Behind the Camera: Tales of Egypt’s electoral processes

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Sat, 31 Mar 2018 - 04:24 GMT

Armed forces securing polling stations while queues of voters lining up waiting to cast their vote in the 2018 presidential election - AFP/Mohamed El-Shahid

Armed forces securing polling stations while queues of voters lining up waiting to cast their vote in the 2018 presidential election - AFP/Mohamed El-Shahid

Some believe the surrounding environment is the source of inspiration for great photos. Others believe the hard work photographers put into taking their pictures is what makes a photo great. As Egypt’s polls to choose a president closed its doors last week, photojournalists told us how the country’s election processes re-defined “special moments of polls” over the years.



CAIRO – 31 March 2018: It was no easy job for photojournalists in Egypt to capture powerful pictures during the presidential election back in 2005, where reporters and any sign of gathering outside the polls had zero accessibility. The outbreak of the 2011 revolution had changed a lot in the coverage strategies. Long queues of youth and enthusiastic public featured scenes of election processes that ensued the revolution.

On Wednesday, the third presidential poll witnessed within the last seven years came to an end; but one thing was noticeable to the people behind the cameras, the youth were not as discernable as the elderly and women were.

Egypt Today spoke with a number of photojournalists with varied experiences, who explained how Egypt’s election processes re-defined the “special moments of polls” over the years.

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A photo of ballot ticked in front of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, one of the candidates in the 2018 presidential election, with a comment that reads "Yes, my heart" - Fayed el-Gezery


“[When] covering an election, any photojournalist is looking to capture photos of voters’ queues,” AFP photojournalist Mohamed el-Shahid said. For Shahid, what makes the coverage of this election different from previous ones is him being less enthusiastic about it, for what he felt as “routine work” that lacks surprise as “results were already known in advance.”

Shahid reiterated what many observers thought will be an inevitable sweeping win for Sisi as he explained youth’s reluctance to participate in the vote, “they believe their voices will make no difference in choosing the president.” However, he noted that “it is still logical to see the elderly dominating queues in the early morning hours as youth would be at work.”

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Elderly woman casting her vote during the 2018 presidential election and a soldier helping her - Hazim Abdel Samad/Egypt Today


A main component of Shahid’s captured photos during 2018 poll were the scenes of voters dancing and singing outside the polling stations. His lens also captured irregularities like posters of candidates hanged outside schools; that was in addition to voters carried pictures of their preferred candidate inside the polls.

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Women dancing and singing national songs during the 2018 presidential election - Mohamed el-Shahid/AFP


Not only cameras had spotted the high turnout by female voters during this election, international monitoring groups also hailed women’s participation and their role in different stages of Egypt’s democratic transition. Pictures of women dancing and singing in festivity while waiting in lines to cast their ballots flooded social media. Females’ presence in Egypt’s election was remarkable over the past years.


Video of women voters lining up outside polls in 2012 presidential election



The Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which is considered a stronghold of Egypt’s most conservative Muslims, Salafis, witnessed the participation of members of Nour Salafist Party that announced its support for President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi for a second term.

Al-Nour’s adherence to the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda fell by the fall of the Islamist group in 2013, after which the Salafis adopted a pro-regime stance that the famous Salafist leader Yasser Borhami urged his peers to vote for Sisi in the 2014 presidential election, considering it a “religious demand.”

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Salafist leader Yasser Borhamy and members of Al-Nour Party casting their vote during the 2018 presidential election - Hanaa Abu el-Ezz/Egypt Today

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Salafist leader Yasser Borhamy and members of Al-Nour Party casting their vote during the 2018 presidential election - Hanaa Abu el-Ezz/Egypt Today

Preliminary results showed a moderate turnout of 40 percent as around 24 million cast their votes nationwide in the 2018 election. Both candidates sounded pleasant with the initial estimated turnout, which indicated a landslide victory for incumbent President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi over his sole contender Al-Ghad Party leader Moussa Moustafa Moussa.

Shahid was there covering the war in Iraq in 2017, where he was standing with his camera recording the Mosul Liberation Operation which was an attempt at eradicating the Islamic State and its last holdout in Iraq. With a voice that was cracking and an eerie silence between every phrase or so after being exposed to a fuss of dramatic events that affected him the moment he hit Egypt’s soil again, Shahid explained that the 2018 presidential election in Egypt is “no less important than any big event I covered.”

“Each event has its specialty, importance and its way of coverage,” Shahid added.


Powerful emotions

During the three-day vote, most of the polling stations had speakers installed, playing popular music and Mahraganat (Egyptian folk electro dance music). A trend of releasing new joyful songs urging people to cast their ballot during the election has left Egyptian voters with a number of tunes to dance to.

The act of dancing during the election was criticized as anti-religious by Islamists, who deemed belly dancing ‘forbidden’ before they were toppled in 2013. Observers believe the increase in the dancing as electoral-related phenomenon is a “stubborn” reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood’s disparagement.

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Women dancing and singing national songs during the 2018 presidential election - AP/Amr Nabil


During the 2012 presidential election that produced an Islamist landslide win in Egypt, photojournalists captured moments of excited members of the Brotherhood group dancing and singing. “Islamist voters had in common some of the celebration features during the election, like wearing T-shirts of their candidates, launching marches and using speakers to urge people to cast their ballot,” said AFP photojournalist Khaled el-Dessouky.

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Celebrations in the streets after Mohamed Morsi won in Egypt's presidential election in 2012 against Ahmed Shafiq, former Prime Minister - AP/Amr Nabil


A photojournalist will click the button and capture the surroundings whether it is empty or full of activities, as their job is to spot and reflect the scene as is, explained El-Dessouky. However, intriguing pictures are usually those including events, he added.

Emotional scenes of the elderly helped by army forces, and children imitating their mothers and inking their fingers in joy are repeated ones, and have pre-occupied electoral scenes since the 2011 revolution. However, freelance photojournalist Fayed el-Gezeery deemed these scenes “powerful ones.”

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Armed soldiers carrying an elderly woman on a wheel chair to get her into the polling station during the 2018 presidential election - Fayed el-Gezery



An old woman on a wheel chair carried by seven army soldiers was Hazim Abdel Samad’s favorite picture from the 2018 election. “The lady was heavy in weight, and more than one soldier stepped in to help carry her up the stairs, and then helped her to get into a taxi after casting her vote. I was moved at the scene and I consider it a special moment that I captured during this election.”


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Elderly woman on a wheel chair carried by a number of men and armed forces members outside her polling station after casting her vote during the 2018 presidential election - Hazim Abdel Samad/Egypt Today


One of the demands the government has promised to fulfill during the election was the distribution of voters with disability and the elderly to polling stations on ground floors to avoid the disabled feeling “humiliated” while waiting on someone to help them into their poll.

The election had only two competitors with the different campaigns’ momentum. It could have been a challenge to find a sole poster in the streets supporting Moussa for a second term. On the other hand, Members of Parliament, private companies and even individuals showed their excessive love for President Sisi in different banners.

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A man gestures as he rides a motorized vehicle showing a poster of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the second day of the presidential election in Cairo, Egypt, March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

The 2015 parliamentary election, in which dozens of candidates joined the race, was an attractive ground for photos capturing “colorful electoral campaigns, which means more details in the shoots,” said Abdel Samad.

Ahead of the election, authorities tightened security measures at polling stations and vital places across Egypt. Social media users rather encouraged people to vote, referring to the recent attack that targeted the top security chief in Alexandria, and stated that this would not affect their decision to participate in the election.

“Pictures of queues of voters secured by armed forces send a strong message of tight security and continued fight against terrorism,” said Amr Nabil, the head of photojournalists department at the Press Syndicate.

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An army soldier standing outside a polling station while a queue of women voters waiting to cast their ballot in the 2018 presidential election - AP/Amr Nabil



Accessibility

AFP’s El-Dessouky covered 2005 presidential election, which saw the victory of Hosni Mubarak, and was criticized as marred by alleged violations during voting.

“Security forces used to ban us and the public from being present outside polling stations to prevent us from spotting violations. They even fired birdshots and tear gas to disperse any gathering,” El-Dessouky said.

Photojournalist Nabil captured with his camera how Egyptian voters used wooden ladders to get into their polling stations, which were blocked by anti-riot police in Mansoura city, north of Cairo, during the final round of Egypt’s violence-marred parliamentary vote of 2005.

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Egyptian voters use ladders to get into a polling station in Bosat, Talkha, Mansoura, 160 k.m north of Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Dec.1, 2005, as their polling station was blocked by anti-riot police during the final round of Egypt's violence-marred parliamentary vote, More than 10 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in Thursday's third round of the election with 136 parliamentary seats being contested by 1,774 candidates. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

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Egyptian voters use ladders to get into a polling station in Bosat, Talkha, Mansoura, 160 k.m north of Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Dec.1, 2005, as their polling station was blocked by anti-riot police during the final round of Egypt's violence-marred parliamentary vote, More than 10 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in Thursday's third round of the election with 136 parliamentary seats being contested by 1,774 candidates. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)


“The attempt to control the scene that photographers are recording is something that has historically existed in Egypt,” Nabil explained how he lost one of his eyes after he was injured by a shot fired from a security force in the 2005 parliamentary election.

Speaking about journalists’ accessibility in the 2018 presidential election, Nabil said that he was barred from entering two polling stations along with other journalists, despite permits being available.

Nabil said he felt disrespected as he wanted to capture photos of the long queues in the polling stations, “which would’ve sent a good image of our election to foreign media.”

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Women wait in line to vote at a polling station in Asmarat housing project area on March 27, 2018 - Mohamed Fawzy



Although he was contacted by operation rooms at the State Information Service (SIS) and the Press Syndicate, Nabil said his complaints regarding the entry ban to the polling stations were not solved.

Around 110 local and foreign media outlets were registered to cover the 2018 presidential election. During the three-day vote, regular statements were released on the status of coordination between the State Information Services (SIS) operations room and journalists, where all complaints submitted by media outlets and individuals were reportedly met and solved.

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