In Egypt, volunteers support first-time voters

Egypt has started to vote for its first parliament since Mubarak. Some very dedicated volunteers have been working towards making every vote count.
I vote for my country
I vote for my country

It is evening in a stationary shop in a quiet district of Cairo. “Welcome Um Mahmoud!” cries out the enthusiastic owner as a middle-aged woman walks in. “Have you voted yet?”

Despite last week’s violence, the mood was generally positive in Egypt as millions of voters in nine governorates around Egypt headed down to the polls on Monday, many for the first time in their lives. The record turnout was partly thanks to the work of some very dedicated volunteers, determined to make the best of the first democratic parliamentary elections since Egypt’s January 25 revolution.

In Cairo, in Nasr City on the right bank of the Nile, Nadin Suliman, 24, was busy monitoring her local polling station to make sure that, this year, nobody threw any votes into the bin. She had signed up as a volunteer with Morakpa , a grassroots movement called Monitoring to observe the current elections, and was finally putting weeks of training on the Egyptian election law to good practice.

“I am taking testimonies of what’s happening inside. So far everything is going smoothly,” she said by phone in the afternoon from outside the school. “The only violation is that people are still hanging up their ads outside the polling station.”

Political campaigns are supposed to stop 48 hours before the polls open in Egypt, and Nadin had already reported the infraction to the Morakpa central team. Her fellow volunteers received many other complaints that day: Judges were late. Polling stations still hadn’t opened. Ballot papers arrived unstamped, and one girl turned up to vote to find that someone had already voted for her.

On the group’s Facebook page, there were dozens of photos of illegal flyering, free tshirts, an unsealed poll box, and a text message asking suscribers to support one party.

But Lawyer Ahmed Bergat, the movement’s exhausted organiser, was positive. With only a few cases of violence nationwide and no reports of bribes, he was mainly concerned about attempts to influence voters in and outside the polling stations. Compared to previous elections, the first day had gone well.

The lawyer’s initiative is one of many to ensure that Egypt’s first free elections in decades are a success, and that Egyptians speak up and claim their right to vote.

Strategic consultant Amr el-Gabry is the founder of Oreed, I want, an initiative created in February to raise political awareness among Egyptians. He and his team have been designing “useful summaries”, A4 infographics about how the elections work to be passed on to friends and family online and in the street. Over the past months, his team of volunteers, mostly from corporate backgrounds, have spoken to Egyptians from all walks of life, in the Delta, Upper Egypt, and around Cairo, about their duties as citizens and the weight of their vote, or voice, the same word in Arabic.

At one of the workshops, he met a gardener. The man, for most of his life, had been taking bribes of 50 Egyptian pounds (about $ 8), or 20 Egyptian pounds in a bad year, from former ruling National Democratic Party for his vote. During the workshop, he spoke up: “I used to feel that we had infertile land, no hope,” he told fellow participants. “But now it is fertile, we have had a revolution. Now I wouldn’t take one million Egyptian pounds!”

The poor in Egypt are very aware, says el-Gabry, but they have different priorities. The truth is that when he votes, the gardener might very well take the money because he needs it to buy food, but at least this year has sparked growing civic engagement and discussion among Egyptians.

“People now care,” he says. “They now know the value of this vote is more than 50 Egyptian pounds, which is good.”

Popular icon Ahmed Odwiya also cares. When he was approached by Sahwa Masreya, Egyptian Awakening, about a song to encourage Egyptians to vote, he agreed to sing pro bono. The husband of Nadine Azmi, one of the women who started the initiative in Cairo’s leafy upper-middle class of Maadi, couldn’t get over it. Ahmed Odwiya and the family working together to better Egypt! The singer’s wife on the phone to his own wife about his new interest in politics! Even his 14-year-old son was making a video for the star that, together with two other versions, would attract more than 46,000 clicks on YouTube.

“Forget about the elections of the past...” goes the catchy tune on the radio, “No more bribes. He who sells his conscience is a traitor to the essence of democracy...” At one point the song was so popular that it was picked up by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, a party expected to do very well in the elections. They branded it and adopted it as their own, but the women of Sahwa Masreya were fast to complain. Everybody could use it, they said, but not to serve a particular political party. Within days, it was taken down. Victory was declared on Twitter. 

“The idea is to move the silent majority off the couch,” said Mariam al-Masry from Sahwa Masreya, a few weeks before the elections.

But volunteers are not naive. These initiatives are only the beginning of more long term change, and with protesters still in Tahrir Square demanding an end to military rule and some activists boycotting the elections, the country’s political future remains uncertain.

“Hopefully, we will make an impact and hopefully Oreed will be part of this impact,” said Oreed founder el-Gabry, who was on Tahrir Square last Saturday wearing a gas mask after security forces cracked down on protesters, but on Monday headed down to the first parliamentary elections of his life.

In the end, say many, after decades of other people voting for you, it is a learning process. People will probably vote on religious affiliation or according to how they are influenced on the day, said el-Gabry, but perhaps later they will learn from their mistakes and make more informed decisions. At least now, there is belief in the action of participation, whatever the election results are, and however much authority the new parliament is given.

Egypt’s parliamentary elections are to be held in three phases to end in January. The newly elected parliament is to form a special constitutional assembly to draw up a new constitution in 2012, which will only be the beginning in Egypt’s struggle for reform. Throughout these steps, including possible second rounds, initiatives like Oreed and Morakpa will keep up their work. And Sahwa al-Masriyya’s song will continue to remind voters about their freedom of choice.

On Tahrir Square, late on Monday afternoon, Abdelkarim Nabir, 23, a tour guide out of work since the January uprisings, paused in between checking the IDs of those entering the relatively calm square to tell me that he too was optimistic.

“It’s good that we are voting now,” he said in good English, his eyes above his Che Guevara beard dark from lack of sleep. “Before I used to stay at home sleeping, and they would vote for me.” 

Tahrir’s revolution has not been kind to him as he works in tourism, he explained, but the 18 days in January to overthrow Mubarak and the ongoing protest this week to demand an end to a military regime have been necessary for long term change. 

With tents and banners of Tahrir Square in the background, he paused.

“You can write this: This place for me means freedom.”