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Dispatches from Egypt: Carter Center Witnesses Reflect on Election Voices, Symbols

Jan. 10 Update: Read "on the ground" blog from Cairo elections >

Carter Center witnesses across Egypt are observing history in the making as the country holds its first free elections in the post-Mubarak era. Egypt's People's Assembly (lower house of parliament) elections are taking place in three rounds that started in late-November and will finish in January. Each round takes place in different regions of Egypt. More than 40 parties and 6,000 candidates are competing for the 498-seat assembly, which will oversee the constitutional legislation.

Read firsthand accounts from two of the Center's witnesses in Egypt - Nedra Cherif and Matt Hall - who were deployed to Alexandria and Fayoum governorates during the first round of voting.

Even From Quiet Fayoum, People Want To Make Their Voice Heard
By Nedra Cherif

Carter Center Photo: Sulafa Musa
Carter Center witness Nedra Cherif in Tahrir Square, in Cairo.

While demonstrations continued to rage in Tahrir Square a few days before the elections began, in Fayoum, a peaceful oasis one hour from Cairo, people were unyielding in their determination to vote. Here, in the middle of cabbage fields and palm trees, people had only one wish: to make their voice heard after decades of oppression.

In this governorate, where the electoral campaigns ran at the rhythm of harvests, and where we often got stuck in the traffic of tractors, tuk tuks, and monkeys while traveling from one village to another, people felt strongly about this election, which was for most of them their first opportunity to vote. Despite the high illiteracy rate among voters, in particular women, of this mainly rural region, everyone we met was fully aware of the importance of this historical moment and of the significance of their vote.

"I want to make my voice heard," a 50-year old veiled woman told me, as she sat at the rally of a religious party. "There was no point going to vote under the previous regime. We knew the result while sitting at home. Today, things are different. I'm going to vote to support my country."

"May Allah protect Egypt," added another woman.

The third, fully veiled, didn't say anything, but I could see the hope in her eyes.

What struck me most in Fayoum though was our last visit to the Court of Justice, where the local electoral commission is located, on the day after the election.

Carter Center Photo: Nedra Cherif
Electoral activity outside a polling station in Fayoum governorate.

This time, it was neither the lively crowd at the Court of Justice, nor the long corridor with the thousands of candidates' posters – which progressively started to disappear as election was coming to an end – that impressed me, but rather the last words of the commission's Mustashar (advisor) to us regarding the Carter Center's mission.

"We would like to thank you for what you have been doing for Egypt," he said. "You, as international observers, are neutral and impartial. You don't have any personal interest in the process and that's why your point of view is so important for us. We have been really honored by your presence in Fayoum; feel free to come back anytime you want."

With emotion, I left the green-carpeted office for the last time. Sitting in the back of the car on the way out of Fayoum, I realized it had been an honor for us to be able to follow this historical moment in Egypt's history. My only wish is that the whole electoral process ends up in a fair representation of the people's will, for which hundreds of Egyptians have fought and died during the revolution.

Carter Center Photo: Nedra Cherif
Future young voters eager to know what is going on inside the polling station in Tobhar Village, Fayoum governorate.

Nedra Cherif is a Tunisian national and a graduate from the Institute for Political Sciences (Sciences Po) in Paris, France, where she majored in International Affairs and Security Studies. Before joining the Egypt team, Nedra was working as a national program associate with the Carter Center's election observation mission in Tunisia.

Campaign Symbols in Alexandria
By Matt Hall

Carter Center Photo
Carter Center observer Matt Hall (in blue hat) with judges and polling staff in Alexandria, Egypt.

During the first phase of the historic Egyptian elections, citizens queued by the thousands outside polling centers to choose a new direction for post-Mubarak Egypt by casting their votes for Tractor, Toothbrush, Tank, Chair, Compact Disc, Ladder, and Orca.

Camel and Crescent Moon were banned by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. (These symbols were previously reserved for Mubarak's ruling party).

In Alexandria, as with every electorate in Egypt, the local office of the High Electoral Commission assigned random symbols to represent each candidate on the ballot. The symbols provide a simple solution to two problems: they help illiterate voters identify their preferred candidate, and they provide shorthand to confused voters (read: everyone) to distinguish between the hundreds of new, largely unknown candidates.

For example, in the crucial runoff for the two seats in district three, the race came down to Alarm Clock and Soccer Ball vs. Picture Frame and Stethoscope. It was a cliffhanger.

When our Carter Center team met with the administrative clerk responsible for (among other things) assigning campaign symbols in Alexandria, we asked him about this task. He rolled his eyes and threw his head back in exasperation when we asked if he had received any complaints from candidates about their symbols.

"Every day," he said. Hassan, a dedicated civil servant, dedicated smoker, and all-around cool guy, opened the folder containing the lists of candidates.

"I just went down the column of names and the column of symbols and assigned them one by one," he explained. "But candidates thought I was communicating something with the selection, making personal judgments about them! One candidate called yesterday and said 'Hassan, how many years have I known you? How could you give me Onion?' He didn't think it was a very dignified vegetable. Another, a prominent lawyer, was furious. 'How dare you?! Are you trying to ruin my campaign?!' So I looked at the chart. He was Evening Gown. He thought it was a comment about his masculinity."

Carter Center Photo: Matthew Hall
(Click to enlarge)
Some of the many candidate posters in Alexandria, with random symbols assigned to each person.

Hassan explained that candidates have the option to change their symbol, but their name would automatically fall to the end of the massive ballot – exiled to position 145 or 146 – so most chose to tough it out.

At that moment, right on cue, Hassan's cell phone rang – another disgruntled candidate. We eavesdropped as Hassan tried to get a word in. "Mahmoud… Mahmoud… Mah-…"

And then this classic exchange: "Look, I've told you several times this week. I assure you, it is a male crocodile."

Picture if you will a rudimentary green drawing of a crocodile in profile: a spiky tail, a set of chompers, a big googly eye; basically the Lacoste logo. It seems the candidate's friends keep ribbing him that his campaign crocodile is a woman. And this is cause for lodging an official electoral complaint!

Matthew Hall is a research consultant for the World Bank's Global Expert Team on Conflict Resolution and Post Conflict Reconstruction. He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and modern Middle East history from the American University in Cairo and a master's degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University.

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