Egypt elections: Illiterate voters just one hurdle in path toward democracy (+Video)
In one Nile Delta town participating in Egypt elections today, a judge said he had to help fill in ballots for as many as 90 percent of voters, who couldn't read and write.
As Egyptians voted in the third and concluding round of parliamentary elections today, the challenges of a young democracy were evident inside a polling station in the crowded Nile Delta town of Komishfeen.Skip to next paragraph
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A middle-aged woman who gave her name as Saida was confused by her crisp white ballot sheet, not sure what to make of the colorful list of names and party symbols.
“There were many slogans and I don’t know how to read or write,” she said after dictating her vote to Judge Mohammad Abdel Fattah so he could mark her ballot. That was after she nearly gave up.
Uneducated voters are but one hurdle facing Egypt as it struggles to make a transition to democracy from decades of autocratic rule. Critics say the ruling military council is threatening the ideals of stability, security, and true democracy that Egyptians are hoping to achieve through the polls.
“There is a crackdown that unfairly creates an air of suspicion, and tries to undermine groups who believe in a more ambitious agenda and in using the tool of protest,” says Michael Wahid Hanna of The Century Foundation, based in New York City. “It’s part of the reason why we can’t call these elections fully free and fair.”
Mr. Hanna points to a “laundry list” menacing a full transition to democracy. It includes ongoing military trials, the question of whether or not there will be civilian supremacy over the armed forces, and uncertainty about how an Islamist government will lead systemic change. The biggest threat, analysts say, is the military itself.
“It’s very clear that the military generals share a pronounced disdain toward democracy and don’t really believe in the concept,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “These are autocrats. That’s their temperament, their personality, and they simply don’t have much respect for the will of the people.”
In mid-December, at least 17 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. And yesterday, security officials arrested four activists calling for a protest on the revolution’s anniversary, Jan. 25, and for speaking out against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been governing since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.
In addition, security officials last week shut down 10 civil society organizations that promote democracy.
“The crackdown shows it is not only important to focus on the process of elections, but to recognize there hasn’t been a transition to democracy,” says Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. “Mubarak-style tactics are still being used.”
Widespread support for the military
The armed forces have been a strong force in Egyptian politics and culture since a military coup d’état overthrew the monarchy in 1952. That's bad for democracy, says Hanna.
“In terms of creating and inculcating democratic political culture and political norms, Egyptian society has a long way to go,” he says, noting that the military bases its power on widespread public support.