Voters flock to polls in Egypt’s first multi-candidate election

Fifteen months after Hosni Mubarak ’s ouster, this week Egyptians headed to the ballot box to choose a new President in the country’s first multi-candidate Presidential election. Unlike previous polls when election results had invariably been foregone conclusions, the outcome of this historic vote is uncertain with analysts and voters unable to speculate who the likely winner may be. Braving soaring temperatures, voters  lined up in orderly queues at polling stations across the country on Wednesday 23 May  (the first day of the vote) displaying passion and a rare patience to put up with the bureaucracy and the long wait.

“I’ve been waiting three hours in line but will wait no matter how long it takes,” said 32 year- old housewife Walaa Dweedar, one of the scores of women waiting outside the Thanaweya Girls School in the upper class residential neighborhood of Maadi. “We’ve never had a chance to freely choose our President.  In the past, the authorities had always fixed the results beforehand.”

She said she planned to vote for Hamdeen Sabahi, the left leaning social activist who’s fast becoming the “revolutionary” choice of many voters seeking change. Sabahi’s popularity has surged recently thanks to his campaign promise to bridge the vast gap between the country’s rich and poor.

Standing behind Walaa in the lengthy all-women queue was 33-year-old Injy Hamdy, another housewife who eagerly  told Index she was keen to vote “to diminish the chances of an Islamist contender”.

Security and stability are high priority demands for many voters worn out after months of chaos, street violence and  a surge in crime rates .

Standing a few meters away was a woman in a full face veil who introduced herself as “Om Ahmed”. Her choice was vastly different from that of the other two  women who were both younger and were clad in Western-style jeans and T-shirts.  She said she would vote for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential nominee.

“I want a President who is honest and who is worthy of our trust. Morsi will implement Islamic Sharia law” she explained.

Morsi is the more conservative of   two Islamist Presidential hopefuls taking part in the race. He was nominated by the  Muslim Brotherhood after the group’s original nominee Khairat el Shatter was disqualified from the race by the National Electoral Commission because of  his “criminal record.”   Morsi’s last minute nomination has earned him the nickname of  “the  back-up” or “spare candidate”.

Addressing Cairo University students in a recent election campaign speech he stated that “ the Koran is our constitution, Jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.”

Mohamed Yehia, a 21 year-old graduate of the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo University paraded back and forth between the gender segregated lines carrying a placard that read “Martyrs of the Revolution , we shall not forget your sacrifices”.  Another young man raised a poster depicting some of those killed by security forces during the January 2011 mass uprising. Yehia said he and his friend  were hoping to remind voters that it was because of the spilt blood and the sacrifices made by the brave young people who confronted Mubarak’s brutal security forces, that Egyptians were  now able  to freely choose their President.  Yehia said he would vote for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fottouh who has been described as a “liberal Islamist”. One of the  front runners in the election, Aboul Fottouh’s moderate policies have earned him the support of liberals, ultra-conservative Salafis and Egyptians of  starkly different ideologies .

In the populous low income district of Boulak where voter turnout was low, there was clear rejection of  the Islamist candidates owing to what one voter described as “their broken promises.”

“There has been little change since they came to parliament. They’ve been concentrating on trivial issues and have not dealt with the important issues like security and the economy,” complained Nasser el Leithy, a trader in a workshop selling car parts .

“The revolution had no leader and so we have been left with the old regime remnants or felool and the Islamists. I’m voting for Ahmed Shafeek…better the devil you know,” he said shrugging his shoulders.

A former Air Force commander, Shafeek  is one of the Presidential candidates and a former Prime Minister under Mubarak .

“The country has stalled since the revolution. All we want is for things to starting moving again so that we can get on with our lives. And we don’t care who gets it moving. All we want is to be able to feed our children,” said Tamer Yehia, a mechanic.

Hence the strong showing by former regime figures who are seen by many in this deprived neighborhood as officials  with experience in government. But not everyone sees Shafeek as a force for stability  as was evident when some protesters threw stones and shoes at the presidential candidate minutes after he cast his ballot, taking aim at him for “being a felool” an expression used by Egyptians to describe those who served under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.

“Down with military rule! Down with the old regime,” they chanted. “The blood of the martyrs is on your hands.”

With election results expected on the 29 May and a second round anticipated in mid June the country is polarised and skeptics doubt that the appointment of a new President will bring stability anytime soon. They worry that the choice of the new President may in fact deepen the divisions between the secularists and the Islamists and further fuel the already heightened tensions.

Nile News employees stage sit-in protesting censorship

Egyptian state TV— for decades the mouthpiece of the authoritarian regime — is an ugly towering block of concrete and steel overlooking the River Nile at Maspero in downtown Cairo. In the post-revolutionary era, it is a heavily fortified fortress surrounded by barbed wire and stone barricades. Snipers can be spotted on the rooftop and terraces, and uniformed soldiers with machine guns stand guard outside the main entrances and exits. Corrugated iron gates have replaced the once-glass façade adding gloom to an already tense and inhospitable atmosphere inside the building which houses some 45,000 employees.

Upstairs on the fifth floor, a storm is brewing. Outside the main news studio, scores of employees of the main Arabic Nile News Channel are staging a sit-in, which they vow will continue until their demands are met. The demands include an immediate end to censorship and a set of reforms, which they say, are long overdue.

“Etman! Lift your hands off the media!” chant the angry protesters. Their message is addressed to Ismail Etman, the senior military general who currently heads the Armed Forces Morale Affairs Department.

‘‘We are also telling the station managers to keep their hands off. We are tired of censorship and interference in our editorial work,” complains Aly El Attar, a director at the channel.

The protest was triggered by the banning of a documentary on the 25 January revolution, produced by fellow director Aly El Geheny. Titled Tahrir Square, the documentary includes footage of the brutal treatment of peaceful protesters by security forces against during the mass uprising early last year. The decision by the Head of the News Sector not to broadcast the film enraged staff at the channel prompting them to take action. They vowed to show the film “with or without his consent.”

“We had a revolution a year ago but nothing has changed,” laments newscaster Iman Mansour. “We still work in a stifling and restrictive atmosphere. We are still waiting for the restructuring of editorial policies and the purging of state TV. ”

She insists that the red lines remain in place: the ruling military council having now replaced Hosni Mubarak as the new line that cannot be crossed.

“If a guest starts criticising the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the atmosphere in the studio becomes tense and I’m instructed by the show producers to cut the program short,” Mansour says.

“On the other hand, if the guest is pro-SCAF, he or she is allowed to ramble on for as long as they like.”

But this maybe about to change.

Mansour affirms that in the past many of her co-workers practiced self- censorship because they were afraid of losing their jobs or worse still, of facing an investigation by a military court. These fears have been reinforced by recent media reports of fellow journalists and bloggers being summoned for interrogation by the Military Prosecutor —  a trend, which according to the protesting journalists has become “all too common” in the post-revolutionary era.

Mahmoud El Azaly, a news editor at the channel complains that the station management had recently handed them an updated list of the guests they were permitted to host on their live shows. “This is unacceptable. In a free media, all voices are heard. No one is excluded,” he argues affirming that the channel has also extended its boycott of outspoken critics of the military rulers such as former Presidential-hopeful Mohamed El Baradei and author Alaa El Aswany.

Just days before Egypt’s Second Revolution, a protest planned by activists demanding an end to military rule, the Nile News journalists say they are adamant about covering events as they unfold. “Last year, we were confined to our studios and were not authorised to report from Tahrir. Now we are being told to cover the pro-military rally in Abbassiya instead. But we are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past. Our cameras will be in Tahrir too. We share the aspirations of the pro democracy activists,” El Attar asserts.

While a number of talk show hosts working for independent channels have taken a stand in recent months threatening to quit if their shows were censored, state television’s critics allege it is still biased in favour of the authorities. The journalists’ chants of “Down with military rule!” and “Thowar! Ahrar! We are free revolutionaries and we shall continue our revolution!” outside the Maspero office of the new Minister of Information mark a turning point and perhaps, a break from a repressive past.