An Egyptian Election

"How did they die?" I ask the consular officer.

"Mostly they were run over. The army ran them over in tanks and personnel carriers. They killed 60 in one go like that." Her head bobbles a little. The Nile waters amble past us eleven stories below. "Of course some were shot. Soldiers are supposed to fire their rubber bullets into the ground and make them bounce but a lot of times they just fired directly into the protesters."

The office was quiet. Most of the staff were out monitoring the first round of parliamentary elections since Mubarak stepped down earlier in the year. This was the first day in a new era, a public holiday was declared, the shops were closed, and the streets were relatively quiet.


The drainage in Cairo is awful. There is a thin layer of water in almost all the toilets and bathrooms I used. There is no toilet paper, rather people use a bidet or a hose and tap or a bucket of water. Hence the floors are covered with water, but what gets me is that it doesn't drain away.

Similarly the puddles on the streets grow into ponds. It was raining the night I arrived, and as I approached Tahrir Square on foot in the darkness, I could see people walk in single lines at odd angles. As I was pondering this odd behaviour I stepped off the sidewalk ankle deep into a lake, my foot breaking the smooth surface which I had thought was the road. Someone giggled behind me.

As I approach Tahrir square from the north, trying to avoid the puddles even though my feet are already soaked through, I see a large road block ahead and a line of people on one side against a building wall. I join them, and we are frisked by plain clothes police and our IDs checked. Once past this checkpoint we enter Tahrir Square. It is the evening before the first day of elections, and the square is crowded full of protesters, curious onlookers, hawkers, and plain-clothes-men.

A massive crowd gathers on one side, holding banners and chanting and jumping and clapping. Elsewhere, circles of middle-aged men discuss politics in earnest. Scattered towards the edge of the protest crowd are the hawkers, offering tea, barbequed corn cobs, steamed sweet potatoes, rice with chicken, and so on, all cooked on self-contained kitchens on wheels. In the center of Tahrir Square are the protest tents, screened by banners and placards. Throughout all this are groups or couples or individuals like me, wandering about for the atmosphere and to see what was going on.

It is election day morning, and I have to walk from my hostel on the northern side of Tahrir Square to the Sudanese embassy on the southern side. I set off on foot. There aren't many people on the streets and hardly any traffic. The sun is out and the air fresh after the rain, although the puddles and ponds remain on the streets. A crowd gathers next to a cart on the side of the street, and I join them to buy a falafel sandwich.

Walking further down the street with falafel in hand, I see that people further on have turned back as the road has been blocked off by iron spikes and debris. We turn back, turn into a side alley, and emerge on the next parallel street and continue south. This time there is a checkpoint: soldiers in camouflage carrying rifles, metal barriers where civilians queue to have their IDs checked and to explain why they need to pass through this area, barbed wire, armoured personnel carriers, trucks with platoons of soldiers lounging inside or nearby, burnt out cars.

I pass through and walk south down Al Kasr Al Aini. There is a large crowd in the front yard of a school. The crowd spills out onto the street, and forms a single line down the pavement for quite a length. They are all women, and they are waiting patiently at this voting point to cast their ballot.

Throughout the day I walk through various quarters of Cairo. It is crowded, the streets are grimy and muddy. Posters are plastered everywhere with portraits of hopeful candidates. Leaflets meld into the muddy pavements. As a voting point is approached, the concentration of people increase, until it suddenly explodes into a massive crowd gathered at a door or gate. Leaflets and flags and posters burst out in sympathy, as seemingly bored soldiers in green watch proceedings with their rifles pointed at their feet.

I try to take a photo, and a busy young man rushes in front of me and shouts: "No photo!" but a young lady stops him. The people in line are validating their IDs with a man sitting on a crate with a laptop. A loudspeaker truck swerves past, it's propaganda slogans deafening, it's loudspeakers and posters arranged haphazardly, like the way it is driving.

I walk away down a street, with shops on both sides and the wooden planks on the ground so that pedestrians won't get bogged down in the mud. A man on the street suddenly stops me and offers a tour of the area. I smell 'tout', so I make some polite conversation while firmly rejecting his advances. He suddenly tells me that: "The elections are valid, not like last time. This time the Europeans, the Americans, they are watching." And he disappears as suddenly as he appeared.

The organisation of the elections were a bit confusing. There were going to be multiple stages of elections: in November, then again after a few months, and another a few months after that. Was it 3 rounds of elections? 4 rounds? Even the hotel manager was confused. The morning of election day I asked if he would be voting and he nodded and I wished him happy voting. That evening when I asked how it went he looked at me bemused, and sighed: "for me, it's tomorrow."

As I walked up the ramp to the gate, touts accosted me: "The gate is closed mister! The other gate is this way! I'll show you, I'll give you a lift on my horse!" And then once the grounds are entered more touts, posing as archeologists or security guards. One chap with spiky hair and sunglasses and a pink whistle screamed at me from afar: "Hey you! Where is your ticket!? Show me your ticket!!" as he rushed over. I showed him my ticket, and he said: "Ok, now you come with me to the tomb of X." I was having none of it, and continued on towards the pyramid of Chephren.

An hour earlier I had wondered what the pyramids really looked like as the bus jostled through the vast megalopolis that is Cairo, home to 7 million people. I imagined sandy tetrahedrons peeking above the desert curves like icebergs, with a sharp blue sky and plodding camels in the foreground. Or steep sandstone blocks under the deep red sun.

As I was wondering, the bus was driving down the streets of Giza, lined with buildings 5 or 6 stories high. People were just opening their shops, and cars and trucks and buses clogged the busy streets. Suddenly, out of the morning smog and through the dirty window, loomed a gigantic black triangular shadow, like a spaceship. The awe and surprise was physical: I inched back, then forward, then squinted.

Throughout history the power and mystery of the Pyramids at Giza were well acknowledged and recorded. They were a wonder of the world four and a half millenia ago. They were considered ancient by Herodotus. They had been measured by Thales, and had looked down upon every man-made structure until the 19th century A.D. Imams had tried to tear them down. They had seen the armies of Alexander and Napoleon. And now a democratic election was passing under its gaze.

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