Vote Like an Egyptian

Egypt's new democracy is off to a confusing, but calm start

"Hey everyone, better find a pen. They've run out."

A woman appeared at the gate of a local school, her inked-dipped pinkie proof positive that she had succeeded in what the rest of us stuck in a three-hour long line still aspired to: voting in Egypt's first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections. Hundreds of us waited patiently, snaked round the street in a Cairo suburb; male voters were at a separate venue, a few blocks away, to avoid any unseemliness between the sexes. This newly-minted democrat gave us further bulletins from the ballot box: "The list of candidates, it is very long, as long as my arm. You should know the symbol and number of the candidate you are voting for. Some of the women, they are asking the officials who they should vote for. This is shame."

Getting your act together in this first round of Egyptian elections isn't easy. I have more experience than most, having voted in Canada and the UK. But the Egyptian system, with its dozens of parties and hundreds of individual candidates, seems designed to confuse first-time voters, which was the case for most of the women in line. I can only imagine the government consulted an Italian-Israeli consortium on electoral procedure. Even the symbols assigned to each party (useful for illiterate voters, and Arabic-learners like myself) raised questions. Is it wise to support the coconut? Can I count on the briefcase candidate to deliver? Will we end up burned by the stove?

I was surrounded by a lively mix of women--doctors, teachers, students, housewives--almost all in hijab, with a couple in full niqab (face-veil) jostling for space. "I am here because they [the Mubarak regime] took our Egypt. I want it back," one of my fellow voters said. "Why you here?" she asked me--a natural-enough question, since I look so Western. "Because this is my country too--my father is Egyptian. Here there are problems, but also opportunities. I want to help." Another voter looked at me as if I were slightly unhinged. "My kids are in Kuwait studying. The education system here is so bad. I think maybe I join them after this."

She's not alone. I know plenty of young Egyptians who put their dreams of emigration on hold during the revolution, but are now busy reactivating their plans. Many of them spent the past week protesting in Tahrir Square--and chances are the forthcoming election result is going to speed them on their way. To a woman, those around me were planning to vote for the Freedom and Justice Party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if you wanted to break from the pack, peer pressure in the polling booth was fierce. Crammed two or three to a cubicle, women were peering over shoulders and asking each other whom they were supporting. "Good, good," they nodded approvingly if you came up with the right answer.

Freedom and Justice were certainly pulling their weight, the only party with a noticeable presence at the polling station. The Muslim Brotherhood itself is famous for providing essential services to communities--healthcare and drinkable water, for example--and such practical assistance accounts in large part for its grassroots support. Freedom and Justice were doing much the same for voters, campaign workers stationed under a tent, laptops with internet connections fired up to help people find their registration details online as they joined the queue.

At the end of the day, this isn't really a parliamentary election. It's referendum on political Islam. Either you vote for Freedom and Justice or Al Nour (the ultra-conservative Salafi party) which are the best-branded Islamic groups, or you vote for one of an ill-defined mass of secular parties--and it doesn't seem to matter to many I've met which one that is. "I don't know who I'm going to vote for," one of friends told me. "But I definitely know who I'm not--the Brotherhood." We'll have a better idea by mid-week how well that strategy is panning out, but for where I stood today, it looks like Tahrir Square might be seeing a little more action in the weeks to come.