• Reports
  • December 16, 2005
  • 5 minutes read

Ballot box beatings

Ballot box beatings

As Iraq’s elections garner media
attention, a Montrealer in Egypt discovers that democracy in another American ally hasn’t quite found a firm foothold 

The late Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn had an axiom that, when all else fails, provides guidance for the perplexed on the Middle East: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied.”

After a day spent witnessing riot police and pro-government militias preventing voters from reaching polls on December 7, the last day of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, it inspired moral certitude to sip tea at a café in the city of Zaqaziq and watch state television announce that the elections were fair and democratic.

Less than an hour before, a line of riot police stood between a crowd of women and a nearby polling station. The police were preventing the women from voting: the women wore headscarves, which meant they might have been supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned opposition party that fielded 150 independent candidates in the elections. But groups of voters were permitted to pass after showing to the police their membership cards to the ruling National Democratic Party membership (NDP), which, under the leadership of that Sphinx-like autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has turned Egypt into an exhibition of poverty and corruption over the past 27 years.

Street fights and onion sacks

Voters in Zaqaziq had turned out early in the day to vote against the NDP. Police moved in to shut most polling stations in the city. In several districts they were aided by militias in civilian dress—simply referred to in Egypt as thugs—armed with machetes and Molotov cocktails to scare away voters.

Street fights ensued between militias and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The police allowed the thugs onto the rooftop of the polling station, from where they hurled Molotovs and bricks at voters and demonstrators. The confrontation soon became a neighbourhood uprising against the police and the thugs. For every tear gas canister fired by the police, women threw sacks of onions (which are better than the Canadian recipe of vinegar and lemon juice to guard against the gas’s effects) from balconies to demonstrators.

The same pattern was repeated in other districts that day, only with more gruesome results. Eight Egyptians were killed by police officers who, despite government assurances of fair elections, were under orders to prevent citizens from voting, apparently by any means necessary.

The elections had gotten off to a bad start soon after the first round was held on November 9. The Muslim Brotherhood won 34 seats in the first round, throwing the government, which had been under some American pressure to reform its autocratic ways, into a panic. In the second round, the government unleashed the militias, which attacked voters throughout the coastal city of Alexandria.

The militias, armed with machetes, swords, pipes and shovels, killed two members of the opposition. One militiaman told me, “The police chief of Karmouz [an Alexandria district] released a group of us from jail last night.”

Reporters as targets

There are several independent newspapers in Egypt, and along with the international media, they exposed the government’s sabotage of the elections. The government responded by targetting journalists in the runoffs. To ensure the point came across, a police officer strangled a BBC journalist who was on the phone reporting live on police harassment of voters.

Yet the Muslim Brotherhood won more seats in the second round, despite the government’s best efforts. In some districts the government responded, as an Agence France Press correspondent told me, by “shutting the voting stations. Simple.”

Meanwhile, Sean McCormack of the U.S. State Department averred there was no “indication that the Egyptian government isn’t interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections,” which impelled an Egyptian independent daily to question whether the State Department had amalgamated the Egyptian Foreign Ministry (both have a rich tradition of hostility towards reality).

McCormack’s statement was also received with incredulity by Human Rights Watch, given George W. Bush has said the U.S. invaded Iraq to export democracy to the Middle East.

“[McCormack’s comments were] utterly disconnected from the reality of what is happening in Egypt today,” the group said in a press release.

Later, a State Department official conceded that Egyptian government efforts to rig the elections and intimidate voters from casting their ballots might have sent the “wrong signal about Egypt’s commitment to democracy and freedom.”

Palestinian activist and former Concordia student Samer Elatrash is covering the Egyptian elections on a CIDA grant.