Last Updated: Tue Nov 29, 2011 14:57 pm (KSA) 11:57 am (GMT)

Egyptian vote freely at ‘Mubarak’s polling booth’

Egyptians stand in line at a polling station as they wait to cast their votes during the parliamentary election in Cairo. (Reuters)
Egyptians stand in line at a polling station as they wait to cast their votes during the parliamentary election in Cairo. (Reuters)

In Heliopolis, an upmarket district of the Egyptian capital Cairo, deposed president Hosni Mubarak had his villa, his presidential palace and his personal polling station.

This latter place, a public girls’ school seared into the collective memory of Egyptians, is now being used by voters in the first election since the fall of the former pharaoh’s autocratic and corrupt 30-year regime.

What was once a backdrop for his charade of democracy is now being used by locals who feel they finally have a stake in the future of their country.

“This office was reserved for Mubarak and his clique,” recounts Mustafa Ahmed, an official from the information ministry, as he pointed to the Girls’ School of Heliopolis guarded by four-grim faced soldiers.

“The roads used to be shut and they used to roll out the red carpet ... all for a big show,” he said, adding with pride that he had voted for the first time in his life on Monday at the age of 58.

“Before, like 90 percent of the people in Heliopolis, I used to abstain from voting because everyone knew what the result would be,” he said.

Mubarak, a former military officer who came to power in 1981, survived 10 attempts on his life during his rule that was maintained through widespread vote-rigging and repression.

The first election since his toppling in February began on Monday in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria, as well as a handful of other districts, in a peaceful and orderly opening to multi-stage parliamentary polls.

“When I used to see him voting, I’d change channels. It was a complete act,” said Medhat, a 49-year-old engineer who voted at the school on Monday.

After Mubarak’s fall and the start of his trial for corruption and killing protesters, casting a vote in his former ballot box feels like revenge for many Egyptians.

“He used to say that Egyptians weren’t ready for democracy. Here’s the proof he was wrong,” said Mohammed, a 23-year employee at a local bank, pointing to the long queues of people waiting to vote on Monday.

“Before he used to insult our intelligence. We all knew that the people from the NDP (Mubarak’s party) were going to win,” complained Yasser Abdel Wahab, an engineer who voted for the first time.

“All that is in the past now. Today at least there is a bit of suspense, even though the Muslim Brotherhood think they’re going to win,” he said, referring to the moderate Islamist party banned by Mubarak.

“There won’t be another president elected with 99.99 percent. It’s an era of pluralism now,” he added.

Nothing in the school offers a reminder of the old regime, but the bustling polling booth is a symbol of the changes of 2011, unimaginable by most this time last year when parliamentary elections were held.

Next door is a very visible sign of the changes that have swept through Egypt and the rest of the Middle East and north Africa during the Arab Spring.

A huge private villa stands covered in a giant flag of the new regime in Tripoli that seized power after the toppling and murder of tyrant Moamer Kadhafi.

“This place is a disgrace,” admitted Khadiga, a graphic designer aged 23 years, as she left Heliopolis Girls’ School. “I’m sad to have voted in the same place as him.

“We didn’t used to know when there were elections. We realized after when we read about it in the newspaper or saw footage on television,” she added.

Mubarak is in a military hospital in the capital where he is being treated for a heart condition according to the interim government. His lawyer has also claimed he has cancer.

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