The night before Egypt's election, last weekend, I travelled to Alexandria -- the country's second city, stronghold of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and scene of recent unrest -- to watch the day's events unfold.
On arrival at 8am we found that polling stations had opened on time and were admitting voters, albeit in small numbers. Despite the idle morning atmosphere, our rounds of the Alexandria 'hotspots' -- as identified by newspapers columnists -- uncovered a number of flagrant violations of election conduct. From blue and white curtained booths in the Raml constituency we observed women operating laptop computers hand out registration cards to people who should have previously collected them from police stations during the allotted voter registration period. Many of these booths were heavily decorated with NDP campaign posters and slogans, an infringement of the official campaigning code.
While few entered the polling stations and even fewer exited with the requisite inked finger, others complained about being unjustly turned away. As the hours went by, increasing amounts of people -- predominantly young men -- congregated outside voting centres. They told us that they were supporters and campaigners, not voters. The crowds of supporters in the popular quarters of Karmouz were accompanied by campaign vehicles disseminating messagers on behalf of both NDP and Muslim Brotherhood candidates.
Meanwhile, the thugs dressed in black we had witnessed being transported into Alexandria in microbuses and school buses (vacant while state schools are used as polling stations) were met by armoured security. Together they assembled around Mina al-Basel police headquarters waiting for deployment to wherever tensions might boil over first.
Campaigning -- supposedly illegal on election day -- continued until the timely close of polling stations at seven in the evening. The real action began when the ballot boxes were collected and transported to central counting locations. While in Raml, heavy duty police tanks had been stationed to restrict the movement and congregation of supporters in front of the counting station, the situation in Mina al-Basel was another story entirely. There for several hundred meters we were forced to pass through a tense but controlled stand-off. Pressed against one side of the car, the Ihkwan (Muslim Brotherhood) were shouting "There is no God but Allah! Islamiah! Islamiah!", while the shields of riot police pushed against the other. At a safe distance, we learnt that the crowd was protesting over the late arrival of ballot boxes.
The tense situation continued late into the night. The next morning I found myself trying to de-construct the events we had witnessed in Alexandria. According to the state publication Al-Ahram the town's elections had passed in remarkable calm, while daily independent Masry al-Youm laments the level of violence seen in the same streets.
At this point, I notice that the finger of the man selling these newspapers is still inked bright pink. I ask whether he voted. He smiles mysteriously as if to expose the simplicity of my question. Eventually he replied: "If God wills it".