Brad Knott's full first-hand account of his election work in Egypt
July 11, 2014
Kuemper Catholic High School graduate Brad Knott poses in front of a pyramid in Egypt where he was an observer of a recent election for
For the full story, go to the Daily Times Herald eEdition.
I recently returned from Egypt where I was an observer of the presidential election held May 26 though the 28th. I was part of an international team of 86 short term observers from 17 different countries. The trip was paid for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and run by Democracy International (DI), a non government organization based in Bethesda, Maryland. I was asked because I run a business that helps state and local governments administer elections in the United States; as well as have a long career working in US elections. DI monitors elections and sponsors programs that promote civil society in emerging countries around the world like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. Their mission is to document and publicize the progress toward democracy these countries are making; not measure them against US standards of fair elections.
This was my first time in Egypt, the Middle East and a Muslim country. I was a little concerned about safety and frankly, about the significance of the elections that were not expected to be close. In 2012 after 60 plus years of military rule Egypt, had its first democratic elections won by Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist religious group hostile to the West. A year later in the midst of civil unrest fueled by a faltering economy, incompetent administration and over reach by the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, led by Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew Mors, outlawed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and began a campaign to arrest, jail and execute dissent mostly by the Brotherhood. In order to run for President, Sisi resigned from the military. His only opponent was Hamdeen Sabahi a secular liberal. The outcome was never in doubt.
The folks at the DI assured me that Egypt is relatively safe. Western interests are not the objects of terrorists attacks there. And the elections are significant to the US and the world. While Egypt is among the poorest of the Middle East countries, for historical, cultural and military reasons it is very influential in the Middle East. Our report on their progress toward democracy will inform and influence the difficult decisions the US government must make about foreign aid to what was, and remains, a key but changing ally in an important part of the world.
I signed on for what I expected to be an adventure, a learning experience and to witness a part of history. I hit a triple!
Briefing and Preparation
I departed Dulles airport in Northern Virginia with several other short-term observers on May 22nd. We trained in Cairo's Sofitel Hotel, a plush hotel on an island in the Nile River not far from the Tahrir Square, the site of large protests and clashes with the police and military. Security at the hotel was tight -metal detectors, dogs and police roamed the lobby; but this was considered safe. Westerners and Egyptians mixed freely. There were people in traditional conservative Muslim attire but there were also Egyptians in western attire -- short dresses, high heels, business suits and bling. Lots of bling. The rooms and the food were great.
We briefed for a day on the political, security situations and how to respond should trouble arise. Egypt is a restrictive society run by the military. People, even activists, exercise self-restraint in their political speech and appearance. Opposition to the incumbent government is ... discouraged. By culture and necessity most young people live at home until they marry. Seventy percent of Egyptians under 30 are unemployed. School is free so those who have access study, putting off looking for work because there is none. Tourism is big part of the economy. Since the revolution of January 25, 2011 tourists have stopped coming. There is a real and palatable sense among Egyptians, we were told, that the country is collapsing. They need political stability and security so the tourists will return. Two institutions are revered in Egypt, the military and the judiciary. We watched political ads that showed young (circa 5 years old) in military uniform next to rockets and cannons blasting, accompanied by patriotic music and the tag line. "Your Egypt, your army" Judges (equivalent to our District judges) run the polling locations to provide an aura of respectability and order.
We were provided a computer tablet, cell phone and logistics on how we were to "witness" (not observe-as that word translates to "supervise") the election. I was assigned to city, Sohag, (pronounced So-Ha') of about 600,000 residents located about 250 miles southeast of Cairo in Upper Egypt. I noted that the Muslim Brotherhood was strong there in the last election. I quickly googled the city; it looked all right, modern buildings and nice views of the Nile. I was ready to go!
We worked in teams. My observation partner was Antoine, a 28 year old French citizen of Syrian descent who works in Cairo as a free lance journalist and teacher. Antoine had no election experience but spoke 4 languages including Egyptian Arabic and brought a journalist' curiosity to our task and sarcastic sense of humor. He loved to point out the absurdities of Egyptian government and police policies and keep me laughing in the process. Rounding out the team was our 24-year-old interpreter, Mustafa, who lived in Cairo but was from Sohag; a real advantage in a country where there are few street addresses. Getting directions in Egypt often went like this: "stay on this road until you see an old man smoking a pipe. Go left at the next road after the man for a little while then ask someone else." You can see how having local knowledge of the streets, trees and guys smoking pipes would be helpful.
We left the comforts of the Sofitel Hotel on Sunday, the 25th. We took an hour flight to the ancient city of Luxor then a 3 hour car ride across the desert. At the airport we were met, as we expected, by our driver and by a not totally unexpected police detective, who was to accompany us on our journey. Not just follow us but ride in our car. We told him no. We got in the car and drove away. Fortunately, he left us alone. But that was only the beginning of our interactions with the police. Soon we were racing down a blacktop road in the middle of a desert; 115 degrees and nothing - not a town, a person or shrub as far as the eye could see.
About 3 hours in to the trip we stopped at the one and only local version of a convenience store. Two low-lying buildings run by a man and his two boys who also lived there. We only wanted to use the rest room but realizing that we would probably be the only customers they would see that day, Mustafa bought sodas. We were not allowed into the restroom until the boys had cleaned it. I am not sure why because it was simply a hole in the ground (and not very deep and not elevated) with a porcelain circle around it. We were a great curiosity to the boys. As we were leaving I asked Mustafa if I could give them an Egyptian pound - about 14 cents. He said absolutely not; that would be an insult because it was money they had not worked to earn. From the desire to clean a hole in the ground toilet to the refusal to take money, I was introduced to a recurrent theme of the week- Egyptian pride.
Back on the road the arid desert brown eventually gave way to lush green and farmland being worked by men, oxen and mules. I saw 3 tractors the entire time. We were coming upon the Nile, the longest river in the world and literally the life blood of Egypt. Sohag was on the Nile, as are all Egyptian cities and people. 96% of the people live within a few miles of the river. After that drive across the desert, I understood why. Egyptians have been living off the Nile for 7,000 years. It was and remains central to transportation, water and food. I saw elaborate channels, canals and irrigation systems that extended for several miles into what was once desert but now grew corn, sugar, wheat and cotton. Much of the irrigation system ran by gas pumps but I also men pumping water and other gerry rigged schemes powered by bicycles and oxen to pump water into the fields. For a city surrounded by thousands of square miles of desert they were free with water usage. Water spilled over from unattended pumps in fields and everyone had a hose to beat back the dust of the mostly dirt roads.
As we drove in to Sohag it was clear this was like no city I've seen. There were as many mules as cars. There were no perceivable traffic rules, trash spilled into the water system and most commerce was conducted on the side of the road. Half finished buildings were everywhere; while still more new houses were being built. Antoine told me that was a product of a few things: government make-work policies for the unemployed, a plan to give people from Cairo the houses in the hope they would spread across the country, and with so much unemployment, labor was cheap. Building materials - bricks in particular were plentiful. Egypt on the Nile has plenty of sand, cement and water. Muslims pray several times a day. In Sohag prayers were blasted though cracked speakers located on every other street corner.
Our hotel I was told was the 2nd best in the city. But it did not look like the pictures. Dust covered the shabby furniture in the lobby. It had an open air lobby and was incredibly hot and dirty. I walked through the lobby to an open porch and restaurant where I discovered my greatest disappointment. No beer! Muslims abstain from alcohol. And they want the rest of us to do the same. No alcohol is served in Sohag restaurants. There are no bars. In Cairo where you could ask for a beer in a bar, but took 30 minutes or more to deliver it. I am sure that is a passive aggressive effort to discourage drinking. But you could smoke a dozen varieties of tobacco out of hookah upon request. I was hoping to do that but smoking was the one vice Antoine had given up. I did not want to tempt him.
Not all was lost. My room had air conditioning and it looked over the Nile. Unfortunately, the door would not lock. So I carried my treasures with me. It was Sunday afternoon and there was nothing to do but work. Mustafa and I went to a local internet café to download polling station locations and set up political meetings with local activists to figure out a diverse list of stations to view. I gave Antoine the more difficult assignment-- find some beer!
As Mustafa and I looked for the internet cafe we were suddenly caught in a herd of goats running down the street. The shepherd would bang on the metal street light poles and the sheep would turn. I was struck by the incongruities. A city of 600,000 where many people road donkeys, a conservatively dominant culture where women where veils and full length garments walked among stores with mannequins dressed in Western garb - shorts, sandals and western T-shirts. A place where civilization began but progress stopped years ago. It made me more curious to see if Egypt could transition toward democracy - to trust their people with self government. And to get out of there after Election Day.
That night we met with local leaders of political organizations; one called Build Egypt that Mustfa's brother worked with and the other was called One Egypt. The former focused on political participation, the latter on improving the local economy. Both liaisons were in their late 20s, bright, energetic, engaged and unemployed. It was sad to see that kind of talent being wasted.
I ate my first of 8 straight meals of grilled chicken and boiled rice, no veggies, no salad and no ice. In the field for four days I was hopeful of not getting sick. The chicken was flat like a paddy only it had bones. Antoine said there was a tire mark on his! My partners, used to the Egyptian hygiene, ate like kings for $6 a meal. I focused on the weight I would lose after 4 days in the heat, little food and less beer.
The next morning the polls opened at 9 AM. At breakfast (hardboiled eggs, bread and instant coffee) Mustafa said he was visited by the police at midnight and told they would be accompanying us while in Sohag. The downside of a local interpreter was his reluctance to resist. As Mustafa explained, they knew where his family lived. As we went outside to meet our new friends I asked Antoine "How did they know we were here"? He answered "they know everything." They watch everybody. "
Ultimately the undercover cops with pistols in their pants became our friends. The lead was a guy named Mohammed, about 30 years old. I showed him some fist bump handshakes and they helped us get to our locations negotiating difficult roads and traffic. We told them their presence near us at the polls compromised our integrity as neutral observers and they backed off. It was clear that the military, the police - everybody wanted us to "sanction" the election as legitimate so foreign governments would send aid and businesses and tourists would return.
Polling stations were in schools with big walls around the complex. They were run by judges. Each had a military presence; some more ominous than others. But there were always at least 7 young men in spiffy uniforms with rifles (US tax dollars at work) and a few officers who would come out of the shade to check our credentials, slowing us long enough for someone to alert the judges of our presence.
The first station we visited was a military school in a prominent neighborhood. We arrived early to watch the opening procedures. Men and women formed separate lines waiting to vote. We tried to avoid the TV cameras who were fascinated to see an American. Observers were witness to , not be part of the story. As the judge approached people parted so he could enter with his small entourage carrying the list of eligible voters and the ballots. They were organized; the polling booths, tables and chairs were set. The windows were secure from blast - meaning either there was no glass or the glass was taped. Women in beautiful multicolored niqab and makeup were ready to check voters in and confirm the identity of veiled women. I had the sense that for women, who are discouraged by the culture from participation outside the home, these clothes, which cover their entire body, were a statement of identity and fashion. When I took their picture the police told me the women wanted me to ask permission so they could primp for the photo.
Only one voter is allowed in the polling station at a time. Scores of people were standing outside waiting to enter. Just as the station opened a verbal fight broke among the voters over who had priority to vote first. The judge got up and walked to the door and everyone quieted. I am sure it helped that armed guards stood behind him.
As an American and an international observer/witness we were able to access all parts of the polling station. Everyone was friendly. It was obvious that we both had our agendas. We completed our tablet based questionnaire dealing with the pillars of sound election administration - transparency, privacy, security and administration - and we moved on. We were expected to see 12-15 stations a day spending about 20 minutes in each. We had to go.
By 9.30 AM it was over a hundred degrees. Between getting in and out of a car with AC, the heat, the dust and pollution and little food and our bloody "observer vests that we had to wear- it was miserable. I have detassled Iowa corn in July, worked highway construction in August and survived the mid Atlantic summers but this was a new level of heat. It felt like I was living in an oven; yet few of the Egyptians were sweating!
We moved quickly determined to get to as many stations as possible before the noon heat. We fell into a routine; show the police our next destination so they could lead use through the maddening traffic, get out at the next stop, be delayed from entering by ascending levels of military personnel, before finally gaining access. We noted the posters to assist voters, the duplicate list of eligible voters outside the polling place , we walked in to the polling place, shook hands with the judges and nodded to the poll workers. One of us met with the judge while the other recorded observations in the tablet. We watched the voting process. Woman were universally present and most people seemed happy to be voting. Voters showed their national identification card, they were confirmed in the poll book, handed a ballot - which was quite simple. It had a picture of each candidate with a place to make your preference. They went behind a metal booth marked the ballot then folded it and placed it in sealed plastic box with a slot on the top. They dipped their finger in indelible ink as a security measure to keep from voting twice, then as they walked out they wiped the ink on the wall! It was strange to see the defacing of public property like. Before we left we posed for several pictures. Mustafa said I was likely the first American they had seen.
By 1 PM I was tired and the heat was north of 110. We returned to the hotel for lunch and a nap in the AC. I am now a firm believer in the siesta. A few hours of food and rest in cool air and I was ready to get back at it.
We headed north into the farming areas. It was not really rural because the farmers lived along a canal that extended out from the Nile and walked to their fields. Dusty roads ran parallel to the canals and narrow alleys ran perpendicular for a few blocks to the dusty roads. The dusty roads were the shopping malls. I saw carcasses hanging from hooks, chickens in wooden cages and huge fish piled on top of each other. Flies were incessant. There were outdoor vegetable stands of incredible color and coffee shops where men sat in the shade smoking hookahs. There were wood and metal works shops, stores that sold cars and motorcycles. In spite the signs to stay out of the dirty water, kids swam and fished in the canal. Food was being washed with that same water. I contemplated how much weight I would lose in this heat if I did not eat for 3 days.
At 8.30 we returned to the polling station to watch the closing of the first day of voting. The ballot boxes were sealed shut and list of voters and ballots were placed in a cardboard box, tied with twine and the knot sealed with hot wax that was marked with a stamp. We followed the judge, the poll workers and the security to a room on the second floor. The judge made a big deal of placing the materials in the room, locking the door, wrapping the lock in a white cloth then sealing the with hot wax imprinted with the seal. The judge then put the seal in his pocket. Guards and election observers then bunked down to sleep in front of the gate as an added measure of security.
Antoine and I retreated to hotel to sit on my small deck over looking the Nile and imbibe the two beers he had found.
The next morning I went to breakfast by myself. I sat down with my hard boiled eggs, bread and instant coffee when I heard a banging near by. I looked over and a guy in suit was trying to unjam his pistol by banging on the table. It was pointed at me. I moved to the next table. His companion, an election judge came to say the guy with the pistol was his body guard. He was all smiles and apologetic. I had a different attitude about that made worse because I was now sick. Apparently the hot water for the coffee was not boiled and I was paying the price for drinking it.
The second day of observation was much like the first. Around 10 AM were received a text that the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) was extending the voting an extra hour until 10 PM. By dinnertime we learned that PEC was extending voting another day and making it a holiday for public sector workers. Neither Antoine nor I wanted to stick around for a 3rd day as we were confident we would see nothing new. But that was not our decision to make. At 8 PM we were told to return to Cairo as planned.
As were headed out to observe the closing of the polls the mood was quite different. People were ignoring the campaign moratorium and had taken to the streets. People - mostly young men - were on top of cars and statutes, waving flags and blaring patriotic music. They were stopping and rocking cars. It was festive but also dangerous. If I were a member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood that was prevented from participating in the election under fear of arrest, torture and death, I might feel they were flaunting the rules. If I was really crazy I might walk into that crowd with an IED (bomb) on my back. The situation grew more ominous when I realized our police escort had disappeared. The first lesson in the security briefing had been to always be observant; to note what was "normal" and when normal changed to get out. That could mean someone had been tipped off that violence was planned. Antoine and especially Mustafa were caught up in the excitement of the election. Mustafa was clearly excited for his country and said that 25 million Egyptians had voted and this was something to celebrate. I told him I was more nervous than ever and that I wanted him at my hip, not wandering off to celebrate with his countrymen.
Once inside the polling station I felt better. The police reappeared and crowds died down after the polls closed. Antoine and I retreated to my porch and the beer he had found while I napped.
The next day we packed up and headed back to Cairo. As I checked out of the hotel I saw our police escort chatting with Antoine. I fist pumped him good bye. As we were leaving town I mentioned to Antoine that the cop was not such a bad guy. He told me that's true but he had just been listening to the cop explain how they had caught a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and were going extract a confession. No details as to what that meant were offered or requested. We learned later that representatives of opposition candidates had been arrested in Sohaj and around Egypt.
Was this a free and fair election?
The following are my conclusions based on observations in Sohaj as well as what my fellow observers witnessed around the country and reported back in a large de-briefing we went through before returning home. DI will be publishing a lengthy report based on far more information than I have.
By US and international standards this was not a free and fair election. Outlawing your primary opposition is just the most blatant act. The presence of police and military at the polling locations and in the polling stations where votes were being cast is never acceptable in a fair election. There is just too much opportunity for intimidation. This is especially true when one of the candidates was from the military. Arresting opposition observers was a blatant example of voter intimidation.
Extending voting by one hour and then by one day suggested the PEC was not a neutral observer but an interested party with the goal of a certain outcome-a specific turnout level in this case. One can correctly argue that in the US many election administrators similarly have conflicts of interest in the outcome of elections they administer. Many get their jobs either through an election or an appointment by an elected official. That's a problem with our election system.
The dipping of the voter's finger in indelible ink is the primary method used to prevent someone from voting twice. The ink wears off after 48 hours so one could easily vote on the first and third day.
Creating a public but not private sector holiday on the 3rd day was also problematic. The public sector skews toward older workers. Young voters were not afforded the same opportunities to vote.
In spite of these egregious problems there was progress toward democracy. In terms of the 4 pillars of a free and fair election - transparency, privacy, security and administration -- competence on the part of the Egyptian government was evident. The voting process was transparent to us as observers and to anyone paying attention to the media. We could see that the process used to determine a voter's eligibility was open and proper; that she was able to mark her ballot in private and cast that ballot free from intimidation or any form of inappropriate influence. The ballots were properly secured and the polls were well organized and opened on time.
But in the end, in politics more than most endeavors, perception is reality. The ultimate arbiter of a fair election is do the losers and the average Egyptian accept the results. I think there is a split opinion. The Muslim Brotherhood will never accept the results. But it seemed the average Egyption might. Sissi offered them security and stability; both are necessary to get tourists, investment and foreign dollars back and the economy going.
As reports, both supported and unsupported by evidence, emerge and shapes public opinion, the legitimacy of this election will be known. As a neutral observer with experience in elections one hopes and expects that DI's report will be given its due.
How we should view this election
The story the mainstream media has written about this election is almost exclusively that the turnout was low and by implication the legitimacy of the new government was diminished. Official numbers have not been released but roughly 25 million people out of 53 million eligible voters participated. That is 47%. Low by US general election standards. Iowa will often have 70% plus participate in a contested general election.
But that comparison is misleading for a few reasons. First, this was not really a contested election. The outcome was never in doubt. The leading candidate, Abdel Fattah el Sissi was, as the self appointed president until a few months ago in control of the government, self appointed president and head of the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance. His leading opponent was outlawed and threatened with jail or worse.
Seen in that context it's hard to call this a contested election. The outcome was never in doubt. It was like an Iowa caucus when the incumbent president is running unopposed. There was no motivation for non party people to vote. Mustafa did not vote because "it was a one horse show."
The second reason turnout is not the only story is because in Egypt there is a long tradition of using abstention as a political statement. In the US we tend to discount the opinion of non voters as people who have abdicated their responsibility. In Egypt, as in other places around the world, political commentators view abstaining as a statement of "none of the above." It is not clear that not voting meant not interested or not a participant in public affairs.
There should also be a discussion on who voted and how the elections were run. Women who have traditionally been shut out of political and professional life played a much greater role than in any previous election. My evidence is only anecdotal but participation by women was widely viewed as being the largest ever. This ought be seen as progress when half the population is no longer discouraged from participating.
Participation by young men was disappointing. This is the demographic group suffering the most by horrible economic times. If they cannot be brought in to the system through elections the fear is they will look for other means for political expression. This makes them ripe to be recruited by the radical extremist and terrorists.
Finally, as discussed above, the elections showed that at least on the surface level Egyptians know how to run an election. The election reminded me of school election where the establishment allows the electorate to go through the motions of a voting to learn how it is done without the risk of the consequences of the elections. They were not going to let the Muslim Brotherhood, with its radical politics and poor governance, return. Extremists are seen as a disaster for tourism and therefore for the Egyptian economy and its traditional role in Middle East and world politics.
Seen in that context my assessment is that Egypt took a tiny step forward. They know how to run an election. They have an electorate that mostly wants to participate. Unfortunately, the political elite is not ready to trust the outcome of fair and open elections. Are two steps forward one step back better than one step forward two steps back? It would seem so. But time will tell if these elections are part of the path toward or away from a better Egypt.