A protester in Tahrir Square on Tuesday holds a sigh in Arabic saying: "The revolution continues... No to candidates from the old regime...No to the Muslim Brotherhood. STOP". © Marco Longari - AFP
Rebecca Wilkes
Last updated: June 1, 2012

How much say did the people have?

The results have come in from the first round of Egyptian presidential elections, and the worst has happened.

The two most polarising candidates, Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, will face each other in a run-off. Cairenes and Alexandrians sit in cafes in heated political discussion. How, they ask themselves, could two such unpopular candidates have won?

Morsi is famously uncharismatic. He is called the “spare tyre” for being the last minute replacement for a disqualified candidate. The party he represents, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, is unpopular due to its recent failure to draw up a constitution. Many analysts, pre-election, predicted these criticisms would lead to greatly reduced support at the ballot box for the Freedom and Justice Party, in favour of other Islamists.

Shafiq should be a hated figure. Previously Prime Minister under Mubarak, he is accused of being “foloul”, or a “remnant” of the old regime. His nickname is “Mubarak’s right hand” and symbolises, for many, a return to the old regime. 

Not only are Mursi and Shafiq unpalatable for many, there were also much more attractive candidates out there, campaigning on the same platforms.

Abdel Muneim Aboul Fotouh, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood but now an independent candidate, was much more charismatic than Morsi. He appealed to a wider spectrum of voters while retaining his Islamist credibility.

Amr Moussa, an ex-regime figure like Shafiq, campaigned on the same platform of stability but was much less obviously tied to Mubarak. How could Fotouh and Moussa lose to such unattractive competitors?

To answer this question, you have to move away from the debates of the Cairene cafes to the other areas of Egypt. While on Monday in Cairo protestors gathered in Tahrir chanting "Smash Shafiq on his head," and "Down with all the military's dogs", further down the Nile, life continued much as normal.

In the poor, agricultural areas of Upper Egypt, farmers worry about unemployment more than politics. Droves of young people are being forced to migrate to the Gulf. Some pharonic monuments exist here, jutting out between rubbish piles in run-down neighbourhoods, but the tourism as seen in Luxor and Aswan, is practically non-existent.

“People here weren’t involved in the revolution”, resident Mohammed tells me. “It doesn’t mean much to them, they aren’t politically engaged”. While he admits that he himself went to Tahrir square for day, most were abroad at the time or too elderly to take part in the revolution. The priorities for people here are stability and employment.

Shafiq and Mursi can offer to meet these basic needs. The Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party are also said to have deep rooted support networks in Upper Egypt. These are unchallenged by civil society or strong democratic tradition.

When it comes to voting, people are ill informed about the process and candidates. Painstaking time is taken to explain basic procedures. Judges shipped in from the cities to oversee polling stations and clad in smart suits, tap on iPhones, tut and chastise voters unable to read their ballots. Voters seem lost, they ask one another who to vote for, try to mark the ballot paper in public, and hand them to candidate representatives. One elderly illiterate woman stares at her ballot paper confusedly. Turning to the judge, she shouts repeatedly across the polling station that she would like to vote for Amr Moussa, ignorant of his pleas for her to hush. In Cairo queues snaked round the side of the polling station. Here, rural polling stations with the same number of registered voters as those in Cairo are almost empty.

Should a voter be turned away, even if unfairly, there is no recourse for them to follow. The judge’s word is final and accepted. One judge fixes a candidate representative with a firm gaze and explains his approach “you must be strong with the voters. Don’t take any trouble or complaints from them. Be proud, like a lion”.

Having elections does not equal democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood and the regime know this well. They are happy for their networks across the country to swing into action come elections with full knowledge that voters are not politically aware enough for other groups to effectively mobilise them. Voters are not even able to challenge decisions taken over their heads.

Yes, some say, the results of the Presidential election are surprising, but, the people have spoken. In rural areas like those of Upper Egypt, you have to wonder, how much say the people really had.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.

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