Egypt Fears Violence on Election Day

When the revolution toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, the mood in Cairo was optimistic. Now it’s decidedly darker. Khalil Hamra / AP

One evening last week, Azza Soliman and her husband, Mazen Mostafa, sat beside the croquet pitch at the Heliopolis Club, one of Cairo’s oldest private sporting clubs, which the British founded in 1910. Soliman once ran a small liberal political party, and Mostafa is a well-to-do businessman. As they listened to the hard taps of croquet mallets, the couple made a surprising admission: they were thinking of buying a gun.

In the nine months since Egypt’s revolution, a pervasive unease has seeped into the country’s initial sense of optimism. That anxiety is on full display when people discuss the status of their streets, where a once smothering security force has seemed to fade eerily into the background. Mostafa and Soliman ticked through the safety concerns weighing on Cairenes these days: a rumored raft of weapons flowing in from Libya, on top of the ones looted from police stations after the fall of the regime; a wave of press reports of kidnappings and violent crime. And with the police now noticeably thinned out, even things like the snarled traffic on Cairo’s chaotic streets are taking on an ominous tone. “Life in Egypt is sliding to intended chaos,” Mostafa said.

Tension has been rising as Egypt heads into its first round of parliamentary elections, which begin next week. Conspiracy theories abound about whether the cops will intervene to suppress political violence, or even perhaps instigate violence themselves. Soliman, who ran as an independent in the 2010 elections, planned to run again this time around. But as Egypt’s mood darkened, she decided against it. “I think maybe it will be a bloody election,” she said. She worried that authorities have been pulled back to bring about that very scenario: “Maybe this is why the police are hiding.”

Egyptian elections were long seen as dangerous affairs, where hired thugs descended on polling stations to help muscle regime candidates into power. Now, with the implosion of former president Hosni Mubarak’s old political party, a wealth of new ones have mushroomed into existence. Turnout is expected to be far greater than in previous years—24 million expected voters, versus 6 million in the last elections. With the police pulling back, some Egyptians fear they have an explosive cocktail on their hands. “The atmosphere in Egypt is much more tense now than it was several months ago,” says Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid. “You have so many factors that make for a combustible mix ... Violence is almost inevitable.”

Mohamed Mahfouz, a former police official who is now spearheading reform efforts, worries that the violence could take a different shape than in the past, when it was mainly used to ensure that certain candidates prevailed. Now, Mahfouz says, disruptive elements could be aiming to make the entire election fail. “There is nothing to lose.”

Dalia Ziada, a liberal activist turned candidate, has had an uneasy time in the electoral spotlight. Earlier this month she received a death threat via text. “Your end is near, sweet girl,” it read. She has yet to decide whether to even head out to the polls. “The other plan: just stay at home,” she says.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to make big electoral gains, is warily watching the situation in the run-up to the vote. One Brotherhood organizer worries that the elections might not happen at all. Instability could be used as an excuse to put off the vote, he says. In an attempt to fill the security gap, the Brotherhood has set up its own office to field complaints that would normally go to police.

Signs of turmoil bubbled up last Thursday, when Coptic Christians marched in commemoration of a previous attack on their brethren. One cabdriver witnessed people throwing Molotov cocktails and glass bottles at the marchers, and officials reported that 29 people were injured in the melee. Hours later, a small demonstration made its way toward Tahrir Square in preparation for a Friday protest. Some teens in the crowd began harassing one of the few policemen in sight on the route. An activist ran over and shooed the kids away. “I’m sorry,” he said to the cop, “but you should really get out of here.”

Mahfouz, who is in regular touch with former colleagues in the force, thinks that police have holed up in their stations to avoid their duties: “They’re not picking up the [emergency] calls,” he says. Many Egyptians think that the police may be absenting themselves because they feel the revolution tarnished their status. Hussein Hammouda, a former brigadier at Egypt’s Interior Ministry who joined the revolution in January, points out that the protests that toppled Mubarak started as a response to police brutality—the date of the first big demonstration was planned to coincide with national Police Day. “They’re humiliated,” Hammouda says. “Some of them hate the revolution.”

Speculation over the police disappearing act plays into a deeper confusion over what exactly the military council wants. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took charge in the wake of Mubarak’s exit, it initially seemed open to accommodating some of the revolution’s demands and promised a quick transition to democracy. But it has since made a series of worrying moves: instituting emergency law, erecting military courts, and proposing to stay in power until Parliament elects a president, which could be more than a year away. Ziad Sami, a student who attended Friday’s protest, summed up the sense of confusion this is creating for many Egyptians: “There are some strange things happening. Maybe they don’t want us to be convinced that it’s safe to do elections.”

Gamal Eid is one of Egypt’s most respected human-rights defenders, with a long record of fighting against the old regime. He warns that while press reports and word-of-mouth spread concerns over insecurity, reliable analysis has been in short supply—and that talk of violence and chaos might be a destabilizing force in itself.

On Friday night in Shoubra, one of Cairo’s most notorious neighborhoods, colored lights were strung across a busy street to celebrate the expansion of a local grocery store, which bustled with customers, and rickshaws buzzed past election posters for Islamic politicians. Residents spoke of guns and thefts, and one man showed off the fresh cuts on his face from an attempted carjacking. But one taxi driver insisted that life in Cairo hadn’t changed all that much. “The same problems have always been here,” he said. “We’ve always protected ourselves.”