While police officers used batons and tear gas to disperse a group of more than 1,000 people trying to observe the vote-counting process in the working-class Nile Delta town of Mahalla an hour down the road, election day in Mansoura reflected the government’s slightly more subtle but equally effective methods of manipulating the vote in Egypt.
Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, a technically banned Islamist group that is nothing if not media savvy, had told us repeatedly that Mansoura would be “hot,” so we arrived the night before to get an early start.
By 9am on Sunday, we were already responding to a report of a stabbing at a polling station at the Nasriya Primary School in the town’s main square.
The disturbance had ended by the time we arrived, but the crowd was still tense: Nobody was going into the school, and uniformed and plainclothes police milled outside.
A witness approached and transferred video of the fight to my cellphone. The video showed chaos, but the man and others told me that 10 men brandishing knives poured out of a microbus and attacked the people outside the station.
The police told us there was nothing to be concerned about and that nobody had been injured. Other witnesses, including several who supported the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Ibrahim Eraqy, told us a different story.
The Brotherhood men, one of whom had been inside the polling station observing the vote, said that the attack was a common tactic of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
We were told that one candidate hires a group of “professional” thugs to make a disturbance without hurting anyone when police disperse the crowd, supporters of the NDP candidate arrive to stuff the ballot boxes.
Mohammed Gabr, a private lawyer and Eraqy supporter who had been inside, said that men working for NDP candidate Mohamed Basyuni entered the station and filled half of a ballot box – number 167 – with 150 to 300 ballots for Basyuni, a former policeman.
Kamal Mahfouz, another Eraqy supporter inside, said the four men sat and worked for 20 to 30 minutes, and that he was roughly removed from the station when they found out he was an Eraqy supporter.
The police told us we could not go inside, so we moved on to another polling station, the Omar ibn Khattab middle school, where we asked if we could enter.
The Egyptian government officially gave local police and election officials discretion about whether to grant journalists entry, and for us, that meant coming up with a reason not to let us in.
When I showed a police commander at the middle school my government-issued election press pass, he looked at it, walked back inside, thought for a minute, and then told me that it should be blue, not green.
A few minutes later, we were told Basyuni himself was walking down the street. We turned around, and his supporters shouted to grab his attention. A stout, big-shouldered, thick-nosed man walked over he looked like a policeman.
We asked Basyuni about the disturbance earlier, and he gave us an interesting response: Thuggery was not in his favour, he said, but the Nasriya school station was in his family’s territory, and “its direction is known”.
The chants of his supporters drowned out the possibility of asking any more questions.
Basyuni represents a new Egyptian political development: Unlike during the 2005 vote, the NDP in 2010 was unable to maintain party discipline, and it put forward multiple candidates for the same seats.
Basyuni had received the party’s official stamp of approval, but one of his rivals was Ibrahim Gogari, a member of the NDP policies committee chaired by Mubarak’s son, Gamal.
Lost in this year’s NDP melee – the party has won both of Mansoura’s seats, according to preliminary results – was Eraqy, the Brotherhood’s candidate.
We met him at the Ahmad Zuweil middle school polling station, where authorities decided to let us in but refused to allow us to take any pictures.
Election officials told us that the polling station covered an area that included around 14,000 people, but when we checked inside one of the school’s 11 polling rooms at noon, we saw indications of low turnout.
The ballot box reserved for the newly established female quota seats had at most 20 ballots inside, and the box for the open race had even fewer.
Outside the station, Eraqy complained about a lack of fairness in the election.
Judges whose monitoring role had been greatly restricted in 2010 were confined to the vote-counting centre at a nearby stadium, unable to tour or supervise polling places, he said, and most of the Brotherhood-affiliated monitors were being denied access as well.
The voting process was being completely controlled by the NDP, he said if the elections were truly fair, the Brotherhood would win at least 35 per cent of the People’s Assembly.
Meanwhile, other Brotherhood supporters told us, Basyuni’s men were traveling from polling site to polling site repeating the Nasriya school strategy. We never saw proof of that.
The rest of the day unfolded quietly. People we stopped to interview on the street, even those who were voting, seemed resigned to the outcome of the electoral competition.
Wael Rashad, a 40-year-old area manager for a factory that produces oil, said he would vote for first-time NDP candidate Ali Romana and that the NDP would win “whether we want them to or not because the government wants them to win”.
Mona Mohammed, a 27-year-old manager of a cosmetics store waiting for her car to be repaired, told us she would not vote, even though she reads newspapers and follows politics.
Mona Ahmed, 23, said she also planned on voting for Romana, even though the electoral process is “not free or fair”.
As the polls closed and the sun set over the river that gives Mansoura, a town of several hundred thousand people, a kind of rustic appeal, we heard that the Brotherhood would stage a demonstration at the vote-counting centre.
On our way, we saw pick-up trucks crammed with men carrying ballot boxes to the stadium where the count would take place.
A line of black-clad policemen blocked traffic to the demonstration site, where around 1,000 people had gathered to chant religious and political slogans.
For hours, the group sang and yelled: “God is great,” “Islam is the solution,” “We want freedom,” “What’s your constitution, what’s your heart? God, God, God”. Down the road in Mahalla, police were beating protestors with batons, but in Mansoura, both sides stayed calm.
Brotherhood supporters approached us during the rally to show us two handfuls of ballots – blue ones specifically meant for female quota seats – that they said had been removed from a polling station by a monitor to show how easy it was to manipulate the electoral process.
All but a few ballots appeared to have been marked for NDP candidates, and thought it was impossible to verify the men’s story, the ballots also came with official Egyptian government stamps that identified which ballot box they came from.
Every so often, the demonstrators, separated into men and women’s sections, would take a five-minute break.
Ice cream and snack vendors pushed their carts through the crowd. Boys linked arms in a chain around the women, though against what threat was unclear. Others unfurled huge banners decrying electoral fraud.
After hours of waiting with no results, it was time for us to leave.
The crowd still had not dissipated. A few minutes later, officials announced preliminary results that gave one NDP candidate, Waleed Fouda, a win.
Hours later, after the sun rose and the crowd shrunk to perhaps 100 people, Basyuni was a victor as well.