Monday, November 28, 2011

Letters from Egypt: How Illiterate Egypt Votes

Parliamentary elections started this morning in Cairo and other select governorates in Egypt with crowds swelling by the minute to cast their vote. I will update this blog throughout the day as I receive more stories from those who have gone to vote, but first I want to highlight campaign signs and parties/alliances.
If you are in Egypt, particularly Cairo and Alexandria, you will notice the campaign signs in abundance in all the squares (medans). Look closely and you will see symbols on each of them that include guitar, strawberry, eye, toothbrush, banana, etc. These symbols represent a particular party and help the high number of illiterate Egyptians vote via symbol association.

With a population of over 82 million people, one in every four Egyptians is illiterate and nearly 17 million adult Egyptians can neither read nor write according to 2010 government statistics.  There are several parties and alliances that have cropped up after the overthrow of long-time leader Hosni Mubarak. While this blog isn’t long enough to list all of those parties and alliances, you may go to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to gain a more in depth look at Egypt and all its political glory. In the meantime, I am only going to list the main parties, symbols and alliances.

*Please note I’ve only highlighted main points, for a more detailed view please visit the Carnegie website and/or each party’s site*

Al Wafd (Delegation Party)
Symbol: Palm Tree
The Wafd party succeeded a once powerful organization disbanded by former president Nasser in 1952. The party has many stances in three areas: political, socio-economical and foreign policy. It would appear that the Wafd party has taken a US history book and molded its policies like imposing a two-term limit on presidency, enforcing a separation of power among three branches (the US has executive, legislative and judiciary branches) and also giving the parliament the right to accept or veto any bill without presidential approval. Other stances include a stop on monopolies, deregulating the banking industry and educational reform (although the step-by-step process is not defined, just like all contending parties).

Most of the Wafd’s foreign policy is directed at the US and Israel. The party claims it will respect all international agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israelis, but it will pressure Israel “through all means” to withdraw from occupied territories while rejecting the “US bias toward Israel”. In addition, the strategic alliance between the US and Egypt will remain strong but will be realigned, according to the party, to reflect a more “balance of interests.” Wafd also seeks to reappropriate the aid coming from the US, saying that currently the use of US aid to Egypt since the peace treaty of 1979 is only to serve the US and Israel. And lastly, it will force the US to announce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Al Hurriyya wa al-‘Adala (Freedom and Justice Party)
Symbol: Scales
This party is the political faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, formed in May 2011, and is the top Islamist party in Egypt. With all the controversy and leeriness surrounding the group, it formed the Democratic Alliance with other liberal parties. It supports Sharia, or Islamic law, although it says that it supports a civil state not run by the military or a theocracy. This statement is contradictory as the party wishes to use Islamic law as a determinate to all legislation, which would indicate a theocratic government. The party does say it will support women’s rights by passing legislation that criminalizes favoritism towards men. Socio-economic policies include eliminating poverty, unemployment, fraud/corruption and monopolies; spreading and deepening the concepts and values of Islamic law throughout Egypt; and raising the standards of education and scientific research.

Unlike the Wafd party, the faction has strayed away from specifically naming the US in its foreign policy issues which include securing the sources of the Nile River. A colonial era treaty in 1959 gave Egypt 87% control over the Nile with the remaining 13% going to Sudan, and now controversy shrouds the pact as Ethiopia is forging ahead to build the Millennium Dam and a Nile Basin Initiative was signed excluding Egypt and Sudan. The Freedom and Justice party also seeks to confront the “aggressive and expansionist Zionist party” upholding peace treaties only IF passed by a referendum voted on by Egyptian citizens. It supports the Palestinian right to self-determination, including the right of return for all refugees (CIA World Factbook notes that in 2007, Egypt had 70,198 Palestinian refugees). And interestingly enough, the party wishes to have a public release of all national security documents after 25 years.

Al-Nour (Light Party)
Symbol: Lantern
The Nour party, which is one of the most Islamic parties, represents the conservative Islamic faction known as Salafi. It was a member of the Democratic Alliance, but left and founded the Islamist Alliance. It supports Islam as the country’s religion and also the implementation of Sharia, preserving fundamental rights and freedoms in correlation to the framework of Islamic law. Similar to the Wafd party, it supports a three-prong system including a separation of executive, legislative and judicial branches. The party supports the complete independence of al-Azhar from the government and restoring its prominent role throughout the Islamic world; however, it also supports religious freedom and personal status laws for non-Muslims.

For foreign policy, only two issues are outlined: funding foreign relations on mutual respect and equality and a greater role for Egypt in the Arab world as well as among Nile Basin countries – particularly Sudan.

While photos were hard to obtain via the party website, videos were abundant. In the video that I will attempt to embed (if not working, please click the You Tube hyperlink), the party describes what it will do if elected touching on the Islamic society, education and separation of al-Azhar (that is the best English translation I can provide, sorry my Arabic is limited). 

Other symbols for political parties include a briefcase, crocodile, fork, guitar, tennis racket, toothbrush, umbrella and many MANY more. As previously stated, this blog isn't long enough, you would lose interest and I've provided all the necessary links for further research at your discretion. While using symbols for illiterate individuals is nothing new in Egypt, I do find the exact symbols and overall concept interesting.

Next up: Tales from the Voting Precincts

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