Outside a ballot counting office in Shubra el-Kheima, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo, throngs of men chant in unison to a cackling loudspeaker: "There is no god but Allah! No to vote rigging!"
It’s 10 p.m. at the end of Election Day in Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood supporters are amassed against a line of metal barricades and riot police, protesting events here that represent a low mark in Egyptian electoral charades.
Egyptians headed to the polls on Sunday to elect a new People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, after their government spent last week embroiled in a diplomatic squabble with the U.S. over foreign monitors, and vowed that contests would be fair without oversight by delegates from the international community. Yet meager turnout and allegations of fraud, vote buying and violence ruled the day.
Before the polls open in Shubra el-Kheima, sitting parliamentarian Mohammed el-Beltagy’s representatives are prevented from entering polling stations to monitor the vote. At 8 a.m. one of them, Dr. Olaa Hassan, tells me helplessly, “I just can’t get in.”
Inside the school, the atmosphere is jovial. Election workers, security personnel and representatives from president Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party prepare for the long haul with tea and snacks.
Dr. Hassan is excluded because El-Beltagy is not just any MP. He is a member of the officially outlawed but grudgingly tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition to the regime.
Brotherhood candidates running as independents swept a 20 percent block in the last elections in 2005, and this time around the regime is prepared to deter them. More than one thousand Brotherhood supporters were arrested in the run up to Sunday’s elections.
Yesterday, allegations of carousel balloting and vote buying in Brotherhood strongholds like Shubra el-Kheima sparked late-night protests. In the absence of judicial supervision, removed by constitutional amendments passed in 2007, fraud now thrives in sparsely attended voting rooms.
At noon in a nearby polling station, four bored election officials have time to kill. They report there are 15 ballots in the box. No one has come in to vote, and the staff is not surprised: “Why would people come vote when we know what the results are?” one asks me.
Alone in the pale-green room, we discuss how to rig an election.
“There are 1000 people on this [voting] list, 200 will come vote. What happens to the remaining 800?”
“Who will mark those remaining ballots?” I ask. Another worker whispers, “You know who, I don’t have to tell you.” A security officer has entered the room, but instead of halting our conversation, he joins in, offering insight into stealing an election, as I press on.
“You tie the monkey where the monkey’s owner tells you to tie it,” one of them responds simply. And we leave it at that. But over the course of the day, it becomes obvious that there are less elegant rigging methods.
In a crowded school courtyard in Tanan Village, in the Qalyoubiya governorate just north of Cairo, the atmosphere is charged with tension. Earlier that morning, residents tell me, a band of around 100 of Egypt’s notorious thugs-for-hire arrived at the polling station with knives and guns, fired into the air and tore up all the ballots.
“I wanted to vote,” says Mohammad Shadid, a 28-year-old accountant, whose arm now rests in a makeshift sling. “They came and pushed me and hit me with a stick. Government security didn’t do anything.” The polling station was open for only 30 minutes. Regime critics allege that while polling stations are closed, ballot boxes are stuffed.
Inside the now defunct polling center, the scene is grim. Outside the office of the provincial police manning the station, a middle-aged officer grabs my arm and screams at me to leave the grounds.
After I refuse, he seizes the international press ID hanging around my neck. Clasping the band, he starts to pull me out of the station by the neck. With the band tightening, I pull out my phone to call the hotline provided by the Egyptian government to report violations. He lunges for it and tries to rip out the battery. After a struggle I am shoved unceremoniously into the street. The officer disappears inside and the school’s gates are closed behind him.
Outside, a young man, who identifies himself as Ahmed, keeps screaming over the crowd that engulfs me. “No democracy,” he shouts repeatedly in English. “No democracy in Egypt!” It appears he is right. Reports of violations poured into the offices of independent domestic observer groups last night, while Dr. El-Beltagy’s supporters held their late-night vigil in the hazy Cairo pollution.
In the middle of the night, they learned that el-Beltagy made it to the run-off round to be held on December 5th, but based on what I saw, the chances of an improvement over yesterday’s contest are slim.
Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.