For the past two days, millions of Egyptians have flocked to local schools to cast their votes in the first free and fair presidential elections in their country’s history.
Now that polls have closed, citizens are waiting with baited breath for the results that could determine the success of the revolution. The atmosphere recalls, but certainly surpasses, the national mood of anticipation accompanying the release of thanawwiya amma exam results, which students take in these very schools to determine their academic and professional futures.
Unlike so much of the post-revolution period, the first round of voting ran smoothly and without major incident. On countless occasions over the past year and a half, there were serious doubts as to whether these elections would happen at all. Most recently, deadly clashes outside the defense ministry in early May fueled speculation that the vote would be postponed or cancelled altogether. Egypt was not ready for democracy, some politicians and analysts claimed.
The fact that elections have happened — even if later than hoped for and under the supervision of the widely distrusted military council — is good news.
What’s more positive and astounding is that the elections went off without major incident. Only some limited instances of vote buying and illegal campaigning were reported, and they are being investigated by the authorities.
There have been no reports of tampering with ballot boxes or voter intimidation by government forces, as was the case in previous elections as recently as 2010. The era of 99.9% victories is over in Egypt.
Though they witnessed lower voter turnout compared with the parliamentary vote last winter, the presidential elections are being hailed widely by experts and ordinary Egyptians as free and fair.
Based on my visits to polling stations in Cairo on both election days, there is no way to predict who will be the next president of Egypt, but there is little reason to expect that the results — whatever they be — will not be respected.
Despite temperatures in the high 90s on Wednesday, voters waited calmly in gender-specific lines outside an elementary school on the Nile island of Manial. Young, rifle-wielding soldiers guarded the entrances, checked IDs and maintained order inside.
Once beyond the gate, voters could search for their committee number in a roll posted on the wall. They then proceeded to the appropriate classroom where students’ desks were occupied by judges, administrators and observers from the campaigns and civil society organizations. Representatives from the Mohamed Morsi and Hamden Sabahy campaigns at this location confirmed the integrity of the process they had witnessed all day.
Only one voting room showed signs of disorder. Several dozen older women, who had been escorted inside to escape from the blistering sun, crowded into a small, poorly ventilated space where they argued with and overwhelmed the two male administrators at the front of the room.
This is the scene I expected to see across Egypt, a country where simply buying a bus ticket often results in heated arguments not to mention pushing and elbow jabbing. Instead, the room packed with disgruntled older women was the anomaly of the elections. An observer from the Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh campaign said he was recording the scene and would report the incident to the authorities. That this was the worst the observer had seen all day was more surprising than the scene itself.
At polling stations in the poor neighborhood of Imbaba on Thursday morning, the merciless heat and orderly calmness continued. I was rightly rejected entry to one of the classroom voting areas when it became clear I was not eligible to vote. From the doorway, I watched as men of all ages sunk their folded ballots into the clear plastic bins and dipped a finger in purple ink to prove they had voted.
In Manial and Imbaba and across Cairo, I spoke with dozens of Egyptians over the past two days about their choices for president. The answers I received in person and through Twitter and Facebook were varied and not always predictable:
An old woman voted for Ahmed Shafiq, seeking a return to stability.
A tourism worker supported Morsi, against his industry’s conventional wisdom.
Three young men with long hair, stylish clothes and fluent English voted for Sabahy.
A young woman switched from Sabahy to Aboul Fotouh while in the voting booth.
Many ultraconservative Salafis ignored their leaders’ endorsement of Aboul Fotouh and supported Morsi.
With five candidates who enjoy broad popularity and receive support from multiple segments of society for completely different reasons, it’s nearly impossible to predict whom an Egyptian will vote for. Many of them didn’t know themselves until they went to vote.
Opinion polling—and its bastard child, exit polling—is notoriously unreliable in this country, due in large part to a culture of fear that discourages talking about politics in public. At this point, nobody can accurately predict the results of the election.
Once extended polling hours ended on Thursday night, the process of tallying votes in stations across Egypt began. These activities continue to be broadcast live on satellite TV and discussed online as well as in cafes and private homes.
The election committee will not announce the official result until Tuesday, but an accurate, unofficial count may be available as early as Friday afternoon. Due simply to the existence of five top tier candidates, the results of the first round will almost certainly force a runoff on June 16 and 17.
The importance of this vote and the consequent emotions surrounding it contributed in the past few weeks to a buildup of anxiety throughout Egypt, which has been mollified in the past two days by the elections’ smooth execution. But like the calm before the storm, these few days presage an intensified level of campaigning and with it an inherent risk of unrest in Egypt’s unsteady course towards democracy.