ARISH — Political party workers in North Sinai Governorate have reported various irregularities on the first day of the final round of parliamentary elections, including illegal campaigning on election day, attempts to direct voters on how to vote, and the failure of election authorities to issue permits to some party delegates.
By contrast with the 2010 parliamentary elections, however, those involved in the process in North Sinai said the elections, in which the governorate is drawn up into one constituency for both single-winner and party-list candidates, were relatively free and fair. Still in evidence, though, was the factor of tribal loyalties, which has long played an important role on voting day.
Tawfik Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Egypt National Party in North Sinai, said that none of the party's 31 delegates were allowed into polling stations because their permits had not come through. He said his party filed complaints with the High Judicial Elections Commission against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi-oriented Nour Party for attempting to influence voters to pick their candidates at the polling stations under the pretext of helping them find their relevant stations, in addition to handing out leaflets.
In Arish, the governorate’s capital, and Sheikh Zowayed, a nearby city, voter turnout seemed low on the first day. Candidates estimated that around 30 percent of eligible voters turned out. The turnout was higher in Rafah, a town near the Gaza border.
"The problem is that the turnout is low, even though this is something the center tried to counter through an initiative to encourage people to vote. However we discovered there are attempts to influence voters inside the polling station, by FJP and Nour delegates," said Ismail Zayed, manager of the Sinai Center for Freedom and Development.
An intense military presence was visible around North Sinai, not just at the polling stations but in the towns and on the highway. Tanks, armed military vehicles and armed troops were ubiquitous.
Under the Camp David Accords, the Egyptian military is prohibited from entering that zone, but that changed after an attack across the border into Israel in August. Even police forces had their own armed military vehicles, painted a rusty and faded blue.
Tribal loyalties seem to matter more to campaigns than party loyalties. Many of the candidates in this election belonged to the former ruling party but are now running as independents or with other parties.
On the poster for the Nour Party list in the governorate, there are four candidates. Each one has his or her tribal affiliation marked below their names — they are from four different tribes. This was also seen on posters for the Nour Party's single-winner candidates.
"In North Sinai, tribal loyalties exist even inside the parties," Nasrallah said. "Regardless of their party leanings, voters will always decide on tribal lines."
Nasrallah, a self-proclaimed leftist, is well-aware that his new party is considered feloul — remnants of Hosni Mubarak's regime — and also includes shock jock Tawfik Okasha. Yet Nasrallah says that he joined the party to counter more prominent feloul.
"I know we are thought of as feloul, but I felt we needed a legitimate party to join and work through to counter specific individual feloul candidates running in the elections," he said.
There was little presence for liberal parties in North Sinai, whether old or new. Mohamed Abu Hany, a candidate listed at the top of the Conservative Party list, echoed that. He believes that the parties with the best chances of winning on the list-based system, aside from FJP and the Nour Party, were his party, the Reform and Development Party and the Freedom Party — all considered feloul parties.
When asked about this, he said, "We cannot tell them not to run, and in the end you must decide on the merits of the candidate, nothing else."
Even though revolutionary groups seemed far removed from the elections, the events of 25 January were not that far away. Voter Fathy Abu Haj's brother, Ahmed, was killed on 28 January during last year's uprising.
"Ahmed died for freedom, and we just want our dignity after the years of bad treatment by security forces. We want peace and security, and we need someone in parliament who will look out for us," he said.
In Rafah, voter turnout was slightly higher, and the Nour Party and FJP presence was more evident at the poll stations.
Mohamed Ahmed is a first-time voter who, along with his wife, voted for Nour because he believed them to be the most "disciplined." However, Ahmed believes that participating in elections is haram — forbidden by Islam — because "there is no history of elections in the stories of the Salaf [ancestors]. Leadership is appointed." Ahmed voted to avoid the fine for not voting.