Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Take me back to Egypt

It was neither my first time out of Nigeria nor my inaugural international election observation mission. I had twice been privileged to be on such missions to Ghana in December 2008 and the United States of America in November 2010. My third time out on election observation duty was in Egypt in May 2014. Each of these missions holds their peculiarities. My recent trip to the land of the Pharaohs was an eye-opener; a momentous and epochal event.
As rightly observed by Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist, in his foreword in the book, “Wonders of Egypt”, “Egypt’s greatest wonder is the magic of its archaeological sites…Egypt is a land of many, many wonders – the great historic (and beautiful) city of Cairo, with more medieval monuments than any other city in the world; the spectacular desert landscapes of the Gilf Kebir, the White Desert, or the high mountains of Sinai; the majestic, life bringing Nile and the rich green fields that are its gift”. I was ecstatic experiencing some of Egypt’s wonders in my 10 days adventure in the ancient country.
A few things, however, intrigued me in the country’s electoral process. First, the use of judges as presiding officers at polling stations. Two, the use of National Identity Card for voting (the country’s voting register was extracted from its national identity card database). Third, the large number of voters assigned to vote in each polling station which ranged from between 3,000 and 5,000. Fourth, the use of only public schools as polling centres with voting taking place inside the classroom rather than outside as in the case of Nigeria. Fifth, the professionalism of Egypt’s security agencies on election duties (both officers and men of the armed forces were deployed in providing security at each polling stations. Though armed to the teeth, they did not in any way scare voters who turned up even with their children to cast their votes). Sixth, the infectious warmth and hospitality of an average Egyptian towards visitors. (In most polling centres visited, both poll officials and voters received us with open arms with many of them begging us to take photographs with them.
Seventh, voters simply mark their choice of candidate with pen unlike in Nigeria where we thumbprint or fingerprint the ballot. Eighth, election in Egypt takes place from 9am to 9pm and the last presidential election was held over a three-day period (from May 26 – 28). Ninth, there was no shutting down of the Egyptian economy during the electioneering period. Though the election took place during the week days, people still went to work on the first day. On the second and third day, government workers were given public holiday but organised private sector and the non-formal sector went about their normal business. There was no roadblock, no movement restriction as is the case here. Tenth, the use of music for voter mobilisation. During the electioneering, Minions Boshret Kheir, a single released by popular musician, Hussein al Jasmi, became the most popular song in Egypt. I couldn’t resist getting the song from my translator, Raafat, and using it as my ringtone. Eleventh, perhaps, due to heightened fear of disruption of the polls, the electorate were excluded from witnessing the sorting and counting of the ballots with only the poll officials, party agents and accredited observers allowed to witness the counting. The twelfth fascinating thing I witnessed during the Egypt election was the near-fetish identification of Egyptians with their national flag. Many of them bought the flag and waved it in solidarity as they attended campaign rallies and came to vote. When news filtered out on who had won the election, they waved the national flag in jubilation.
Egyptians are very beautiful. Their ladies are very pretty, and their men very handsome. They are majorly light-complexioned with curly hair. Their skin is spotless. Many of them look angelic in their sartorial elegance. Egyptians also love tea. They drink it whether the weather is hot or cold. They serve their tea with a glass of water by the side. They however do not drink their tea with milk. I must have drunk more tea in my 10 days in Egypt than I did in the last six months. I also relished their local delicacies: falafl, foal (beans), beznal eaten with aish (Egyptian bread) and chay (tea).   Egyptians also take a lot of sugar and sugary things. Likewise salt. They are heavy smokers, smoking cigarette and shisha with the same passion as they drink their tea. An Egyptian newspaper, Ahram, of May 29 reported a study that revealed that Egypt is home to 40 per cent of the world smokers of shisha (tobacco concoction smoked through a hose or tube).
I also observed that Egyptians have an active night life. The day I arrived in Cairo, traffic was still heavy at about 12 am as we journeyed from the airport to the hotel. Most shops were still open and people move about as if it’s the dawn. Another fascinating thing I observed in Egypt is the people’s penchant for high-rise buildings. Skyscrapers filled everywhere, whether residential or business complexes. Hardly did I see any house that is a bungalow. Most of their houses are from about four storeys and above. There is also constant supply of electricity. I didn’t witness any light-out during my stay. This 24-hour electricity supply made it possible for the country to have elections for 12 hours, from dawn to dusk as well as to hold the election inside well-lit classrooms. It also helps the functioning of their elevators given the high-rise nature of their buildings.
As I criss-crossed the country from Cairo to Beheira to Alexandria and to Giza governorates, I keenly observed that the most popular cars on the streets of Egypt are Chevrolet and Lada. I also noticed that Egyptians are mainly rough drivers. Little wonder there is high rate of accidents on their roads particularly in Cairo. It is noteworthy, however, that Egypt has a very efficient transport system. EgyptAir is a public-owned enterprise yet the corporation is professionally and efficiently run. There are also railway services including two metro lines in Cairo. Sea transport is also not left out as boats are offering efficient and effective transport services to commuters.
The tight schedule of my assignment in Egypt didn’t allow me much time for recreation and tourism. Nevertheless, I made out time to visit a number of tourist sites. These are the Nile view of Beheira, Alexandria Castle built over 500 years ago and the Mediterranean Sea beach in Alexandria and the vintage Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza.
To Magdy, our driver, and Raafat, our interpreter, during the election observation period, I say Shokran (thank you) for the kolo tamam (satisfactory or very okay) services you both rendered to me and my partner, Jenneh. On my next visit to Egypt, I will like to visit the country’s numerous archeological sites.