Today was the first day of Egypt’s presidential elections, and it arrived with equal parts fanfare and skepticism. Around 53 million of Egypt’s 85 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, which will continue tomorrow, and than almost definitely proceed to a second round in mid-June.
After briefly walking around to check out the polling stations in Dokki this morning, I headed to Abdeen, a working class neighborhood in the Downtown area of Cairo that has been central to politics since last Winter, to meet with a few friends who live there. Abdeen’s borders are practically delineated by the army-built concrete walls that have popped up since the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November. Like most areas in Cairo, political associations vary between neighbors and within families.
Sitting at a cafe on Nubar Street, conversation revolved entirely around the day’s events, in large part vis-a-vis tongue in cheek jokes at the expense of felool candidates Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa. At around 4 we got word that former US President Jimmy Carter was monitoring the polling station a block away from us, so we made our way over to check out the scene. It turned out President Carter was not there, but US Representative David Dreier (R – California) was. According to an aide who was there with him, Dreier is the sole elected US official in Egypt to monitor the elections, and has been here five or six times since 2011.
Perhaps because of the Congressman’s presence, BBC Arabic and other media outlets were on the scene to cover the polling station. While the camera crew waited for Rep. Dreier to come out, they interviewed a few of my friends and other voters who emerged with purple-stained fingers. Spirits on the streets of Abdeen ran high. Although all of the guys I was with voted for either Hamdeen Sabahy or Khaled Ali, they predicted that Abdeen sent the most votes to Ahmed Shafiq, a former minister in the Mubarak government.
There was a noticeable silence on the subject of Aboul Fotoh, the Muslim Brotherhood-turned independent candidate who as recently as a month ago was seen as a broadly appealing, liberal candidate with a sophisticated view on the role of religion in public life and the law. Whether due to the debate with Amr Moussa last week (which probably benefitted neither of them) or another reason, a lot of enthusiasm for Aboul Fotoh seems to have transferred to other candidates such as Hamdeen Sabahy.
Many of the arguments against celebrating today’s elections make sense on one level or another: presidential powers have not been established, constitutional amendments remain uncertain, multiple candidates have been accused of flagrantly violating the campaign rules, etc. Nonetheless, it was remarkable to see new friends and old enthusiastically embrace their new opportunity to participate in formal politics in a way that simply has not been an option in Egypt until this very day. Yes, this is only one of many elements that will come into place to form Egypt’s new society, but it’s hard to see how on the whole, this vote isn’t on the whole a step forward.