Knives, bribes and apathy in Egypt's election

Just 15 minutes after Manal Abdel-Karim began touring her middle class Cairo district as part of her campaign for a parliament seat, her modest procession of a few dozen supporters was confronted by a mob of angry knife-wielding youths.

Abdel-Karim, a candidate for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, turned down a side street. There her procession ran into a police officer who told her in no uncertain terms that her attempt to get to know the voters was at an end.

"During our walk we went to shops and market places and they (the police) took the names of the people we talked to in order to intimidate them," Abdel-Karim told The Associated Press afterward in frustration.

Leading up to the parliamentary elections being held Sunday, opposition candidates have to confront gangs employed by their opponents and security forces that won't let them campaign. The pressure appears targeted at ensuring the Brotherhood doesn't repeat big gains it made in 2005 — but it's also part and parcel of how elections have come to work here, with intimidation, organized bribery of voters and government employees drummed into casting ballots for the ruling party, candidates and constituents say.

Largely as a result, Egyptians are largely left cold by state claims of democratic process and turnout is low for elections, which consistently bring large victories for the ruling party — or for non-ideological independents who, after winning, promptly join the ruling party to enjoy the benefits. The few that do turn up on Sunday and cast their vote for the 508 seat assembly likely won't be doing so out civic duty.

"Egyptian don't really vote," said Hisham Kassem, a publisher who ran in the 2000 elections and considered a run again five years later before abandoning the idea. "They are manipulated into voting whether by selling their vote or forced into voting."

Only around a quarter of the population voted in 2005 legislative elections and 14 percent bothered to turn up to select parliament's upper house earlier this year, according to official figures that, low as they are, the opposition says are still inflated.

Local and international rights groups have long condemned Egypt's elections for fraud — something not lost on the electorate, though the government insists repeatedly that its elections are clean. In interviews across the city ahead of elections, Egyptians overwhelmingly admitted they weren't planning on voting and in most cases hadn't even registered.

"I used to sometimes walk down Maarouf street with 500 people following me, literally, but I would turn around and look at them and think, how many of these people have voting cards?" Kassem recalled from his days on the campaign trail in downtown Cairo.

For those that do show up on election day, the incentive can be quite materialistic.

"People vote sometimes because they like a candidate, but most of the time because they've been paid," said Gamal Mohammed, a resident of the Bab el-Shaeriya neighborhood. "Say you make 100 pounds ($17) a day, well, some candidate will offer you that much to vote for him."

Campaigning also involves negotiations with brokers who promise to deliver a certain number of votes, but only at a price, said Kassem, whose 2000 run was unsuccessful.

"Election day is like an auction," he said, with each vote running from $7 to over $30 depending on the race.

Throughout the city, public sector workers are bussed in from nearby factories and instructed to vote for the government candidates.

Campaign events for ruling party candidates — which never run into problems — tend to have a carnival atmosphere with politicians handing out gifts to supporters. In the lower-income Citadel district of Cairo last week, one politician even slaughtered a cow and handed out free meat to an ecstatic crowd that could not otherwise afford it during a major Islamic holiday.

Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University who closely observed the last parliamentary elections, said most members of parliament are not concerned with passing laws or keeping the government accountable, but providing their constituents with services or patronage.

"People, especially those at lower levels of socio-economic ladder, look to MPs for jobs, help with housing and medical services and help with government bureaucracy," he said.

The ability to deliver services, however, drops off sharply if a parliament member is with the opposition, giving voters even less incentive to cast their vote for the underdog.

Occasionally, you do get the protest vote, people who are fed up and voting against the government to punish them — and maybe even change the system.

Mohammed, of Bab el-Shaeriya, said he used to vote for his neighborhood's favorite son, Ayman Nour, who went on to found a liberal opposition party and run in presidential elections against President Hosni Mubarak in 2005.

"Ayman Nour was different, he was a good man and did things for the community like handing out school books for kids and setting up workshops to hear people's grievances," he said.

After his failed run against Mubarak, Nour was imprisoned for three years on what his supporters say were trumped up charges of forgery. Since his release, he has struggled to find any footing back in the political scene.

It is the protest vote Abdel-Karim is trying to reach.

"Some people are frustrated and feel there is no use and they have no hope that there will be an honest election," she said. "So I talk with these people and tell them they have to try, you have to change and should not give into despair."

For most candidates, these brief weeks of campaigning are their only chance to get in touch with the voters and even then security often cuts their events short.

Abdel-Karim said she will try to hit the streets every day until the election. But she is also relying on her history in the district.

For the past 20 years she has worked with a number of religious foundations doing charity work, offering literacy classes and giving out small interest-free loans to help young couples marry and start their lives.

"If elections are clean, we can win. The people know us, they deal with us every day, they know my sisters," she said gesturing to the women she works with.