You vote. The votes are counted. The results are announced. This is what happens in elections in many countries. Not in Egypt. That is, not until March 19, 2011 — Egypt’s first real day of democracy.
Until Saturday’s constitutional referendum in Egypt, election and referendum results were always known in advance. Hosni Mubarak had been the country’s ruler for 30 years. Voting made little difference as widespread rigging assured he remained in power. As a result, voter turnout was usually slim.
The January 25 revolution, which toppled Mubarak’s regime, changed all of that.
The Supreme Military Council, which took charge after Mubarak’s stepped down, proposed six amendments to the constitution to prepare for the election of a new parliament and president. On Saturday, the people of Egypt headed to the voting booths to cast their ballots on this package of proposed amendments.
I smiled when I saw the long lines as I entered the polling station. It meant a longer wait, but I didn’t mind, as it also indicated high voter turnout. People from all walks of life stood in line patiently waiting to cast their “yes” or “no” votes to the amendments. Most had never voted before in their lives. Everyone was smiling and nobody complained about the long wait.
“I never voted before, but things are different now,” said Yasmin Anwar, who said she felt empowered after the January 25 revolution.
I myself had never voted in Egypt before and came all the way from New York to witness this day. My husband and I were watching the developments in Egypt closely. Two days before referendum day we were checking a YouTube ad about the vote when I said, “I really wish we were there to vote.” “Me too,” he responded. “Yalla?” (Arabic for “let’s go”) I asked. The following day we packed our bags and headed to Egypt for our one-day voting trip.
Over the past few weeks there were heated debates in Egypt about the suggested amendments. The Muslim Brotherhood and members of Mubarak’s defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) supported the amendments. Liberals, intellectuals and many protesters who participated in the revolution were voting “no.”
The amendments included items that limit the president’s term to two, four years each. The 1971 constitution allows for six-year terms and there was no limit on how many times a president could run. There was a lack of clarity, however, on the consequences of the vote and the steps ahead.
A “yes” vote means holding parliamentary elections in a few months, followed by presidential elections. A committee would then be formed to draft a new constitution. This scenario favors parties that are already organized like the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP.
A “no” vote means starting work on the new constitution first and possibly having a presidential council rule the country for a transitional period or holding presidential elections before parliamentary ones. This scenario favors new players who need time to establish political parties and organize themselves.
A record-high turnout was expected. Over 40 million out of 82 million Egyptians were eligible voters. Some government estimates put participation levels at 25 million in comparison to only six million who voted in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Some lines were over a mile long, according to some reports. Al Masry Al Youm newspaper called them “the lines of freedom.”
We talked to the people standing in line with us while we waited and shared lots of experiences, opinions, sandwiches and water. Everyone was overjoyed.
An enthusiastic teenage girl, who was accompanying her mother, but was herself too young to vote, showed me a section in her schoolbook entitled “Mubarak’s Accomplishments.” It stated that “democracy flourished during the time of President Hosni Mubarak.” She laughed. “I told them I won’t study it and I won’t answer any questions about it in the test,” she said stubbornly. Luckily, the school decided to cancel this section altogether.
As we got closer to the stairway that would take us to the first floor voting room, my eyes started to tear. I couldn’t believe I was that close to voting. Scores of older men and women who were allowed to skip the line because of their age and health, were slowly and with difficulty making their way up, passing me by. It was another reminder of the significance of this day.
I finally walked into the polling room with a big smile on my face and casted my “no” vote. I had to stain my finger with pink ink to ensure I don’t vote again. “Yes! Finally our voice counts,” I shouted as I walked out. “Yes. Finally!” responded those still standing in line cheerfully.
We watched the preliminary results on television (another first for Egypt), albeit without the sophisticated graphics. They indicated a majority “yes” vote. But whatever the results, Egyptians got to taste democracy for the first time and seem determined to continue.
We still have a long way to go, but yesterday as people showed off their pink-stained fingers, I’m proud to say that we have taken our first step.