The taste of democracy is not just in the name, but in the practice!
As I approached the first polling station to witness the opening of the poll I noticed something conspicuous; over fifty armed military officers, searching and questioning each voter or any one who attempted to enter the school, which housed the polling station. Four armored personnel carriers stood strategically at the four corners of the double storied primary school and at the roof-top were well positioned discreet snipers each attentively attending to their ‘state of the art’ long range rifles.
I had to stop and ask locals whether there was actually a polling station located in this school or if the education facility had been turned into a military base of sorts; it surely looked like a planning site for the ‘operation lightning thunder’. Amidst all this, it looked like it was only me that was approaching the polling station with fears and judders; everyone else walked self-assuredly to the swam of armed security folks, got searched and proceeded inside the school to cast their vote – no body seemed afraid! The confidence of the voters gave me assurance to walk to the wall of soldiers who searched me (thrilled about the colour of my skin) and allowed me to proceed inside (on condition that on my way out I will honour their request to take a picture with them).
A queue of about fifty people had already formed outside the polling station (located in one of the classrooms). It was a few minutes to the official opening time of the polls and the presiding officer was doing his final touch-ups to ensure that the polling station was well arranged to guarantee comfortable voting. As he sorted out what he needed to use from his laptop-like bag, he lifted out a pistol that he placed on his table. Apart from me, this didn’t seem to attract the attention of any other person in the polling room. He noticed that I had spent more than half a minute staring at his silver, fancy looking handgun and that was motivation enough to take it off the table and rest it back in his bag. This was at El Qattameya Primary School polling station located in Zamalek, Cairo in Egypt. Here, I witnessed the opening of the polling station and later moved on to check out a few other polling stations.
In the course of the day I was destined to appreciate that my experience at El Qattameya Primary School was to be replayed at each and every polling station that I later visited. Guns, armored personnel vehicles, well-positioned snipers were regular features and didn’t attract any unfamiliar attention from the Egyptians during last month’s presidential elections. Nearly all the locals I spoke to (with my Ugandan kajanja!) were appreciative of the ‘security’ that the military was providing. To them, this was a ‘safeguard against any potential disruption of the polls’.
A colleague who was watching the same election in another part of the country shared similar experiences although at one of the polling stations he had visited, a military general had refused him to leave the station before he took a courtesy drink – a canned soda that was delivered to him already opened. After many minutes of bargaining, he later convinced the general that he would have the drink while in the car with a snack he had packed.
Polling stations in Egypt have thousands of voters; one polling station will have as high as six thousand voters. With such enormous figures I was keen on seeing how the counting process would happen. The presidential election being a two-horse race made the counting of votes less rigorous though. At this particular polling station where I watched closure of the polls, one of the candidates’ agents took the lead in the counting of the votes. He literally supervised the polling staff, he was prime in deciding which ballot was spoilt or invalid, and he consolidated the figures from the vote count before handing them over to the presiding officer to ‘officially announce’ the results of that polling station. The other candidate agent spent most of his time smoking and chatting away with the security personnel outside the polling station as vote counting went on.
The counting exercise was one of the least painful and quickest procedures undertaken. After sorting the votes, a count of the invalid and spoilt ballots was done; this was followed by the count of the ballots of the candidate with the least votes; the remainder (obtained by subtracting the invalid/spoilt votes and the ones of the candidate with the least from the overall total number of ballots cast) then became the figure of votes garnered by the winning candidate (without any form of a verification count!). Counting about six thousand votes at this polling station took slightly less than thirty minutes.
Oh by the way, even before the presiding officer could announce the final results, members of his team (comprised of mainly female polling assistants) were already packing their bags to leave on the account that their husbands were waiting for them at home – and it was late for them to stay around for an extra ten or so minutes!
None of the voters or candidate agents at this polling station raised eyebrows to what (again, with my Ugandan kajanja) I thought was gross electoral misdemeanors – everything seemed normal in all other people’s eyes!
And at the end of the three-day voting exercise, only 44% of the Egypt’s 54-million voters turned up to vote even after government declared one of the voting days a fully-fledged public holiday as well as warning that failure to vote would attract a mandatory fine of $70. 93% of those ‘voted’ for the military general – Fattah al-Sisi while 3% voted for the civilian politician – Hamdeen Sabahi; the rest of the votes were declared invalid.
Well, these are some of the ironies of this amoeba called ‘democracy’!
Election or selection?