Middle East

Egypt fizzing with rumours after landmark poll

Voters prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station in Cairo. Photo: 24 May 2012

Even before the polls had closed at the end of the second day of the first round of the presidential elections, Egypt was fizzing with rumours about who had won and who had lost.

When we told election officials at one provincial polling station we visited that we had heard that the two Islamist candidates were neck-and-neck miles ahead of the rest of the field, they immediately countered with another rumour.

Everyone was saying that the vote in the countryside was going heavily towards Ahmad Shafiq - the former minister of Hosni Mubarak's regime loathed by the revolutionaries of Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Either rumour might be true, we agreed - or both, or neither.

It is one of the joys of democracy, of course, that no-one knows for sure what Egypt will decide.

Officially, we will not know the first round results until next week - in fact, it seems likely that we will know much sooner than that.

Big secret

Many individual count centres will have completed their own tallies by Friday afternoon - and some may even know local results within a few hours of the polls closing.

A senior judge who spoke to us - and who is responsible for a total of 63 polling stations covering 350,000 voters - said he would be happy to announce his local results as soon as he knew them.

These may be the first free elections in 7,000 years of Egyptian history - as I heard one American politician describing them - but it is not going to take much psephological experience to start adding up the individual results to create some sort of overall picture.

So the results process may prove a little leaky once the results have been safely gathered - it's a pretty big secret to keep for four days after all.

But the word from one count centre was that there had been no problems with the voting itself, and that none were expected with the count.

'New start'

In the ancient town of Samanoud, in the Nile Delta, we met Judge Ashraf Zahran in the offices of a shabby high school converted into a count centre for election night.

He showed us the rather elegant tent which has been built in the school grounds for the announcement of the results.

The silk drapes and smart carpets create a sense of occasion, but the judge was quick to draw our attention to the way the floor was neatly cordoned off into separate areas.

Image caption Judge Ashraf Zahran says the counting process "has to be right"

One set of chairs is for representatives, another for members of the public and a third - on a raised platform - is for the judges.

"Everyone will see everything," Judge Zahran told me.

"It will be clean and fair. The process has to be right not for the outside world but for us, for ourselves. This is a new start for Egypt."

We visited a polling station, which was ticking over rather quietly in the punishing heat of the early afternoon.

A couple of voters were going through the process of verifying their identities, marking the ballot paper and then being marked themselves with indelible ink.

From elsewhere we have heard horror stories of people waiting for hours to vote and then finding the process impossibly confusing.

But halfway through the second day in Samanoud it was all running as smoothly as if Egypt had been a democracy for every one of those 7,000 years.

Of course, there is a long way to go yet - and the sternest test for Egypt's fledgling democracy may turn out to be not the voting process itself but the business of persuading Egyptians to accept the result even if they do not like it.

Monumental task

The judge was an impressive figure - determined to do his bit to help create a new democratic start for his country.

But in many ways the most striking element of our meeting was the state of the two sets of school buildings, which housed both his temporary office and the polling station a few kilometres down the road.

Both were tatty and crumbling, in need not just of redecoration but urgent and extensive repair.

Egypt spends far more on its complex system of food and fuel subsidies than it does on health and education.

Allowing prices to drift up towards free market levels might be painful - but it might free enough money in the budget to start improving quality of life and preparing for a better future.

Those shabby buildings are a testament to the failure of the government of Hosni Mubarak to invest in its own people - and of the monumental task awaiting whoever wins this race.

Very soon now - perhaps a little sooner than the bureaucrats in Cairo might like - we will move a step closer to knowing who that is going to be.