The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

My Referendum Experience

DISCLAIMER: Everyone whose name I use was consulted for permission.

There has already been much said about yesterday's referendum to amend constitutional article 76 and the accompanying violence against protesters (including the harassment and beatings of women) in Egypt. I doubt I have much to add or contribute. But I will try to give as full a description as possible of my account. Yesterday's events and incidents happened very quickly so excuse my delay in posting as I tried to tie everything together.

Pictures I took can be found posted below on the Arabist or directly accessed here.

I met up with two friends - the scholar and the photographer - around 930 am.

We cabbed over to Agouza's National High School for Girls. Outside this polling station, there was a small smattering of people going to vote. There were signs outside that essentially indicated that a vote for the amendment was a vote for Mubarak, which was pretty confusing. Was one voting to amend the constitution or affirming a president chosen by the parliament? There was no doubt that the referendum was heavily connected to the NDP and the president (to a lesser extent).
There was a copy of the ballot on the wall which basically said "Do you agree to amend article 76 of the constitution and add a new amendment entitled article 192 based on the law parliament passed on 10 May 2005?" Below in green, it read "Agree" and in Black "Disagree". Naturally the color choice was telling - green means go while black symbolizes tragedy. This, however, was better than the proposed alternative I have heard about in the days leading-up to the referendum. The rumor was that the referendum question would be "Do you agree to amend the constitution article 76?". That would of been general, which is usually how governments like to handle "reform".

Some folks walked out of the Agouza station and were happy to see us. They wanted their pictures taken by their bus, which was adorned with slogans about Yes to Mubarak, stability, and democracy. The photographer and I snapped some shots. At the time, I was thinking that they believed if we put them in the papers, it would be seen as evidence or an extra affirmation of their "yes" vote on the ballot. Their story was typical. They work for the public sector company (in this case called Benzeyoun) and came on a bus with about 50 total to come and do their national duty. I asked a group of them how they voted and they outdid one another with thumbs ups and enthusiastic yeses.

Afterwards we returned to the station's entrance. The interior ministry personnel at the gate were not keen about letting us in. We charmed them and went to the third floor where the voting was taking place. There were five polling stations (Lagaan) on the floor. Each station had 550 allocated voters according to one of the poll managers, who was friendly and open to questions the scholar put to him. We got the government line back but that was to be expected. At this point, it was around 1030 am and the manager we spoke with said 180 had voted.

We left Agouza and went to a second school to see how the referendum was progressing elsewhere. We went to the Nasariya school off of Talat Harb and around the corner from the Tugammu and al-Ghad parties' HQs (as well as perhaps a more important reference: the Greek Club). The polling stations were in this incredibly beautiful but run-down school. Again, we sweet-talked our way in. In the building we entered there were three stations. The manager was overtly welcoming and willing to talk with us about democracy and whatnot. We hung out there for about 20 minutes with no voters showing up. I asked him about the voting and he reacted with shock. "You vote? you are not Egyptian...that is impossible," he exclaimed. I rephrased and said that I had no intention of voting but wanted to see Egyptians voting. Relieved, he smiled and said, "Wait a second, I'll grab someone for you." Within 60-seconds, a man entered all smiles, grabbed a ballot, checked "Agree", and placed it in the box slowly so that even the most ridiculously poor photographer could catch it. Under a portrait of the president, he deposited the ballot into a box that was not only unlocked but had the keys attached to it with a metal wire. Now, I am no election monitor, but even the most optimistic part of my logic was suspicious.

We hung around some more. A couple people entered. One guy had his three sons with them (he voted, they did not). Then, as I looked around, I saw the manager overly active when anyone put anything into the box. He was more or less watching over them. Also, a face that I started to recognize more and more was the voter I photographed earlier. It turned out that he was sort of an assistant to the manager. Only God knows how many times he got to vote yesterday.

The photographer, the scholar, and I were two-for-two at getting into polling stations. I am sure there had to be a judicial-type somewhere, but I did not see one. On our way out, I expressed concern that there were not many voters. The manager assured me to come after 1 pm and there were be "people pressure". I told him that I would try to get back.

It was about 1145 am at this point and we were in the street talking to a member of al-Ghad and Tugammu. They were watching Gamila Ismail's (Ayman Nor's wife) SUV, which the security were threatening to tow away. The al-Ghad and Tugammu guys assured them Gamila on her way. After a while we took off to a coffee shop around the corner. By this time, the mobiles were ringing relentlessly. One journalist was at Cairo U, others were heading to Monira (by the Saad Zaghloul mausoleum), and still more went on about a demo at the journalist syndicate (off Ramsis street). The scholar, photographer, and I discussed a strategy. Then in mid-cup of coffee, we heard explosions of chants and cheers resonating from the main street.

We gathered our things and returned to the polling station. We were told the NDP Secretary-General and long-time regime stalwart, Safwat al-Sherif, was voting in Nasariya. We caught up with the crowd of well-wishers, bodyguards, sycophants, and journalists surrounding al-Sherif. I squeezed my way in and photographed him casting his ballot. It was a big scoop and a fortunate coincidence. Afterwards al-Sharif gave some interviews to the press and again our mobiles were ringing. One of my buddies told me to "come quickly to Monira". We hopped in a cab and took off to the protest.

We arrived and I immediately saw Kamal Khalil flashing a peace sign and loads of Mubarak sign-carrying Shabab (younger males) coming down the street. Within two minutes of being there and seeing basically my entire social network in Cairo, scuffles broke out. It was unclear who was fighting who. I could not entirely identify where the Kifaya people were and it seemed there was a fight among the NDP mini-thugs (as opposed to the well-built ones).

After that calmed, it became clear that Kifaya people were being hunted by the NDP mob (pun intended). The NDP-supporters were chasing the Kifaya people into local shops like pharmacies and whatnot. When the Central Security forces, police, NDP-thugs, and journalists arrived, residents of the street were locking down their shops' shutters and moving their cars through a sea of people in hopes of not having their property damaged.

One concentrated mob waited outside of a store dying to get in and have a go at the Kifaya activists trapped inside. Then Kifaya people outside were identified and chased as a gang of teenagers punched, kicked, and basically lynched them. In one case I was close to - the Kifaya-kid just barely got away. I was shocked he was not more seriously wounded. As I made my way through the Mubarak-supporters, I saw a Kifaya activist friend (female) trying to reason with the police. She was saying something about "what is this? They are going to really hurt someone!" The officer she spoke with gave her an uninterested look. Frustrated, she looked over at the Central Security Forces (Amn Markazi) mobilized around the circus and screamed, "You are all Faggots!". The CSF personnel who heard her looked back as if they did not understand why they were being insulted. Some of them looked like disappointed children who had just been told off by their parent.

Around this time Magdi Allam (a policies secretariat member - read Gamal Mubarak's committee) arrived on the scene. I was standing next to a female journalist friend trying to get quotes from this NDP official while young men periodically groped her behind. Magid Allam was nice enough but his explanation for the violence was that "it was hot out and people may be a bit agitated." For all of you that have done August in Cairo, it is still only May. It was not that hot. After Allam gave some statements about the importance of the referendum and whatnot, the mobiles were telling us to go to the Journalist Syndicate.

We grabbed some water and our group of three increased to eight. As we passed through Lazougly square (where one of the State Security HQs are) one of my Egyptian friends, who has done some HQ time there, waved and thanked the statue of Lazougly Basha for all the "Ta`zeeb" (torture) done in the place named after him.

We got to the journalist syndicate around 130 pm. After making our way through the security cordons, we got to the syndicate's stairs. Everything looked familiar to the previous Kifaya protests at the syndicate. There were loads of security personnel (three deep at the barriers in front of the stairs), trucks, and journalists. The haphazard nature of the how the protest had been setup and disrupted by the NDP-supporters meant that there were only 70 Kifaya demonstrators there. I started to talking to people from the movement. I did not expect what would come next.

About ten minutes after getting there, the same NDP-characters that where in Monira showed up. Unlike the previous NDP-Kifaya protest Issandr posted on, security made way for them to also come onto the syndicate's steps. Initially, there was a lot of insult trading as empty plastic water bottles were thrown from one side to the other. The NDP people made their way to the center of the stairs and then pushed upward en-mass. Anyone with a Kifaya sticker or seemed to be one of its supporters became a target. In the beginning, I don't know what I was thinking. It was pretty surreal and I did not believe it would last. Then I started to feel like the circus-master lifted the cage that was holding the lion. People were being thrown down the stairs as the NDP-thugs screamed "Allahu Akbar". Then after the men were beaten and older members of Kifaya escaped beyond the threshold of the syndicate door, the cowardly thugs began attacking women. I saw Raba Fahmy get attacked but it was all very unclear what was going on. There was not this wrestling style that was apparent when the men exchanged blows. Also, Raba looked like she was getting away as they pursued her down the stairs. Most of Raba's clothes were ripped off.

Another friend - Jailan Zayan, a news assistant with the LA Times - was cornered as the thugs placed their grimy hands all over her body. As she tried to get away, they grabbed her by the bra-strap and pulled her down and began kicking her in her back and stomach. Other stories I heard involved AP reporter Sarah El-Deeb's hair being pulled as the thugs attacked her. When trying to clarify which women were and were not beaten up, a friend responded, "basically if you were a women, you were at least groped yesterday."

After the initial rush on the stairs, most of the journalists and Kifaya supporters escaped to the other side of the security lines. By this time the NDP-thugs had burned a Kifaya sign, ripped their stickers into pieces and were chanting a ripped-off Kifaya slogan, "Ya Gamal Ya Gamal, Tell your Father, The Egyptian people Love Him" (as opposed to Hate Him). Also they screamed, "Hey Kifaya, Hey Kifaya, Hosni Mubarak until the End." Lastly, the NDP-supporters started saying "Long live Mubarak, Long live Egypt". With the stairs occupied and Kifaya beaten, chased away into the syndicate, or running for their lives, the Central Security Forces three-deep line decreased to only one-deep along the barricade (it was not a very disciplined line).

The remaining violence at the syndicate was with about 10-15 trapped Kifaya people being held in a dead-end space immediately adjacent to the syndicate steps but separated by a wall. The security forces surrounded them in a way that I initially thought they were protecting them. Yet, after the area was syndicate stairs were occupied, they called over some thugs into order to turn them loose. Hossam al-Hamalawy, a news assistant with the LA Times and long-time friend, went over to security. He spoke to a plain-clothed guy with a walkie-talkie. Hossam said to him, "Hey what is going on? They are going to slaughter them." The officer coldly replied, "We have our orders." Amazed and confused Hossam asked, "Do your orders include having people kill each other in the streets?" The officer smirked and said "Yes". Somehow the trapped Kifaya folks managed to get out after their beating. Hossam escaped with a punch on the back and arm. After the Kifaya people disappeared the CSF mobilized most of its forces and got them out of there.

Undecided what to do next, we thought about going to another polling station (since it was afternoon and the election officials promised loads more people). A group of about six of us went to Bab al-Shareyya to see what would be going on in Ayman Nor land. We got directed to a polling station in Gamilaya (as opposed to Bab al-Shareya). It was bigger than the others I had been to. There were nine polling stations. Our journalist friend began asked all sorts of questions - about the judges, turnout, and whatnot. We were there twenty-minutes and I did not see a soul vote. The gentleman watching the station told us we just missed the crowds.

A bit disappointed, I suggested I take everyone to the station in Talat Harb. By now, those people knew me (and I had promised to return). We arrived and there was about 20 people sitting in the courtyard drinking tea. There were not many voters from what I could tell. Mohamad, the station organizer, told me that I just missed all the voters but to come back at 5 pm because that is when it gets really busy.

The journalist started speaking to people who claimed to have voted. One gentleman was a retired 72-year old. He was talking about how and why he voted. It was for the future of Egypt and his kids and grandkids. He spoke about how Hosni was a real democrat with loads of political experience. He wanted Hosni to be president for life.

A second gentleman was asked about why he voted today. He got a huge smile on his face and proudly said, "Well, I came here to vote Yes to Mubarak." A silence overtook the group as one of his companions hit him on the arm for him to change his answer. He straighted up and said, "I mean... I came here to vote Yes to amend the constitution." We all sort of laughed (including the NDP folks) as we all realized that this was not a referendum about the constitution. Indeed, the only real constitution and institution in this country is the president.

The journalist then asked the "voters" about their feelings about the opposition. The latter of the two argued that the protesters were traitors and did not love Egypt. Voting in the referendum, to him, is a national duty. To do anything otherwise - let alone protest - is unacceptable. Then the more elderly gentleman spoke up. He said, "Today was a day for the system (al-Nizam). You cannot have democracy without a system and today we witnessed the system's power". Oddly enough, it was from this 72-year old man that the most accurate depiction of the day was stated.

About this time, the scholar called me. He told me one of the woman beaten and harassed by the thugs was in the al-Ghad HQ (Ayman's law offices). We quickly made our way there. Sitting there was the victim, who was traumatized and scared. She said she was not an al-Ghad member but she knows Ayman Nor helps people. She did not know where else to go. She explained that she clothes were ripped off her and she was naked in the street. Her co-workers saw her and she was ashamed to go back to work. After re-telling her story, Hossam tried to console her. She wanted nothing of it. She said her frustration was at an all time high and that her only wish was to leave Egypt and never look back. Hossam did his best. He told her, "No, this is our country, not theirs." With tears in her eyes, she quickly responded, "No this is their country, we are nothing." After a quiet period she looked up more angry than scared and said, "This was a message today. If you go to the streets, the government will beat and humiliate you."

Ayman showed up a bit later and took the woman into his office - perhaps to discuss her legal options and cheer her up. The woman was determined to go to the authorities and report her attackers. For her part, this victim wants a public apology from the Egyptian president.

After this, I went home. I could not even think about writing this up last evening. I was tired, had a splitting headache, and was not entirely sure what I saw. I certainly did not know how to put it together intellectually. This account, then, is just a testimony of a day's events that saw highs, lows, humor, sadness, and fear.

One thing is for sure - Egypt looked bad. There was a way the Egyptian political establishment could of come out of this looking well. They could of left the small numbers of demonstrators alone. Let the voting continue, won by dominate margin, and spun it as "look, we tolerate opposition but still had the people express their will (which happens to compliment our vision of reform)". It would of been denounced as sham democracy and the press and bloggers alike would have moved on. Instead, they opted for a show of force against their citizens. This amplified the opposition's voice internationally and squared their more determined demands on a direct collision course with the Egyptian government and American calls for democracy. George W. Bush likes simplistic black/white depictions of the world. Well, he got his wish. Will he be with an opposition looking to be more inclusive or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with autocracy? It is becoming an us vs. them dynamic in Egypt.

Yesterday was not the end of the story. It was, in many ways, the beginning of a showdown yet to come. Rather than using repression to concentrate power and quell the opposition, it was on this day when the opposition was so badly beaten and humiliated that their ranks may strengthen. But, then again, this may only be wishful thinking by those wanting to see their state treat its citizens with the dignity and respect they deserve.