Election Days in Egypt

It took us a long time to write about Egypt. Our trip there was not very original: Aswan, Luxor, Port Said, Alexandria, Cairo. After travelling in places such as Somaliland and Sudan, what to write about Egypt? About the temples, pyramids, sphinx?

But we visited Egypt in a special moment. Our travels through the country tracked the 2012 presidential elections, the first since the 2011 Egyptian revolution. That (and the 40+ degree summer heat) meant that the usually tourist-packed Egypt was nearly devoid of other tourists, and that we saw Egypt during exciting times.

The political significance of the moment did not leave us without trepidation. Western media was predicting another uprising if the Muslim Brotherhood candidate were to lose. Arriving in Aswan on 14 June 2012 (two days before the final round of the elections), we queried about the situation with our taxi driver, Kamal. Election posters were everywhere, and Kamal pointed out the faces of the two men that were soon to become familiar to us: Shafiq (the last prime minister under Mubarak, and associated with the army) and Morsi (the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate). Kamal lamented that if Morsi were to win, that would be the end of alcohol and fun times. But he told us not to worry: “Egypt has a strong army.”

Election posters were everywhere.

Aswan: view over the Nile from our hotel room. It was nice to arrive in Egypt.

Egypt comes alive at night. Traffic starts at 9pm and seems to reach its peak at midnight. It was nice to enjoy some nightlife after our quiet evenings in Sudan.

Philae Temple, on Agikia Island near Aswan. The entire temple was dismantled and relocated here during the construction of the High Dam, to protect it from the rising waters of the Nile.

Detail of the beautiful columns at Philae Temple. Our first visit to a monument in Egypt blew us away.

On Sunday, we took the train to Luxor. A three-hour journey ended up taking seven hours, without air conditioning in the 45-degree heat. On the plus side, train rides were free that day – because it was election day, our neighbour explained to us. On Monday, our tour guide in Luxor announced the great news to us: “Morsi has won!” While we visited the wondrous Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut (nearly empty of visitors, except for a busload of scantily-clad sunburnt Eastern European tourists), people shouted at our guide, “Morsi! Morsi!” But obviously, the results were not yet official.

Enjoying a beer in Luxor. Our first alcohol in several weeks, we only needed a few sips to get tipsy. Would alcohol be banned if Morsi became president?

Entrance to the astounding Valley of the Kings on Luxor’s West Bank, completely devoid of tourists (photos are not allowed inside the site). According to our guide, the wait to get in could previously be up to 1.5 hours.

Temple of Hatshepsut, a woman pharoah of Ancient Egypt. Engravings in the temple show her adopting men’s dress (including the traditional false beard) and myths claiming that she was the direct descendant of deities.

Colour and engravings in the Habu Temple, Luxor.

Colossus of Memnon: one of the two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III.

Obelisk and pillars at the gigantic Karnak Temple in Luxor.

Avenue of Sphinxes leading to Luxor Temple, lit up at night. The sister obelisk is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a gift from the Egyptian government to France in 1829.

Throughout our visit to Port Said, Egypt continued to wait for the official results. There were rumours everywhere about fraud and secret discussions between the Brotherhood and the army. We walked along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and crossed the Suez Canal into Asia for a moment. When we came back to Africa, the results still weren’t out.

Families at play in the Mediterranean Sea in Port Said. The women swam fully dressed.

Colourful beach huts line the Mediterranean shores in Port Said.

View over the legendary Suez Canal, whose entry is found at Port Said.

We caught a bus to Alexandria. There, on Sunday 24 June 2012 at 3pm, the official results were supposed to be announced. There was a sense of waiting in the city, which intensified as the appointed time neared. We visited the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, but made sure to head back to our hotel before 3pm. As we passed the city’s main mosque, Mosque Al-Qaid Ibrahim, we saw a small crowd gathered with young men pumping their fists in the air. We crossed to the other side of the street, and walked quickly by without stopping.

At our hotel, we joined the hotel staff and some journalists in front of the television. 3pm passed: no sign of the election commission. The commission finally took their seats around 3:40pm, then there were 1.5 hours of blahblah (in Arabic) about the allegations of irregularities in the election process. We followed on various English websites, with BBC and Al Jazeera English providing a humorous running commentary in tweets about the length of the blahblah. Finally, around 5pm, one of the journalists announced to us: “He just said that Morsi has won.” The hotel staff didn’t’ seem particularly happy with the results, but in the street people started shouting and hooting. We watched them from the fifth floor window of our hotel. Then, because it seemed peaceful and the excitement was infectious, we ventured out into the streets. We ended up on the outskirts of Mosque Al-Qaid Ibrahim, the centre of the festivities. Regardless the results, it was an exciting day for Egypt.

Our visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina ended at 2:30pm, just in time to get back to our hotel before the election results were announced.

Anxiously awaiting the election results at our hotel in Alexandria.

And the results were out! Morsi supporters immediately came out to celebrate, parading along the Corniche with his portrait on a massive banner.

We ventured towards Mosque Al-Qaid Ibrahim, where a huge crowd gathered to celebrate the election results.

Families were out with their children, celebrating.

Cairo: the celebrations continued. Upon arrival, our hotel reception asked whether we wanted a room facing Talat Haarb Street (loud) or the back (quiet). We opted for the cheaper, streetside option: how loud could it be? We joked that perhaps there was a midnight parade. And there was! To our surprise, around midnight a contingent of Morsi supporters marched down the street, singing and blowing horns. A sight not to be missed!

The midnight parade! Morsi supporters marching down Talaat Harb street towards Tahrir Square, viewed from our hotel window.

Our hotel was near the famous Place Tahrir. We ventured slowly towards that place. First Guillaume went alone, and then we went together. By then, most of the tents were unoccupied, but Tahrir Square still smelled of the revolution – most notably, in its corners that reeked of urine. Nearby, the burnt out shell of Mubarak’s party headquarters towered over the National Museum.

We grew more confident and begin to use the Sadat subway station at Tahrir Square, which was the nearest station to our hotel. On our last day in Egypt, the station was noticeably different, crowded with people selling flags and patrols checking the crowd entering the Square, it seemed, for Muslim Brotherhood membership cards. When we arrived in the station that night, returning from the light show at the Pyramids, a fight broke out and a group started shouting “Morsi! Morsi!” We quickly left the station by the exit closest to our hotel, holding hands as we pushed past the crowd. We later learned that Morsi was in the Square that day, to address his supporters.

We flew out of Egypt on 30 June 2012. As we departed, Morsi was being sworn in, and Egypt had its first civilian president.

Place Tahrir was quiet now, with traffic returning to the Square.

Empty tents and the smell of old urine in Tahrir Square.

The burnt-out former headquarters of Mubarak’s party, overlooking the National Museum.

A walk through the colourful souqs of the Islamic quarter in Cairo.

Islamic quarter, Cairo.

And of course, the pyramids at Giza.

And the Sphinx.

On our last day in Cairo, a huge crowd again gathered in Tahrir Square to welcome the country’s new president.