Sheffield Live’s Steve Buckley is blogging from Egypt as part of an international mission to support Egyptian civil society groups monitoring the first post-revolution elections. Follow his blog as he reports from Cairo and Damietta. Steve has been invited by Radio Horytna, Egypt’s first community radio.
Witnessing the count in Damietta
[Damietta, 30 November] We arrived at the Court House in Damietta at 8.30pm. The immediate area was only accessible on foot and for authorised vehicles. There were two tanks outside the main entrance. We watched vehicles arriving with ballot boxes, some accompanied by soldiers. Some of the vehicles were closed, others open bed trucks. The boxes were off loaded from the vehicles and taken to the counting area behind the Court House. Although security was heavy at the gate, with soldiers and military police, almost anyone could have offered to assist carry in a ballot box.
There was a growing crowd outside, perhaps 1500 people. We were prevented by the military police from entering however Judge Mohammed Attia came outside and accompanied us in. Under his “protection” as he said, we were able to pass through three layers of security. At the entrance to the counting room Mohamed showed his NGO observer card and I showed my unofficial ID, on the basis of which our group of four were let into the count. We were among the first into a large tent (about 50 metres by 120 metres) of the type used for weddings and celebrations, with decorated wall cloths and chandelier style lighting. It was divided into pens, each about 50 by 10 metres, with clusters of tables and chairs. None were numbered. Each polling station team appropriated the tables and chairs they needed and waited for their boxes to arrive. There was a top table for the supervisor and assistants of the Higher Election Commission (HEC) but we did not see any designated area for observers or the media.
At 10.15pm the boxes from our polling station arrived at the count. None of the seals were broken. The judge oversaw the opening and emptying on to the table of the contents of the first box (individual candidates, day 1) and the assistants (all public officials) started counting the ballot papers. Each pile was counted by two people independently. The totals didn’t quite match but the judge accepted the second number because it matched the count at the polling station. This formed the baseline against which votes cast were to be checked.
Having counted the number of ballot papers, at 11.00pm they started checking that each ballot paper is correct, that is having two, and only two, candidates selected. At this point the supervisor of the count announced a 500 Egyptian Pounds bonus for the workers, which drew a round of applause. By 11.30pm the spoiled ballots had been checked and set to one side. They amounted to around 3-5 per cent of the total. It then began to rain heavily and we saw water leaking through the seams of the canvas roof on to the counting teams and the tables. We had to move to prevent the ballot papers getting wet. The officials used their jackets to protect the election materials.
After ten minutes the rain eased off and the counting team moved onto the second box of ballot papers (party lists, day 1), unfolding them and setting them out in piles. At the same time the judge, with one assistant, started counting the votes for the individual candidates. The counting was done on plain paper, checked against the total ballots cast, and later entered neatly onto the official counting sheets. At midnight other members of the counting team began counting the party list votes. They wrote down the tally first on a scrap piece of paper rather than the official counting forms. There were four people involved, working in pairs, one reading the candidate names and the other making the record. There were no pens, blank paper or calculators provided for the counting teams. Instead they relied on their own resources including using their mobile phones as calculators.
It then started raining heavily again and at one point it looked like the seams in the tent roof might break. All over the counting area we could see water pouring in. One person was going around the tent with a large pole, pushing at the accumulating reservoirs of water to release them and prevent the roof from bursting. By 1.00am the judge was looking absolutely exhausted. He had been supervising the polling station for two days, with little sleep the previous two nights. He asked one of his assistants to take over counting the individual list papers.
By 2.00am the team had opened the third box (party lists, day 2) unfolding the papers and counting the votes cast. At the same time two people were completing the count for the day 1 party list box, transferring the results from the informal tally on to the official forms, the total having been checked against the number of votes cast. At each stage of counting – calling out the votes cast, writing them down on the rough paper, transferring them to the official form – there is scope for dishonest individuals to alter the results, provided the total figure matches the total number of votes cast. But we saw no evidence of wrongdoing in the count.
By 2:30am the team had opened the fourth box (individual candidates, day 2). At the same time one pair of workers were completing the second batch of party list candidates and another group working on the first batch of individual candidates. At 3.45am the judge started checking results of the first batch of votes for individual candidates against the total cast and subsequently entering them on to the official reporting forms. There are 48 candidates. Each name has to be handwritten on to the form as they have not been pre-printed with candidate names. Each vote cast has to be recorded as a mark on the form. It takes over an hour to transfer the data.
At 5.00pm the team started counting the individual candidate votes in the fourth and final box. By this time everyone was exhausted. The ballot papers were split between two pairs of officials, one calling the results, the other writing down. The spoiled ballots (again 3 – 5 per cent) were set aside, packaged up and signed off with the reasons for exclusion. At the same the election materials for the first three boxes were being packaged up, wrapped in brown paper and tied or taped up. The ballot papers were taped up and details of the content was written across the tape and the brown paper to provide protection against tampering. A neighbouring table, who had finished already, offered to provide support to complete the count, and it was accepted.
By 6.00pm the team had completed counting the votes in the fourth box. The judge from the neighbouring table assisted to verify the total votes cast before they were transferred to the official reporting form. Ten hours after our arrival at the Court House the count from our polling station was complete. The combined results for Damietta were not announced at the count but were forwarded to the Higher Election Commission. We were in no doubt that it was going to be a big win for the Islamist groups who have dominated the local campaigning.
[Damietta, 29 November] It is the second day of voting in Domyat and the last remaining voters are arriving before polls close at 7pm. The military leadership have said polling stations may remain open later if there are still queues, but at Maddraset Al Fania Al Tegaria Al Moushtariaka there are only two more voters waiting.
Last night we came to the same polling station and were invited by the judge to observe the process at close quarters. We have no official credentials and our presence is at the judge’s discretion. Not all judges have been so welcoming but Judge Mohamed Attia is pleased to receive international election witnesses. He offers a cup of tea and explains the procedure. Each voter must show their identity card in order to be marked off on the register. They are then given the ballot papers, one for the party list and one for the individual candidates. The ballot papers are signed by the judge before the voter takes them behind a screen to mark their vote. There are two ballot boxes, one for each of the two part voting system. After casting their ballot the voter’s finger tip is marked with blue ink.
The choice is somewhat bewildering. There are fifteen political parties in the party list and 48 individual candidates. To assist those who can’t read the Arabic script each party and each individual candidate have been assigned one of an ideosyncratic collection of symbols that include a tank, a gun, a tennis racket, a key and a bust of the Egyptian goddess Nefertiti. I can’t read Arabic but I prefer Nefertiti to the gun and the tank. One voter told us she chose to vote for the flower symbol because she liked it more than the others.
While we are watching the voting process with the judge, our Egyptian colleague, Mohamed, who has been facilitating the mission, is outside the voting room. Unbeknown to us, he is being harrassed by a police officer, who is asking what are we doing here and claiming we have no right to be present. By the time we come to leave, the police officer has backed off, but Mohamed is very tense and tells us later he feared we might have been arrested as spies and taken to a police cell – not a good place to be in Egypt.
When we return the following day, Mohamed goes in ahead. The same police officer is there and asks him about the “foreigners”. We wait for the police officer to leave, before we enter the polling station. The soldiers guarding the gate welcome us into the courtyard and we rejoin the judge in the voting room. We watch as the last votes are cast and the ballot boxes sealed with cotton tape, red sealing wax and the judge’s seal.
It is an emotive ritual for all present as the voting closes on Egypt’s first democratic elections.
[Damietta, 28 November 2011] Damietta, or Domyat as they say locally, is not Tahrir. It is an industrial port town in the north east of Egypt where the Nile slips into the Mediterranean Sea. The approach road to Domyat, from Cairo, is lined with oil refineries and fish farms. The town itself is known for its furniture making. Between the shops and houses there are woodyards and artesans selling doors, tables and chairs. We arrive in Domyat to the sound of a brass band playing on the quayside. The martial music is a fitting sound track to the heavy military presence. Two tanks and an armoured vehicle are parked outside the Court House. This is where counting is to take place after polls close in the first elections since the 25 January Revolution. It is a show of strength by the ruling armed forces, of little practical use in the event of a disturbance.
Over the bridge from Domyat is Ras El Bar, a small but garish tourist enclave of cafes, restaurants, seaside sports and marinas. It is popular with Egyptians but in winter it is a ghost town of empty holiday apartments. Beyond the urban centre, the region of Domyat is rural, agricultural and poor. It is one of eight governorates in which the first round of Egypt’s elections is to take place. We are here to witness the elections process. During the course of the first day we visit twenty polling stations across the region, meeting with voters, party campaigners, election officials and the judges responsible for overseeing the vote.
Domyat is not Tahrir. As one protestor said to me in Cairo, in an instant opinion poll: “Five per cent of Egypt is with Tahrir, 45 per cent is with the Islamists, and the rest are with the Couch Party.” Domyat belongs to the Islamists. It is a conservative region and there is a high voter turnout. At the polling stations we see people queueing from early in the day. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood is out in force, as is El Nour, the party of the Salafist fundamentalists. At many of the polling stations one or both of these leading Islamist currents have set up stalls and are behaving as quasi public officials. With laptops and leaflets they advise voters on where to vote, how to vote and who to vote for. Inside the polling stations we see voters, many illiterate, arrive with party instructions on a card. Some simply give the card to the judge and say this is how I want to vote. Each polling station is overseen by a judge who is empowered to assist the voters but not to influence their choice.
The first day of voting in Domyat has been a good one for the armed forces. Soldiers with automatic rifles guard the polling stations. Most have a tank or two parked outside. Military supervision of the process is obvious. The legitimacy of the military leadership in overseeing Egypt’s democratic transition rests heavily on a credible election outcome. At the end of day one everything has gone smoothly. Apart from the political campaigning, forbidden under election law during the polls, we have seen no significant violations of the election process nor have their been any signs of protest. Between the tanks and the mosques, Domyat is not Tahrir.
[Cairo, 27 November 2011] It is one day to go before the Egyptian elections. The conditions are challenging. The country is under a decades old state of emergency. The armed forces are in power. There are deep political divisions, religious and ideological. Around forty per cent of the population are illiterate and the electoral system is possible the most complicated in the world.
There is an old saying, that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Egypt’s election system has been designed by several committees over many years each of which has felt obliged to retain decisions of the previous. When Nasser, who led Egypt’s previous revolution of 1952, came to power in 1956, he thanked his supporters from the working classes and the rural poor by reserving fifty per cent of parliamentary representation for workers and farmers. That arrangement still holds. It is overlaid by a hybrid system with one part by proportional representation based on party lists and the other by majority vote for individual candidates.
The elections are to be held in several stages beginning with those for the People’s Assembly, or lower house of Parliament. They take place across 27 governorates. The armed forces who rule the country decided the independence of the elections should be overseen by a judge at each polling station. But there are not enough trained judges to go around, so the elections will take place in three parts starting with eight governorates including Cairo, the capital, and the northern region of Damietta, where I will be stationed to witness what takes place.
On Friday, three days before the election, the military rulers decided to extend the voting over two days to give time for everyone to vote. This has given a headache to the judges who have to ensure the ballot boxes are secure overnight before voting continues on the second day. Some judges are planning to sleep with their ballot boxes. In many constituencies the first round of voting will not deliver a majority for any one of the individual candidates so the top two, or in some cases the top four, will proceed to a run off, to be held one week later.
After that the voting begins in the second set of governorates so the final results for the People’s Assembly should be known some time in mid January. Once the vote is complete for the lower house, the whole caravan sets off again for the Shura Council, or upper house.
The camel, of course, is an animal particularly well suited for transportation across the desert but it remains to be seen whether Egypt’s election system will deliver a democratic future.
[Cairo, 26 November 2011] It is tense today in Cairo, just two days before Egypt’s scheduled elections.
This morning, at 9am, barely 12 hours since I interviewed a group of protestors outside the Parliament buildings, the police intervened at Shaari Magles el Shaab. One man was killed after being run over by an armoured police vehicle, and several others injured. My friend, Ahmed Samih, who witnessed the incident, described how the police vehicle sped off, seemingly in panic as those inside realised what they had done. Later in the day a rudimentary shrine appeared at the place where the young man died. His name, written on the street in red paint, was Ahmed El Sayed Sorour. He was 19 years old.
[Cairo, 25 November 2011] Today I witnessed one of the largest gatherings in Tahrir Square since the 25 January revolution brought an end to the Mubarak era.
After 10 months of military rule, demonstrators are disappointed with the lack of progress on human rights, social justice and the broader economy. There is deepening skepticism of the military’s capability to oversee a process of democratic elections due to commence in just three days time.
In a nearby street, Shaari Magles el Shaab, with the Parliament buildings on one side and the Prime Minister’s office on the other, I came across a large group of protestors chanting and pitching up tents for the night. I sat down with one of the protestors, who introduced himself as Ali, together with his friends, to find out more about why they were there and what were their demands.
Protestors in Shaari Magles el Shaab
[Cairo, 24 November 2011] It was probably inevitable that, with Egypt’s unfinished revolution, the optimism of the Arab Spring would turn to a winter of discontent. The role of the armed forces has come under intense scrutiny with production, at the beginning of November, of a draft constitution, that would entrench military power without accountability. Islamist groups called for nationwide protests on 18 November since when 38 people have been reported killed and over 2000 injured in clashes with the security forces.
Demands for the document to be dropped have escalated into a call for removal of the ruling military council and its replacement by a civilian government. Tahrir Square in Cairo has, once again, become the focus of attention, as media footage has shown the military unable or unwilling to control the situation without bloodshed. But there are protests all over the country as frustration builds at the slow pace of change. All this is taking place just days before the first round of parliamentary elections, due on 28 November and which could now be delayed or postponed indefinitely.
In Tahrir Square, the taste of tear gas still lingers. Ahmed Samih, of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, says: “The police have been very tense. The military have tried to control the situation but have not been able. The government has resigned. It is a battle of wills between the people and the military.”
Now protestors are calling again for a million people to descend on Tahrir Square. In a statement on Tuesday, General Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s ruling army council, offered significant concessions including a referendum on shifting power to a civilian government, and bringing forward the presidential election to the first half of 2012.
The response from Tahrir was the same as that to Mubarak in his last days of power: “Irhal! Irhal!” Leave, leave. There is still raw anger at the killings of the last few days, and many of the injured are among those camped out in the square. If protests on Friday achieve anything near the numbers called for, Egypt’s military rulers will have little room left for manoeuvre.