Alexandria, Egypt’s coastal second city, was swept with rain on Monday, but that didn’t dampen turnout on the first day of Egypt’s marathon elections for both houses of parliament.
The city is a contradiction, a Mediterranean enclave of creaking pensions-turned-hotels, with stocks of Stella beer in the back rooms, but whose new political face is likely to be thoroughly Islamist.
The Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally enjoyed strength here, and the most prominent of the post-revolution Salafi groups, the Nour Party, was born in Alexandria.
These forces were on display on Monday, as the brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) flexed its organisational muscles street by street, and Salafis expressed calm confidence in their chances.
By the end of the night, as polling authorities at the Sayyid Mohammed Korayib School closed their doors, Abouzeid Mohammed, an FJP spokesman for the local district, said the party estimated that they would win 60 per cent of the vote there.
The aggressive FJP street presence had already caused a reaction across Egypt by midday Monday. Liberal parties, such as the Free Egyptians, complained of campaign violations and began preparing legal challenges.
They were incensed by the FJP’s in-your-face style campaigning on the streets and sidewalks in front of polling stations. Men and women, often wearing prominent yellow FJP garb, handed out flyers, and others raised tents bearing the party’s banners and equipped with laptops, where they ostensibly were providing voters with information on polling locations.
Gamel Abdelalim, an FJP whip at a polling station in the Smouha district, said that the tent was simply a “public service” and that no voter was being told whom to support. But when I tried to take a picture of the tent, complete with large FJP sign, another worker began rolling up the placard while waving his finger.
I told Abdelalim that some parties were upset with the obvious party affiliation.
“Any party can do this,” he responded.
But other parties were nearly invisible on the streets. A group of boys distributed small flyers for “independent” candidate Atta Ahmed Qutb, while another boy handed out a candidates’ list for the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.
Tarek Talaat Moustafa, a former member of the ruling National Democratic Party and the head of Egypt’s massive Talaat Moustafa Group, a construction and real estate conglomerate, was also in the running for an individual seat in the district. Despite the weight of his family’s multi-billion-dollar business, his influence on the streets was limited compared to the Brotherhood’s.
Across the street from the FJP tent, a few Moustafa men stood around a plastic table sipping tea and taking shelter from the drizzle beneath a battered umbrella. They too had a laptop to provide voters with information, and a folded Moustafa campaign poster shielded paper lay atop a printer to shield it from the rain.
The men said they worked for Moustafa’s company but were not being paid.
Standing in light rain up the street, near a polling station inside of a bank, Al Sayed Abdel Sattar, a Salafi Muslim, explained that he and his wife would both vote for Nour.
“The liberal and secular parties will grant freedoms that are beyond the freedoms granted by God,” he said, citing gay marriage and prostitution as examples. “Absolute freedom is something God opposes. We should have restricted freedom within the confines of what God commands, including personal freedoms.”
Farther toward the city centre, at the headquarters for the liberal Egyptian Bloc, the most powerful political coalition aside from the Brotherhood’s Democratic Alliance, workers were scrambling to mobilise their supporters after the FJP’s morning rush.
The Free Egyptians lead the bloc and run the majority of the coalition’s lists throughout the country, while the Social Democratic Party leads the remainder.
Moushira Saleh, the bloc’s Alexandria campaign organiser, said that she believed the FJP had assigned an average of six workers to each of the governorate’s 5,000 polling places – a massive operation of at least 30,000 people. Meanwhile, the Free Egyptians had registered around 8,000 supporters in all of Alexandria, and the Social Democrats had 2,000.
Saleh and others in the party debated responding to the FJP’s tactics by doing the same, but a senior lawyer had called to advise against it, since the bloc was planning on filing a legal challenge.
Saleh and Hazem Helal, one of the Free Egyptians’ candidates, complained that prominent Muslim Brotherhood member and FJP candidate Sobhi Saleh had personally entered a polling station and distributed flyers.
Abouzeid Mohammed, the FJP whip, denied the claim, though video surfaced of men and women at a polling station yelling for Saleh to leave on Monday.
The FJP, for its part, alleged that supporters of Moustafa’s, the powerful businessman, been buying votes for 50 Egyptian pounds apiece – roughly $8.50.
Saleh and Helal said that the Egypain Bloc had been beset by other problems.
They had been assigned certain numbers on the ballots in the large proportional representation districts – number 10 in one, number 13 in another – which were considered crucial for illiterate voters. Only on Monday did they discover that after publishing their numbers in a host of newspapers, electoral authorities had for some reason changed them.
Nevertheless, Saleh hoped that four of the bloc’s candidates on its lists – not counting those in individual districts – would win seats, based on the proportional representation system.
Amr el-Kady, a business owner voting at the girls school in Smouha, said he had voted for the Egyptian Bloc list and for Moustafa, the ex-regime businessman.
“There was a lot of corruption in Egypt. Everyone needed to conform. I was part of the corruption myself. So we need to give [Moustafa] a second chance,” he said. “I think bloc and [Moustafa] will win because these people are supported by the intellectuals and people who think. We need to have a mixed parliament, not one dominated by Islamists.”
As the voting wound down around 9:00pm, the rain had ceased and Egypt’s first post-Mubarak election had proceeded without significant violence or fraud, though some parties were left displeased.
Still, another day of voting remained and the process itself seemed secure.
Mohamed Aboul Ela, a judge supervising one polling room in the Sayyid Mohammed Korayib girls school, sealed his ballot boxes with wax and string to prevent tampering, and vowed to personally make the navy and police guards at the station sign a form guaranteeing the boxes safety. The poll workers then hefted the boxes toward the storage room, where they would be counted on Tuesday.