Scratching, clawing, hitting and elbowing their way to vote

Sunday, December 11th, 2011
The first thought that popped into my head as I gazed at the seemingly endless line of voters was ‘I'll pay the damned fine.'

On November 28, over eight million Egyptians headed to the polls to cast their votes in the first round of parliamentary elections. When the date for the elections was announced, people headed to the supermarkets to stock up on supplies and to the banks and ATM machines to withdraw money.

Phone calls and text messages were sent to almost everyone, asking them for land line phone numbers, and posts circulated on Facebook for alternative means to connect to an internet server if the government decided to cut off the internet and cell phone coverage.

Almost every Egyptian expected the worst and braced for a repeat of the violence and instability of the revolution. But nothing of the sort ever materialized.

On the day of the elections, armed with my polling station number and ID card, I headed to a school more than half an hour away from my house.

As I got out of the car, the masses of people stretched on and on, spanning over four streets. Looking at the longest line of people I had ever seen standing ankle-deep in muddy puddles (it had, of course, rained the day before; one of the three days of the year it ever rains in Cairo), I felt a whimper coming on.

The end of the line was about five blocks away from the door to the school; I stood in line for over five-and-a-half-hours.

Though many Egyptians went to the polling stations in a bid to cheerfully do their civic duty, some were dragged there in fear of the EGP 500 fine imposed on the people who were eligible to vote, but did not show up to the polls.

"If it weren't for that fine, I would be at home watching people vote on TV," I overheard one of the two elderly women standing behind me say.

"My pension in less than that...I can't afford to!" agreed the other woman.

For most of the long wait, everything appeared organized. There was the odd old lady who tried to nonchalantly cut in line and stories of skirmishes were passed on down the line.

Concerned civilians walked up and down the line, informing us of what to expect inside and telling us to double check the names of our chosen candidates as their names and numbers had apparently been changed on the ballot form.

They also warned us to check that our ballots had been stamped and signed; otherwise, our vote would be invalid. About three-quarters of the way down the line, one of the policemen at the gate yelled that my polling station was open and anyone assigned that number was to go to the front of the line. Chaos ensued.

Women ran and crowded the front of the door, each trying to get inside before the others. Women in the original line shrieked that it wasn't fair. The policeman at the door grew angrier and angrier before finally exploding and roaring at the women at the front of the school "you broke the line! Go to the back! You ruined it!"

I was reminded of the parrot cages at the zoo. Women squawking, screeching, bickering and flapping their arms up and down tried to fight, reason with or curse the police officer.

"How do you expect to organize and run a country when you cannot even organize or run polling stations!" one woman yelled in my ear.

The police and army officers tried to push us back as some women called them ‘incompetent', ‘stupid idiots', and ‘morons'. The mass of humanity took two steps back and then surged forward, all scratching, clawing, hitting and elbowing their way through as each woman, powered by adrenaline, anger and irritability towards the poll.

A woman on my right elbowed me in the face, a woman behind grabbed my coat and tried to pull me backwards, another yanked my hair, as we all fought our way towards our civic duty.

I, myself, pushed and elbowed an old lady out of my way, kicked out at a random woman and shamelessly plowed my way through, screaming insults along the way.

Inside the polling station, there was barely room to breathe. The proctor let people in the station two by two. It took another hour of standing before I got into the poll to look in the list of over 150 names, the names of the candidates I halfheartedly supported. The voting process itself took 30 seconds.

I can only hope, as do the majority of Egyptians, that this was not a waste of our time. Stories of corruption and rigged ballot boxes make me angrier and more offended that I ever would have been had I not gone to the polling stations.

It was a long, tiring, painful (wet) process. The candidates I voted for did not win, nor did my party get the majority vote. However, getting the opportunity to go and be a part of something that would not have been possible during a corrupt regime and getting to participate in the beginning of a new, hopefully, fairer Egypt is something that is worth the bruised ribs, black eye and the EGP 1700 hospital bill I had to pay.