Democracy from Abroad: Voting for Egypt from Canada
Warning: the following should not perhaps be read as fact but as a truthful recap of my confused, semi-informed, guilt-ridden experience of voting in my first-ever potentially democratic parliamentary elections in Egypt. From Canada.February: This is brilliant. We’ve really done it. I say “we” because surely following and worrying from abroad is equivalent to the protesters' braving the cold (yes, it gets cold), sharing bathrooms, and risking lives and injury in Tahrir Square and other hot spots across Egypt. No? So, we have gotten rid of the entrenched president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. And in just 18 days. Lives were not lost in vain.
March-April: Maybe I should start understanding these presidential candidates better. I respect El-Baradei – he’s clearly intelligent, stood his ground on Iraq weapon inspections, appears principled and was not entrenched in the old regime. Oh wait, it looks like people don’t like him because he was away for so many years. Well what about Amr Moussa? He was fairly well-respected while in the Arab League, obviously knows politics and diplomacy. No no, forget I wrote that – Amr Moussa is bad. He is old guard. There was that Ayman Nour guy who went up against the president back before it was popular but people didn’t even like him when he was the only one. And of course, the ever-present Muslim Brotherhood. Whose very name strikes fear in the hearts of white people everywhere. I speak to conservative religious Egyptian family and friends. They seem worried about the Brotherhood and don’t trust them. And then I speak to a couple more liberal Egyptian friends – drinking, partying Egyptian friends. Their (not uninformed) reaction is, the Brotherhood can’t be that bad. They’re organized. They’ve done good things and are successful capitalist participants in the economy. Oh wait! This is fantastic! Ahmed Zewail is returning to Egypt. Everybody likes a Nobel Prize Winner! Oh, except for the constitution. Something about his wife having another citizenship (and then amendments barring his own dual citizenship). Finally, it looks like the army is interested in holding on to power after all – Mohamed Tantawi, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces – is running. Well ok, the people and army are one right? (Spoiler alert: the people and army are not one).
About one month ago: The fruits of the revolution are not materializing. Things, quite frankly (economy, tourism, political advances, security) suck. But would you look at this – Egyptians from abroad will be able to vote in the upcoming elections! Surely this is a sign that Egypt has moved up two whole “world” categories in order to pull this one off. It’s so organized and thoughtful. We’ll be democratic in no time.
3 weeks ago: Rally in Ottawa to allow Egyptians from abroad to vote. What?
2 weeks ago: I guess I better shift attention to the parties and parliamentary candidates. This shouldn’t be too complicated, I’ll vote for the liberal guys (or gals). My Facebook homepage is filled with wonderfully useful information from Egyptian friends and family. In Arabic. Which I don’t read. But just in time, a friend sends me a quiz that helps people sort out what parties they are most similar to. I’ve always liked quizzes.
I have a false start. I didn’t know that I didn’t know where I stood on so many of the issues. It is one thing to hold views as a Canadian for Canada, but another to apply my values to Egypt, for practical reasons (will it be a wasted vote?), ethical reasons (is this right for Egyptian society?) and logistical reasons (I like this in principal but considering Egypt’s bureaucracy and corruption, what effect would this really have?). Eventually I skip the questions I’m not comfortable with, complete it, and get my results. There are 31 parties and I match up closely with about four. I meet a friend for dinner who has also taken the quiz. “Apparently,” she tells me nonchalantly, “I’m a communist.” This, from the least communist-like friend I have. Not a single posting on her wall about Occupy Wall Street; loves Banana Republic; you get the idea. Is it even fair that we should be able to vote, she asks. I share the concern but ultimately reason that perhaps if Egyptians abroad feel engaged they will be encouraged to return to help build the country. Or something. I just wanna vote.
I get messages that we can only vote in Ottawa or Montreal (over five hours away). It’s alright, I’m sure a lot of us will go, it will be fun. Small sacrifice.
I need to register to vote. It’s all in Arabic. I use Google Translate. I input my id number, birthday, parents’ names, grandparents’ names, address, etc. The site does not appear to be particularly secure. Where’s the http's'? Password? “Your information is secure and won’t be sold or used to advance military suppression” bit? Shit.
One week ago: Chaos erupts in Egypt once again when protesters rally against the increasingly unpopular ruling military council (SCAF). Things get really bad and we keep hearing things like warzone, rubber bullets, live ammunition, blinding, and fatal “tear” gas. Egyptians, in characteristic humour, reportedly begin to chant something about wanting the old tear gas back (it is reported that police have transitioned from tear gas – which can still be lethal when misused – to a more corrosive and possibly illegal form of the gas). At least 40 people die.
From abroad one feels a bit useless and hearing the news amid the day’s routine makes you feel guilty. Committing to the process and to making the five-hour trek to Ottawa and back to vote feel like little contributions.
Days ago: It is rumoured that we can now mail in our ballots. Which is wonderful, except that tons of people did not register thinking they would not be able to cast their vote (Canada is a pretty vast country). And nobody knows where to find the ballots. I literally get the following message: “FW: Urgent! Voting in Egyptian Parliamentary Elections by Mail, must be mailed today but ballots nowhere to be found!!”. What the hell? Where are the ballots? Where is the follow-up? Eventually (after Google translating) I find instructions for where to go. I need my confirmation number. Where is my confirmation number? I did not receive any confirmation email. I find my number, and I’m in. I watch a video, in Arabic, which details all the procedures using friendly cartoon figures. I make my mom watch it three times. She gets impatient with me. We finally find the forms we need. Which is huge. One friend texts me desperately after spending four hours just trying to open the election forms. My brother couldn’t log in in the first place. We find out later he was reading two ‘V’s as a ‘W’.
The ballots are beautiful – they are written in a pretty sky blue. But what are these colourful images of beachballs and rockets next to the candidates’ names? My mom explains that they are for the illiterate. Makes sense. I guess that’s why my cousin (perfectly literate) insisted on describing her candidate as an accessory. There are six pages of candidates for my district. Their party affiliation is not on the form. So who am I voting for then? I consult with my cousin and aunt via Skype. I seek help on Facebook. I get helpful responses back. For reasons I haven’t quite understood yet, I am also voting for a party on a separate ballot. At least I’ve done my research. I ask my mom to find the Socialist Popular Alliance for me. It’s not there. Well ok, where are my second and third choices? Also not there. None of the parties I was quizzed on are appearing as options! From the onlineosphere I learn that parties have formed (broad) coalitions, and clever graphics and charts have been created to help navigate them. No MS Office application has been spared. I vote.
My communist friend did not know about the coalitions either but in the process of deciphering it all was shocked to discover that she and her father had widely contrasting political views. He is voting for the Wafd party, largely due to their 1920s glory with revolutionary Saad Zaghloul. I help another friend navigate the process as well. I ask him who he wants to vote for. “El-Baradei,” he responds.
Yesterday: A guy is meeting people on his lunch hour to collect ballots. Voting is Monday and he’s going to drive up to Ottawa, drop them off, and do his thing. He tells me we didn’t follow procedures correctly. I knew we should’ve watched the video a fourth time. Fortunately, these folks brought extra envelopes. But I can’t write in Arabic. Someone else does it for me. Done. I voted. Phew.
A non-Egyptian friend asks me that night whether we are worried they might be allowing foreign votes in order to manipulate those votes in their favour.
Presently: Journalists, activists, and others are debating boycotting. Angrily. On Facebook. Does voting lend legitimacy to the same governing body that just killed 42 protesters in the past eight days? Does boycotting waste your opportunity to help shape Egypt’s future? Will leftists hand over power to the far right (read Islamist or old guard) in order to symbolically boycott elections? Is the election rigged regardless? Even those that are considering voting are cram studying the candidates and looking to each other for advice. Ultimately people are going to vote for the people they or their friends know because, I think, more rests at this point on character than on platform. And here in Canada, while at least some of my peers have been engaged in the process – including some who have never lived in Egypt – it seems that many from our parents’ generation who grew up there are less engaged and were not aware of the procedures or deadlines. Which is odd. In all honestly, I think it’s because they’re not on Facebook.
At least I feel I’ve done my part in informing and sharing with friends and come Monday, a vote will be cast on my behalf, for better or worse.
10 seconds ago: I get a call from a friend: “You know you have to vote by Sunday right?”
To be continued…
Note: Though I write this with a levity that my situation here in Canada allows for, I write with a heavy heart, acknowledging how very dire the situation really is for those navigating far more absurd, destructive, and threatening conditions in Egypt. My heart, if not my words, are with them.