3rd round (3rd-4th January 2012), South Sinai Governorate
Our group of five international observers arrived to South Sinai a night before the election started. The governorate capital El Tor and its hotel Magdolina became our „headquarters“. Soon we realized we had a strategic position here, since many of the judges who would head the Election Committees the next two days had their accommodation in the same hotel. Being personally acquainted definitely helped us later to get to the restricted final counting process.
On January 3rd we visited five polling stations in El Tor, one in Abu Rudeis and one in Abu Zneima. On January 4rd we visited two polling stations in Sherm El Sheikh, and in the evening/night we witnessed the final counting premises in El Tor. All of the polling stations were located in (mostly elementary) schools and all were composed of three or more polling rooms. In sum, we visited nine polling stations. We were not let in two polling station in El Tor, in one in Abu Zneima. All the remaining six station let us enter.
Day 1 (3rd January):
El Tor: We arrived at the first polling station (Al-Taghrebeya) at the time of the opening, before 8 o´clock. The station was opened on time and everything seemed calm and coordinated. There were no crowds waiting to vote, just individual voters approaching the polling rooms one by one. I have not seen any female voter at the station, we were told that this was a station only for men. About quarter of an hour after the polling station was opened we were asked to give our impression for a local TV. We observed that everyone was helpful, situation was tranquil and so far we had not noticed any serious violation. (I believe it would be better to give our impression later, at the end of the day, to be more objective, having acquired more experience throughout the day.)
The situation at the second polling station (of an unknown name) was calm, too. The judge at the polling room 20 did not allow us to enter due to our insufficient documents/permissions. In front of some of the rooms people were crowded and eager to get in. When an elderly man came, the crown gave him a precedence so that he could go in and vote. In front of the polling station, there was a high number of soldiers with guns, the same picture could be seen at the doors of most polling stations.
We were not let in the third polling station (Taha Husein Prep-School), again for insufficiency of our documents. However, we could observe the situation just outside the polling station and in its surroundings. There were several instances of violation, especially the presence of campaign posters of various kinds. Right on the only and main entrance doors to the polling station there was an A4-size poster of a candidate, stuck on both door wings. In the immediate vicinity of the polling station a large poster (of about 3x1m) of an individual candidate was exhibited on a wooden construction. Several young men decided to turn it down. They borrowed an axe from a firefighters´ car (parked next to the station) and gradually cut the poster away and removed it. There were even larger posters hanged on buildings surrounding the polling station, some related to individual candidates, some to parties.
Luckily, we were able to enter the fourth polling station (Madrasa Badr Iadadiya Banat) and observe the process inside. In room 31 I could see a designated table at the back of the room where a woman would sit – her special task was to control the identity of women covering their faces. Everything seemed all-right inside. Outside, though, I saw some campaign posters (Kutla) insufficiently removed from the polling station wall. At the beginning of the road leading to the polling station a woman was handing candidate campaign leaflets to the voters arriving to the station. She was probably unaware of the prohibition of such activity since she happily handed one of the leaflets to me after I asked her, although it was clear I was one of the observers.
The fifth school (Madrasa Badr Intidad´iya) again did not let us enter. Our observer identity card was not enough for the officials.
Abu Rudeis: We visited one polling station. The surrounding environment was clear, no campaign posters to be seen. Inside we observed one little problem: several voters would not dip their finger in the ink upon their departure from the election room. I believe it was because the committee members and the voters knew well each other. Otherwise the officials, judges and the voters themselves were very helpful, friendly and opened to us, we were offered tea and imposed no restrictions on our observations or talking with people. Women had a special designated area where their voting took place in several voting rooms. We had a chance to speak with a female candidate to the Wafd party. She said her husband and family supported her candidature, although she pointed out that many other men in the community are backwards and would like the women “to play the fifth” role, instead of “playing the first role in the society, side by side with men”. She said some features of her clothing and public behaviour was not arriving from her conviction but from a social control imposed by the society. She expressed her wish to have the same personal code and legislation for Egyptian women as Tunisia has reached. Another woman joined and said – on the contrary – that for the Bedouins “the life is and will always be the same”, that their traditions “are more durable than any kind of regime and no revolution can change it much”. I asked the women if they knew any woman who voted for Nour party. They all exclaimed “No woman would vote for them! They would put women hundred years back in the history!” The women in Abu Rudeis gave impression of being opened and outspoken, confident and strong.
Abu Zneima: We were not let in the local polling station. The army officials consulted our situation for some time and then – very politely – refused us, due to our insufficient documents. The surrounding of the polling station was faultless, no posters to be seen.
Day 2 (4th January):
Sharm El Sheikh: The officials at the first Sharm El Sheikh station (Madrasa 6th October) were very opened to our visit (inviting us in, saying “welcome”). Inside, one of the officials started to explain the whole process, eager to cover all aspects of the elections, presenting even positions of the people: the candidate agents, individuals helping people to find their way to the right polling room etc. This was the most visually organized polling station I have seen in two days. The members of the polling committee and the observing party candidates were visibly marked. Both ballot boxes were marked in order to help the people to put the white candidate list and the pink party list in the right box. Nevertheless, I found a party leaflet (used to indicate to the voter which polling room he should go to) forgotten on the table in one of the rooms. I showed the leaflet to the official, he took it and said “That´s wrong, this should not happen,” and tore it in pieces. According to him, as soon as the committee finds out that there is someone distributing leaflets in front of the polling station, the army sends the person away. Anyway, after I left the station and stood in front of it for some minutes, it was not difficult to see a man handing a pack of leaflets to a woman who would then walk around, most probably planning to distribute it.
I asked the official why there was such a high number of soldiers in front of the polling station and if some (or most of the) tasks could not be handed over to police or civilian officials. I was told “The army is here just for security”. I asked “Securing against what?”, “What kind of danger there might be to require such a heavy military presence?” I was told “No no, there is no danger!”
At the next polling station (Madrasa Feiruz), again, there was a woman in front of the station, distributing the leaflets. However, it was not done to a massive extent and I could not even see many people who would actually get the leaflets. It just seemed that the woman only “hanged around”, giving a leaflets once in a while to somebody.
The final counting: We returned to El Tagrebeya polling station in El Tor for the final sealing of the ballot boxes. It was done correctly, in time. No voters were prevented from voting as there were no more voters waiting or standing around. The judge (the head of the committee) asked everybody (party candidates, committee members) in the room to step aside to the walls and he sealed the boxes with the help of one of the committee members, calmly and in an organized way (although the application of the wax would be easier if the committee had a proper tool). The remaining ballot papers were not counted but simply put together with voters´ lists in a box that was then sealed with a tape and a string. After the ballot boxes are sealed, the soldiers came in and took the boxes away. At that moment, most of the people vacated the polling station, heading to the final counting place. We have not seen how exactly the ballot boxes were transported to the counting station, we just saw a special army vehicle full of ballot boxes. I am not sure if the ballot boxes remained for some time with the army only in their army cars or if civilian observers (judge, committee members or party candidates, local observers) were able to travel with the boxes too.
My and my Jordanian colleague Vanda we hitch-hiked to the polling station and were lucky enough to get in, thanks to the combination of personal acquaintances with one of the judges (who resided in our hotel) and ability of my Jordanian colleague to negotiate our entry. Inside we could see continuous arrival of new and new ballot boxes from further and further towns, each one carried by two soldiers. We got in about an hour and half after the closure of the polling stations (around 8:30 PM). At that time some of the committees, headed by a judge, were already counting, some were only beginning, others still arriving an hour later. Each committee had their own table with chairs where the judge and three or four committee members would sit. All the other people were asked to observe from their places along the hall sides. There were no crowds around the counting committees, no “mess” of counted ballot papers lying under or around the table. Everything seemed highly organized and gave feeling that “they knew what they were doings”. Most probably all was under the guidance of the judge who could choose which way the committee would undertake the counting.
We observed various methods ways of counting. Some committees would divide ballot papers in piles according the party/symbol/candidate. Then each pile would be counted, sometimes twice – once by one person, and immediately afterwards double-checked by another person. Such committees were working silently. In other committees the judge would stand up and read aloud each of the ballot paper result – committee members would then sign down the candidate or party name in their counting sheets. Some of the committees would use the official counting sheets, others would just put a line or a cross on a regular sheet of white paper. Then they would transfer the counting to the official counting sheets.
I tried to listen and look at the results. I was surprised to see that some of the highest piles could not be attributed to any of the candidate or a party – these were ballot papers wrongly filled in (more than two candidates or more than one party were selected). I was also very surprised that the Nour party, so popular in other regions and governorates, seemed to be missing on the party ballot list and I have not heard it mentioned even once during the counting! Instead, the most common names were – of course – the Freedom and Justice Party, and then also very common Kutla, Wafd and some others.
I did not stay until the end of the counting in the early morning, neither the announcement of the results the next day. My colleague Vanda Sawalha remained at the counting until 5 AM, so additional information about later stages of the counting process may be found in her report.
In sum, the election process – as far as I could observe it – seemed fair and organized. Some of the violations described by our colleagues who had witnessed first or second rounds of the elections in other governorates (such as massive distribution of campaign leaflets by the voters´ “helpers” with laptops sitting in front of the polling stations) were much more rare here. Similarly, voters´ interest seemed also weaker – most polling stations experienced no crowding during our visit, voters did not have to queue long hours (or even minutes) in front of the polling rooms. (Or was it due to very low population density in South Sinai or the ethnic character of local population?) I have not seen any case of a woman identity not being checked. Neither I have seen any violation of privacy of voting – even an elderly, hardly walking Bedouin men was left alone behind the curtain to vote privately. Army staff was definitely very correct and polite to us, some were even directly nice and helpful.
However, I was struck by the number of soldiers and various kinds of army officials standing with guns in front of the polling stations. Such an army presence at the elections was by no means similar to regular, civilian-administered elections in a country like ours (Czech Republic). It was also somehow difficult to differentiate between men in various uniforms and civilian clothes – who is who, who is responsible to let us in, negotiate with us.
Regarding the violations, I have seen exhibition (or insufficient removal) of campaign posters in the proximity of the polling station or directly on its outer walls. The most common violation was the distribution of campaign leaflets by people in front of the polling station – some of the leaflets were carried inside the polling station and could be found on the ground, complete or torn. It was obvious that these leaflets were used to indicate polling room number to individual voters. I have not seen a lot of people with laptops accessing the voters´ registers. But I believe they accessed the voters´ lists from their modern phones (as people would sometime flock around an individual who read something in his phone). I also believe the ballot boxes could be marked better as most of the people had to be told by the committee members where to put each ballot list. Regarding observers, I have seen several high profile international observers (from Sudan and South Africa) both at the election and the final counting. But I have seen no domestic observers (or representatives of civil society organizations) at all – besides party candidates sitting at the polling rooms.
Regarding the final sealing, it is hard to judge the credibility of the seal/vax. The seal was done by the judge thoroughly but it is hard to say if the fine cloth and the sealed vax could not be carefully removed and then put back inside the army cars during the transportation to the counting. But having witnessed the velocity with which the ballot boxes were transported to the counting station, any similar fraud would have to be done extremely quickly and in a running car. So I guess and hope it was all fair, at least regarding the Al Tagrebeya polling station.
As for the counting, it was done under close observation by the candidates and other people being directly present at the counting. Some minor mistakes could be overlooked this way, but any large fraud would require collaboration of the whole particular committee. Still, it would he hard, as any of the observers could stay close to the counting committee as long as they wished, looking over their shoulders and checking directly what has been ticked at individual polling papers. I have no insight into the completion of the counting, nor the announcement of the results.
I believe the best picture about the 2011-2012 Egyptian election can be acquired through comparison of the reports of voting and counting processes in all the governorates in all the election rounds, as report from one governorate and one round cannot be representative enough. I wish Egypt and its people such kind of results that would enable effective and peaceful development of high quality and durable democracy, and respect for human rights of all.