other minor events to relate. First, a campaign car for Mohamed Amara of the Salafi Nour (Light) Party drove by, with a prominent sticker of his mug shot on both back windows. This helped identify him as he stepped out, shook the hands of one of the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers, got back in his car, and drove away. To note, Amara is the lead local candidate on the Islamist Alliance for Egypt list, headed by the Nour Party, which is in competition with the Democratic Alliance, headed by the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party. Liberal and other parties are also in competition, of course.
Second, our elderly neighborhood gardener saw me standing around and motioned that I follow him away from the area. The presence of a foreigner, he stated, might concern and worry the people. In addition, there are police around in civilian clothes taking note, which he could see but I would be unaware of. Having seen enough anyway, it is best to follow the advice of a friendly Egyptian, so I left with him, as he was himself off to vote at a station three metro stops to the south. The Freedom and Justice Party helped him find his way.
Three final observations. First, though the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers were out in force, they were not the only ones. Many party representatives were distributing leaflets and information. I received information additionally from the moderate Islamist Wasat (Centrist) Party, the liberal Egyptian Bloc electoral alliance, and a couple independent candidates as well. I am not familiar with all campaign laws, but I have read that each of these propagandists are breaking the law forbidding party promotion at the polling stations 48 hours to the lead up of elections.
Second, given that in Egypt one’s religion can be outwardly identifiable, I can make some very rudimentary and cautious exit poll guesses. In the men’s line, about 20% of the people wore long robes, had heavy beards, or prominent prayer calluses on their foreheads. These are often signs of being a conservative Muslim, particularly of the Salafi trend. A beard and robe can be worn by any Muslim, of course, many of whom do not support political Islam. Many Brotherhood supporters, meanwhile, do not necessarily have distinctive dress, and many ordinary non-Islamist Egyptians may vote for the Freedom and Justice Party, given their longstanding role as an opposition party and the relative newness of other liberal entities.
As for the women, perhaps around 30% of those in line were non-veiled. This indicates in general that there are Coptic, or else Muslims willing to resist the cultural pressures to wear a head covering. This segment of society would be unlikely to vote Islamist, though some may. To note, only about 10% or less of the population is Coptic, and though I have no official estimates, non-veiled Muslim women appear to be a similar minority. On the other hand, wearing a veil is no necessary indicator of political affiliation. I saw only a handful of women wearing the niqab, which covers all but the slit over the eyes. This could be reflective of conservative tendency, but as in all the above deductions, caution is needed above all.
Third, everything concerning the vote seemed orderly and peaceful. Yesterday’s rains made the environment wet and muddy, but turnout was impressive and lines were respected – which is not always true in Egypt. Voters were let into the school a couple at a time, and everyone behind waited their turn. In our neighborhood at least, early signs are promising.
There may yet be surprises of many sorts, let alone in results. From what I understand, results from the individual election competitions will be announced on Wednesday, followed by runoff elections as needed. Results from the list-based competition, however, will wait until all three election stages are completed, geographically arranged across the country. Most pundits expect a plurality of votes for Islamist parties. Meanwhile some predict their victory will be overwhelming, while others think they will receive surprisingly little support. Now has begun the process to tell, for the first time in modern Egypt. May it be the first of many.