Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Day in the Life of an Egyptian Electoral District

Balteem is a captivating town of majestic palm trees and generous people situated on Egypt’s northernmost tip. Jutting out into the Mediterranean and flanked by Lake Burullus to the west, the city and its adjoining modest resort town were best known as Umm Kulthum’s favorite place to spend her summer holidays. But it was suddenly thrust onto the national political map in 1995 when charismatic neo-Nasserist activist Hamdeen Sabahy ran for parliament to represent the large constituency comprising Balteem and the adjoining southern town of Hamoul. Since then, Balteem has become a flashpoint district in every national election.

Sabahy’s 1995 bid was unsuccessful. Two of his female voters died when security forces fired into a crowd of women amassing before a polling station. He ran again and won in 2000 and 2005, thanks to the onset of judicial supervision, unseating the NDP’s four-term incumbent Ahmed Se’da and losing another voter to police violence in 2005 named Gom’a al-Ziftawy.

Sabahy is an unusual figure in Egyptian politics, a leading member of the Cairo opposition political class who happens to have a large and loyal constituency in his provincial hometown. Born in July 1954 to a father who made a living as a farmer, Sabahy was one of millions of beneficiaries of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s redistributive policies. He majored in journalism and mass communications at Cairo University and had his first sampling of national fame when he and fellow university student activist and Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh carried on an unscripted, live televised debate with President Sadat on 2 February 1977. Sabahy’s ties to his base fit none of the familiar categories that structure Egyptian electoral politics. He doesn’t come from a family of local notables. He’s not an Islamist, in a district with a Muslim Brother following. And while he does provide services to the district, notably irrigation pumps for Balteem’s farmers, the scale of benefits is nowhere near what even a middling NDP member can muster.

The links between Sabahy and his constituents are based on his politics and personal qualities. On domestic policy, he supports the package of constitutional reforms long demanded by the opposition and recently taken up by Mohamed ElBaradei, and favors a large government role in the economy. On foreign policy, he advocates a stance independent of American and Israeli interests and much more pro-active in defense of Palestinian rights.

This year, Sabahy’s main contender is NDP member Essam Abdel Ghaffar, backed by the NDP’s Ahmad Ezz and dubbed a “distinctive deputy under the parliamentary rotunda” by the government party. Abdel Ghaffar is a local entrepreneur with a support base centered in the town of Hamoul. He secured the labor seat for the district in the 2005 elections but this year is running for the professionals’ seat, after an NDP rival sued to compel him to change his labor affiliation, pointing out that Abdel Ghaffar is a businessman listed in the city’s commercial registry. His moment of fame came when he and two other NDP MPs assaulted a parliament photographer during a plenary session when the latter photographed Abdel Ghaffar chastising a Wafd MP for printing in the Wafd newspaper a photo of Abdel Ghaffar sleeping in parliament.

Election day begins at 6:30 am. A gentle sunrise blankets the town as campaign workers and early bird voters make their way on the hushed streets to their voting stations.

7:10 am. A women’s polling station in Balteem junior high school. Sabahy’s authorized representatives review the day’s checklist before the official start of voting at 8 am. “You have to check and make sure that each box is empty before voters come in, especially if it’s a wooden box,” instructs the most knowledgeable representative who’s been working with Sabahy since 1995. “Never for a minute leave your ballot box unattended. Stay glued to it until it’s safely transported to the counting stations in Hamoul. If the head of the polling station asks for it, give him a copy and not the original of your certification papers.”

An elderly woman voter comes in ten minutes later, panting from the strain of the walk. I look at her and she breaks out in a huge smile. “I always vote for him,” she says shyly.

8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps. Now they’re scrambling to photocopy the agents’ papers so that they can hand them to heads of polling stations when asked, retaining the originals.

9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.

10 am. Campaign workers convene in the courtyard outside Sabahy’s house to plan next steps. The burning issue is how to get to the town of Hamoul to check on the conduct of polling there. The NDP’s Essam Abdel Ghaffar is from Hamoul, which has a larger share of the district’s votes than Sabahy’s base in Balteem. Campaign workers strategize on who should go to Hamoul and how to avoid the ubiquitous threat of assault by either security forces and/or thugs hired by the government candidate. They decide on a select all-male group who will travel to Hamoul in cars with Cairo license plates rather than plates from the governorate of Kafr al-Shaykh (where the electoral district is located). The Kafr al-Shaykh plates would be more easily identifiable as Sabahy’s partisans and thus more likely to come under attack.

11:15 am. A polling station for both men and women in Borg al-Borollos primary school. Borg al-Borollos is a hamlet in Balteem with a voting bloc of approximately 15,000. Borg residents have no fixed allegiance to either Sabahy or Abdel Ghaffar. Some see a split in the town’s partisan support along generational lines, with youth supporting Sabahy for his national political profile and older residents preferring NDP candidates born and bred in the town. Turnout appears to be relatively active. Several riot police trucks are parked unobtrusively nearby, along with a large tour bus holding conscripts. This year, riot police were bussed into districts in tour buses in addition to the customary olive-green trucks.

A pick-up truck with a large megaphone planted on top pulls up directly in front of the school and stands there for five minutes. The megaphone exhorts voters not to give their support to “outsiders” (a reference to Sabahy) but to government candidates who pledge their support to president Mubarak, “the caretaker of all Egyptians.”

A pack of 9-12 year old boys disembark from the truck and gather round the Sabahy campaign car where I’m sitting, and a round of infectious giggles ensues.

1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.

1:25 pm. Reports of rigging in Hamoul come in fast and furious. Now reports from the Borg al-Borollos primary school where we were earlier are also coming in, noting severe irregularities. A sense of defeat and disappointment begins to seep into the Sabahy campaign. A male journalist and ardent Sabahy supporter begins to weep quietly. Campaign aides say Sabahy should hold a press conference immediately to denounce the fraud. Campaign cars and Balteem youth on foot make their way to the courtyard outside Sabahy’s house.

1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.

2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”

Crestfallen residents mill about outside their houses, some cursing the government and others eerily silent, sitting on the stoops of their houses with blank expressions. The elements seem to be in tune with the general mood; the day’s earlier blinding sunlight has given way to grey clouds. It finally dawns on me that the government is serious about keeping Sabahy out of the 2010 parliament.

4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”

The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.

5 pm. A contingent of the crowd breaks away like a renegade train car and heads for polling stations, to confront the clerks engaging in fraud and ballot-stuffing. Riot police are called to the polling stations and begin firing tear gas canisters into the crowds, blockading streets, and chasing down any young men. I accompany a handful of journalists trying to get close to the action to take photos. The gas burns our eyes as we get closer and I can’t see well from the tears. I ask a matronly woman standing outside her house for a couple of onions. Without a word she rushes inside and comes back 15 seconds later with two onions sliced down the middle, stuffing them into my hand. We snort the onions and immediately feel better, our sinuses and eyes completely cleared.

We ask a couple of residents for access to their roofs so we can take photos, but they refuse. “Why are they scared? I would’ve let you in if it was my house,” says a high school student walking along with his mate, their school notebooks under their arms. “The private lesson is cancelled today,” his friend quips as he sees me looking at his notebooks in puzzlement.

I come upon a row of riot policemen with their backs to me, blocking the street to a polling station. I start to get closer to take a clearer photo but one of them turns his head, spots me, and starts moving towards me with an extremely long rifle slung over his shoulder. A journalist comes out of nowhere and grabs my hand, and we run like mad.

6 pm. It’s getting dark now, but people are still milling about on the side streets. I come upon a group of mirthful women clustered outside a house, clapping, laughing and loudly chanting one of Sabahy’s campaign slogans: Shemal, Yemeen, Benhebbak ya Hamdeen! I never expected this corner of joy on such a grim day, and I start laughing too. They implore me to take their photo and I’m happy to oblige.

6:30 pm. Everyone convenes back in the courtyard of Sabahy’s house, and rumors fly about that elections in the district have been suspended. The mood is suddenly jubilant, and people mill about waiting for Sabahy to come out and give a speech.

7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon. Things wind down quietly and people begin to disperse, while others sit in silence mulling over their stolen election.

8:15 pm. In the large mandara of Sabahy’s house, partisans and campaign workers sit in exhaustion on large couches arranged in a U-shape along the sides and back of the room, trading election war stories and surveying the day’s catch. A tear gas canister from the afternoon confrontation is displayed, its noxious powder causing people to sneeze and tear up all over again. Crumpled, voting cards filled out for Sabahy and the Ikhwan labor candidate Ali al-Sheshtawy are passed around, said to be found thrown outside polling stations and replaced with forged ballots for the NDP. A spent live bullet is passed around in awe, the initials A.R.E. (Arab Republic of Egypt) engraved clearly on its bottom. News comes in that 18 residents have been arrested in the day’s events, but no serious injuries are reported.

10 pm. Time to get some sleep. I walk down a lane and am greeted by the shrill cry of the insomniac rooster who kept me up the night before. No one is sleeping in Balteem tonight.

*Photos 2 and 6 from the Sabahy facebook group.