The taxi from Tahrir to the suburb of Heliopolis took 15 minutes when normally it would take at least an hour. The brevity of the ride was due to a notable reduction of cars on the road. It was not a national holiday although it looked and felt like one. Rather, it was the first day, Monday, 26 May of Egypt’s presidential elections.
Since traffic was unusually light, the guess was that many people normally on the streets were instead voting in polling stations. In this particular case that premise was false, as the voting station assigned to this reporter was fairly empty. At 7pm, 10 people were waiting on line; eight minutes later and the process was over.
In between, the line moved quickly in this girls school turned polling booth. The school in turn looks like it was once a palace of 20-foot-high ceilings with electrical fans installed so high up and turning so slowly they could not cut through the heat and humidity.
The school is a street away from the presidential palace, so security was tight with police and army troops on the lookout. Inside, a policeman allowed only a certain number to enter the room where you shall vote. At the door, a Nile state TV reporter was airing the proceedings live. Once inside, five judges were sitting on one table, with one judge checking your government ID card and looking up your registration number which you were assigned and which was sent to voters through mobile and Internet government services.
You are then given the slip of paper upon which you will put a check, behind the privacy of a grey paravan, next to one of the two candidates, their names and pictures clearly visible. You then drop the paper into the slot on top of a transparent plastic box, pick up your ID and then, to prove to all your friends and colleagues that you did indeed vote, you dip whichever finger you want into the indelible fluorescent purple ink. Practice from previous elections has taught voters not to fully immerse their finger into the bottle for it will take days for the ink to wash off.
There was only one way to enter and exit the room which made for slight cramming.
Outside, flags sticking out from car windows, the honking and the occasional patriotic song blaring from cars were the signs that this was a historic day.
However, a convoy of Humvees passing in front of the president’s house and an army helicopter swirling above made sure we would not forget the turmoil this country is still living in and which will pose a serious challenge to the man we just might have voted into office.