CAIRO – Egypt’s first contested presidential election on Wednesday brought few surprises.
President Hosni Mubarak won 88.6 percent of the vote, giving him a fifth six-year term in office. This was no surprise.
But I did not return home expecting a surprising result. Instead, I came back to enjoy the surprises that have surrounded the elections – the first in which Egyptians could choose between more than one candidate.
When I left Egypt for the United States in 2000, I had reported on my country for 10 years. The story was getting stale and there was no sign that it would be getting exciting anytime soon.
But that changed last December when anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Cairo to say Kifaya – Enough – and to call for change. And when the Egyptian constitution was amended to allow a multi-candidate presidential election on September 7, I knew I had to come home.
And so I arrived last week just in time to see the last few days of campaigning. And there have been several real surprises.
For starters, what a surprise it was to see Ayman Nour hold his last campaign rally in front of the Mogamma. For those who don’t know, the Mogamma is universally acknowledged as the home of Egyptian government bureaucracy.
So notorious is its reputation as one of those places where you enter thinking you need only 20 minutes to get an official document issued but you end up spending two hours instead that one of Egypt’s most famous comic actors, Adel Imam, immortalized the Mogamma in a massively popular film called “Terrorism and Kebab”.
The film chronicles Adel Imam playing a father who goes to the Mogamma in an attempt to transfer his children from one school to another but finds himself literally stuck in a vicious circle that takes him in vain from one clerk to another.
In a fit of frustration, the father grabs a rifle from one of the police guards in the building and takes hostage the Mogamma employees and some fellow citizens who happened to be caught in the bureaucratic rut.
When the minister of the interior himself appears to negotiate with the father, thinking he is a terrorist who will blow the building up, the father asks his hostages what they’d like and they all decide kebab is top of their wish list. The high price of meat makes it too expensive for many Egyptians. The film ends with the Adel Imam character walking out along with the hostages – Everyman who for a few hours fought back.
Ayman Nour’s rally in front of the Mogamma focused on that Everyman. By focusing most of his speech on domestic policy, Nour was serving notice that Egyptians deserved to be their government”s No. 1 priority.
By talking about unemployment, poverty, the inability of so many young Egyptian men and women to afford marriage, political prisoners, human rights violations, the rights of women and Christians, and government corruption, he was signaling that instead of courting government officials to get their daily needs met, government officials should be courting ordinary Egyptians to keep their jobs.
By putting himself squarely in front of a government fortress so redolent with the bureaucratic humiliation that government represents for the average Egyptian, Nour was promising a new idea of government.
Egyptians will not forget this.
And Egyptians will not forget the sight or sound of 3,000 of us marching from Tahrir Square to Ataba Square as part of a Kifaya organized march on Election Day. It was the largest anti-government march in Egypt for almost 30 years.
When I joined a demonstration through the Shubra neighbourhood during my visit to Cairo in June, we numbered 300 at most. On Election Day, we were 10 times that number and sometimes more as people who were watching only decided to join our march.
The electoral commission which announced the election results put voter turnout at a very low 23 percent. That means that only seven million of 32 million registered voters in Egypt turned out to cast their ballot on Wednesday. Keep this low figure in mind so that you can appreciate the significance of between 3,000 – 5,000 Egyptians marching through downtown Cairo calling for change.
The concern now is what will happen to the opposition movement in Egypt. Now that the election is over, the world must not forget them. Egypt is not the country it was just 10 months ago. As a member of Ayman Nour’s Ghad Party told me a few days before the election, "It is too late to stop the train of democracy or even reduce its speed."
Nothing can wipe our memories clean of the criticisms heaped on the government over the past few weeks ago by presidential candidates and the opposition movement which has organized almost weekly demonstrations.
As an Egyptian who lives abroad, I could not vote on Wednesday. Even when I lived in Egypt, I never bothered to apply for a voter registration card because I never thought my vote would count. I regret this apathy now. I will register myself for the next presidential election in 2011 when Egyptians abroad will be allowed to vote.
Egypt has begun a journey down a long path towards change. I have never heard so many relatives and friends take such an interest in Egyptian politics or — more important — feel that they had a stake in them.
That is the real surprise in Egypt these days.