People in the women’s line at a school in Zamalek had been waiting up to five hours, since 7:30 am, when I arrived. They seemed happy about the process; the weather was beautiful; things were relatively well organized; some clever people had even brought folding chairs and/or sandwiches. It was unclear how the would-be voters stretched for six blocks along July 26 street, then around the corner and another several blocks on the parallel street, would all get in before the 7pm closing time. But when I passed by later the line had shortened a lot, and anyway the polls are open tomorrow as well.
The polling place itself was secured by the same type of army guys I’d seen at Maspero last week (olive uniforms, helmets, etc), but all the security and organization I saw outside was taken care of by the young men (and I saw one woman) of the Popular Committees, the (mostly) unarmed neighborhood watch groups spontaneously organized when police were withdrawn from the streets in late January. They wore no uniforms – in some cases not even a laminated nametag – but people respected them and followed their instructions. As in: “I’m sorry, ma’am, this line is only for those who are over 60 or pregnant. You’ll have to go down that way, around the corner, second left.” And the person would immediately go.
Amid the underlying uncertainty over what exactly this Parliament will do, one feels odd playing a role in this scene, running around with a Nikon and taking the sort of photographs that play into the usual narrative, so familiar to newspaper readers and so often leading to disappointment. Not only Iraq (try Googling “purple finger elections”), but even the best cases (like South Africa: who can forget the images of people lining up to vote in the first post-apartheid election in 1996?). Yet there they are by the hundreds and thousands, lined up and smiling, calling friends and relatives to discuss whom to vote for. The elderly woman emerging from the polling station with her face aglow. Who can resist? [Note: having trouble with slow Internet right now, but will try to upload photos in a few hours. I didnt get the glowing face by the way; didn’t dare interrupt. But Al-Masry Al-Youm and tons of other photogs were on the scene.]
Bottom line is that at least today there’s a free choice, even if its ultimate impact will soon be canceled by gridlock, bickering, continuing dictatorship and dispossession. At least none of the candidates on the election posters is wearing sunglasses. A year ago, instead of all those faces of folks who have decided to run for Parliament (some of them quite ordinary people), the banners and posters would have some variation of “Yes, Mubarak!” Not a lot to be excited about, but people are doing their best.