Egypt elections: Illiterate voters just one hurdle in path toward democracy

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.

Nasser Nasser/AP
An Egyptian army soldier helps an elderly woman on her way to vote at a polling center during the second day of the third round of the elections for Egypt's parliament, in Qalyobeia, Egypt on Jan. 4.

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.

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.

Indeed, support for the military is evident across Egypt, from the breezy shores of Aswan in the south to alleyways weaving through Cairo.

In Qalyubiya, many espouse state media rhetoric, broadcast under the purview of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Many here call those who sparked the January uprising puppets controlled by foreign hands. Activists and protesters, some say, are not only inhibiting stability, but are agents of foreign governments meddling in Egypt's affairs.

Still, many say they want the ruling generals to fully hand over governing duties when a new government is elected.

“I don’t want the armed forces to stay in power,” says a military official in Qalyubiya who has been serving for 17 years. “The government should be elected, not imposed,” he adds, withholding his name because he is not authorized to speak with the media. 

It remains unclear how much power the ruling generals will maintain after presidential elections, now set for mid 2012. “Democracy is viable,” Dr. Hamid says. “But the challenge is just getting the military to go back to the barracks. Once you find a solution to the military problem, Egypt will be able to move toward democracy.”

Illiteracy and alleged coercion at the polls

Many voters in Qalyubiya, one of nine provinces participating in elections this week, favor the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the hard-line Salafist party Hezb al-Nour. In the first two rounds of elections, which began on Nov. 28, FJP emerged the victor, gaining more than 40 percent of the vote. Hezb al-Nour won the second largest percentage of seats at over 20 percent, granting Islamist parties the majority.

The Egyptian Bloc, a new liberal coalition, doesn't have much of a presence here, where many of the voters – like Ms. Saida – can't read or write.

As voters shuffle in, Judge Abdel Fattah marks ballot after ballot. He says he has helped around 90 percent of voters here because they are illiterate. “People who don’t know anything may just be coming so they don’t have to pay the fine,” says Mahmoud Ibrahim, another judge supervising a polling station nearby, referring to a financial penalty for registered voters who fail to cast a ballot.

Many spoke longingly of hopes for a “better life” – one reason they went to the polls on Wednesday. Others were primarily excited by the idea that unlike the days of Mubarak, when election corruption was rife, their voices would be heard.

“This is the first time we have a voice,” voter Mahmoud Ahmed says, standing outside a polling station here.

Despite an atmosphere of optimism, however, some election observers claimed foul play. Amir Mohammad Essa, representing the Continuous Revolution party, says that when the polling station in Komishfeen was packed tight with voters Tuesday representatives of FJP pointed behind curtains to tell voters whom to choose.

“And not all people who voted had ink on their fingers,” Mr. Essa says, citing what would be another violation. The alleged violations could not be confirmed.

Despite challenges and transitional uncertainty, however, so many here are hopeful. “Egypt will be the best, and we will be united,” Saida says. “I’m not educated, but I know this about my country.”

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