Observing Egypt's Election

The Carter Center has deployed 22 international election witnesses to Egypt's upcoming May 23-24 presidential elections and will send a larger delegation of 80 witnesses from over 35 nations several days before the election, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Many of the Center's witnesses have been with The Carter Center in Egypt since November 2011 and have witnessed the lower and upper house parliamentary elections too.

This will be the country's first democratic selection of a president and follows 30 years of dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak. A potential runoff may take place June 16-17 and the military leadership's handover to civilian power is expected by July 1.

Carter Center witnesses share their reflections and hopes for the presidential election below, as well as scenes from their areas of deployment across Egypt.

Farrah Hassen: On the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution, there was a peaceful march near a main square in Assiut, Upper Egypt. I remember being caught off guard by how young the demonstrators looked. Their chants and signs, calling for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to transfer power to civilian rule, pointed to what many of my interlocutors on all sides of the political spectrum referred to – an unfinished, incomplete revolution. Holding the "fairest elections in Egypt's history" was just the beginning. More work remained in building a meaningful democracy for all of Egypt's citizens. As a witness, I could only watch in awe, appreciating the spirit and determination of locals in Assiut determined to play a part in their country's history, regardless of those who challenged them. I was reminded of my first political awakening, in the United States as an Arab and Muslim-American wrestling with the impact of 9/11 on civil liberties in a country I held so dear.

Over a cup of menacingly sweet tea, I remember hearing from a group of young men who argued that Egyptians should take their concerns straight to the newly elected parliament as opposed to disrupting traffic on the street. Those same individuals agreed that the revolution has yet to meet its objectives, but important differences remained between the young men and those on the street over the methods of realizing them.

One thing remains certain. The fear factor, especially among Egypt's youth, has broken, and this could arguably be the most immediate impact of the "Arab Spring" from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. In an era of instant communication and social media, I don't think anyone can easily accuse this generation of youth in the Middle East North Africa region of being complacent. To quote the graffiti I saw on the walls in Cairo, "The revolution will not be tweeted." 

Tadzrul Adha: Being an international witness to the election has allowed me to taste the experience first-hand, just like everybody else here in Egypt. One friendly voter I met told me "it's much more than just the ballot paper, it's about our future and what comes along." This country has seen a lot of turmoil, but lasting stability is not far from materializing.

Arwa Marzouk: The Carter Center's witnessing is largely accepted by those we have met. President Carter's name has been the largest positive wave that we rode on in the mission. The main reason behind this is positive contribution during his presidency to Arab affairs. Many introductions went something like, "We are from The Carter Center." "What is that?" Then we would say, "We are from the Jimmy Carter Center." And everybody knew where we were from and we were welcomed.

It will be interesting to see how the evolution of the electoral process continues in the presidential election. We started off seeing heavy wood and glass, wax-sealed ballot boxes in the People's Assembly election to now seeing the use of an international standard, plastic security-sealed ballot boxes. The process moved from all the judges assembling in a mega-dome structure to count the ballots to counting at individual polling stations. The parliamentary elections were a very interesting experience for us, with the highlight being the face to face meeting with President Carter.

Paolo Maligaya: As an election observer, the significance of Nov. 28, 2011, the first day of voting during Egypt's People's Assembly elections, was never lost on me. We knew we were witness to history, that it was a very important day for most Egyptians who had held high hopes for the country and for their livelihood since the days after the revolution and the deposition of the dictatorship. We felt very privileged to be part of this mission and to be assigned in downtown Cairo – the nerve center of the events of January and February 2011. We could not have asked for a better area of responsibility really, but we also knew of the challenges and the potential risks. It was not yet 7 a.m. but the queue in front of a voting center in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek was already long. I could not forget the sight of these old gentlemen in front of the line, dressed in formal clothes, clutching newspapers and books, waiting patiently and quietly. I could sense that many of the people in the queue had been waiting for this day for years or even decades, and they were certainly dressed for the occasion.

Nedra Cherif: Where else but Egypt would you find, in the chaos of a counting center, a judge, a military officer, and young revolutionaries sitting together and quietly debating the role of the military authority in the country's future?  Appearances are deceptive – the revolutionary violence may have had been reticent to cause damage to this marvelous region, but revolutionary spirit and willingness to debate and confront ideas have had no difficulties to reach as far as the very depths of the Aswan region.

Nell Bell: It can feel surreal as a witness to be crouched down on a chair designed for a six-year old, balancing a cup of tea and a clipboard on your knee, while chatting with a party agent or a member of staff about the enormous changes and challenges facing Egypt. Sometimes you may be met with suspicion and skepticism, but for the most part you are accepted with the hospitality for which Egyptians are rightfully famous. Conversations may range from the obvious and mundane to philosophical and abstract.

There must be a thousand variations on the standard polling station format in Egypt, some depending on the particular need of the voters, others the particular circumstances of the area, or more often than not, just the particular personalities of the staff.

One of the great privileges of being a witness in Egypt is to experience firsthand the obvious delight people take in going to cast their vote in an election where they believe their vote will be counted. In the context of a complex transition process, this is one of the tangible changes that people have impressed on us since we started work in November.

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