One thing certain as Egyptians vote for president: The outcome will be a surprise

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2012 

— In an historic first, Egyptians voted Wednesday for their next president, choosing from an array of competing candidates whose wildly divergent campaign platforms pledged everything from revolutionary, religion-based change to a return to the stability of the Hosni Mubarak-era, which came to an end with Mubarak’s ouster last year.

As had been the case in the weeks leading up to the election, there was no sense of a frontrunner in interviews at the polling places. _ and hints that the results could be surprising.

In poor Cairo neighborhoods, where residents might be expected to pick Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, many voters instead said they had cast ballots for Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander who was Mubarak’s last prime minister.

Afaf Mohammed, 45, who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood during parliamentary elections last year, was among those who’d switched allegiances to Shafik. "He’ll bring better security,” she said.

Hamdeen Sabahi, who espouses the Arab nationalist philosophy of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a distant fourth, appeared to be the preference of many voters.

At a polling place in Luxor, in southern Egypt, 38-year-old Reham Abdel Gawad, wearing the all-encompassing black shroud of the most fundamentalist Islamists, said she’d voted for Sabahi, a secularist, because she felt that he showed the most empathy for Egypt’s poor.

“The veil is on my face, not my mind,” she said, explaining her decision to break ranks. “Not all Islamists are good for the country. The preacher is a preacher, and the politician is a politician.”

Emotions were high among the thousands who formed long lines around schools that served as polling centers. Some said they could not believe they were choosing a president in a free and fair election after 30 years of living in fear and forced silence. Some tapped the plastic ballot box as they dropped their ballot in and said the beginning line of an Islamic prayer, before walking out of the room, with an inked forefinger indicating a vote.

Others expressed long-held rage. As Shafik left the polling center where he cast his ballot, voters pelted him with shoes.

Some saw the vote as the start of real reforms while others voted simply to be a part of the experience. “I voted for Morsi. I don’t know anything about him but everyone told me to vote for him, and at the mosque his fliers were everywhere,” said Fouzah Ahmed, who could say only that he was over 70 years old because “I lost count.”

If there was a pattern in the balloting it was that younger voters appeared later at the polling stations. Officials extended voting hours from 8 to 9 p.m. to accommodate the late voters. In the Cairo district of Maadi, some people arriving after work stood in line for four hours to vote.

The only two candidates who engaged in a presidential debate during the two-month election cycle, Islamist moderate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, had cast their ballots by 11 a.m. Aboul Fotouh then went to a mosque and prayed.

Perhaps the most common question among voters was: Who do I vote for? Some asked it of election workers and observers as they tried to vote.

Others came prepared, pulling a piece of paper from their pocket with their selection written on it after they had a ballot in hand.

In one polling station, a woman was so exasperated when no one would tell her what to do, she simply folded up the blank ballot and dropped it in the box.

Where the parliamentary elections last fall were riddled with violations that included parties electioneering outside polling stations, Wednesday’s voting seemed remarkably routine, though allegations of misconduct, impossible to verify, swirled. There were accusations that various parties’ supporters had entered shops to persuade people to vote. There were also reports that five election judges were forced out of their jobs in Sinai because they told voters how to vote, though the country’s elections commission later denied that.

More common violations appeared to be election workers misinterpreting how to apply the rules. Some didn’t ask women in niqab to lift their veils and identify themselves to female workers until after they voted, for example. Disabled voters got various kinds of help, depending on the polling station. At times, observers and election workers would end up talking to voters, a violation, though the exchange often was only a greeting between people who knew one another.

In Sinai, where security is always a concern, armored personnel carriers sat in front of every polling station. A feeling of optimism reigned, nonetheless.

“This is the first time we feel encouraged to work after what happened to the police department on Jan. 25,” said Police Staff Sgt. Ayman Mahmoud, 30, referring to attacks on police facilities in Sinai last year at the beginning of the uprising that ousted Mubarak. “We are securing the nation, not the army or the police department and our only loyalty is to the people. The elections are as much a success for us as it is for the civilians.”

The Egyptian-government funded National Council of Human Rights, which had monitors in Sinai, reported no violations. “The only trouble was that judges are late as much as an hour," delaying the start of the election, said Baker Swaliem, an election monitor stationed in Sinai for the Amr Moussa campaign.

Each polling station was a fiefdom for the judge in charge who determined how the rules should be applied. Some judges signed the back of every ballot while others simply handed the ballots out.

In the Cairo district of Maasara, a woman tried to tell her elderly illiterate mother how to vote, prompting election judge Ahmed AbdelHaffiz to angrily kick her out of the classroom that served as a polling station. “She is your mother at home, not here,” he shouted at the distraught woman. “You have to yell at women so they understand” he explained later.

It was unclear whether voter turnout was high. Election officials estimated it at 60 percent turnout, but in the middle class neighborhood of Aguza, election judge Rasha Moneer said that while officials there had expected 90 percent of eligible voters to cast ballots, only 25 percent had done so by 7 p.m. Several judges told McClatchy that a lack of judges forced the election to merge polling districts, creating large, frustrated crowds in some places. There was no sign, however, of polling centers being overwhelmed.

According to election officials, more than 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, including ousted former President Mubarak; it was unclear if he had cast a ballot, however.

What the responsibilities and power of the new president will be is still undecided. Egypt’s old constitution was suspended after Muabrak fell, and a new one has yet to be written. The ruling military council has said it would delineate what powers the president will have by July 1, when the new president is scheduled to take office.

A mosaic of concerns shaped voters’ decisions, from crime to rising unemployment to the role of Islam in the governance of the state to whether the uprising 15 months ago that led to the end of Mubarak’s regime had benefited Egypt.

In Luxor, a southern city that boasts ancient temples and stunning Nile vistas, voters said their No. 1 concern was the lack of tourism since the revolution began. Voters there elected Muslim Brotherhood candidates for Parliament last year, but many residents said they’d grown disenchanted with the group’s performance and nervous about any single bloc holding a monopoly on Egyptian political life, as Mubarak’s regime enjoyed.

“For Parliament, OK, but that’s enough. The Brotherhood shouldn’t control everything,” said Mustafa Mohamed, 25, who runs hot-air balloon tours and voted for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member who was expelled from the group last year.

Mohamed said his business had declined 60 percent since Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011.

Visiting reporters had to drive deep into the countryside to find a large, overt presence of Brotherhood support. In the hometown of a Brotherhood lawmaker, a village with 8,500 eligible voters, the group’s Freedom and Justice Party was using five minibuses to ferry supporters to the polls.

“We’re trying to mobilize the maximum number of our supporters so that our candidate, Mohammed Morsi, will make it to the runoff,” said Abdel Hamid el Senussi, a Muslim Brotherhood politician who won a seat in Parliament representing Luxor.

Senussi said he understands the criticism of the Brotherhood’s foray into politics, but insists that the lack of progress so far is because the group’s platform was stymied by rival political forces who wanted to stunt the Islamists’ popularity. If Morsi wins, he said, the president and Islamist-majority Parliament would be in sync and thus able to enact real reforms.

“We have a triangle of horrors in Upper Egypt: illness, ignorance and poverty,” Senussi said of his region. “We need hospitals, universities and factories.”

In Cairo, telecommunications engineer Ahmed Ibrahim, 52, voted for Aboul Fotouh, calling him the least bad choice.

“My life is stable but during this period of change, there are a lot of bad things happening,” Ibrahim said. Aboul Fotouh, he said, “is in the middle of what everyone wants. He is not a great candidate but the best available.”

Fatma Mohammed Moneer, a 49-year-old physical education teacher, agreed with Ibrahim that revolutionary change had not all been good. Now she wants someone who can stabilize the nation, which is why she voted for Shafik.

"He is the only one who can manage the country through these times," she said. “We need a leader.

Even as the ballots were being cast, government officials already had begin to urge voters to accept the outcome, which is not expected to be known for a week. Ahmed el Tayeb, the grand sheikh al Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s premier religious institution, warned in a recorded message that was played on state radio stations that not voting was a sin. And the election committee officials and the ruling military council put out a message urging voters to accept the outcome.

Some Egyptians suspect the ruling military council will rig the election in favor of Shafik, a retired general, and some of those found near polling stations said they wouldn’t vote because they had no faith in the process.

Egypt allowed only half the voting monitors it had permitted to observe parliamentary elections and only a handful of international observers. Despite that, former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center was given permission to monitor the election after first being told it could not, appeared at a Cairo polling station and said he was pleased with the process, calling it a “complete transformation.”

McClatchy special correspondents Amina Ismail in Cairo and Mohanned Sabry in Sinai contributed to this article.

Allam reported from Luxor, Egypt.

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