The election in North Sinai: Unprecedented turnout at fish and egg outlets

Polling stations in North Sinai opened their doors at 9:00 am on Monday. Armed Forces and police personnel congregated in front of the stations they were assigned to oversee, and the judges monitoring the voting process waited by the ballot boxes and phosphorous ink. Everything was ready for the voters. The voters, however, were somewhere else: standing in line hoping to buy the groceries that had suddenly reappeared after a long absence brought about by the start of Operation Sinai 2018.

Most grocers in Arish, especially those selling legumes, had notified customers in advance that their shelves would be restocked with goods on Monday morning.

As polling began, potential voters in downtown Arish headed to the fish market in droves after news spread large quantities of fish, another product that all but disappeared with start of the Armed Forces large-scale operation, would be made available.

One resident who set out to buy fish says that he initially was unable to enter the market, as it was so overcrowded. The resident, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, reached the center of the marketplace after being dragged along by the bustling crowd and, after waiting for almost four hours, managed to buy what he needed.

As the second day of voting commenced on Tuesday, eggs reappeared in North Sinai stores, and residents who had braved the lengthy shortage formed long queues at the egg outlets under the supervision of military and police personnel. 

Poultry shops also had significant quantities of chicken for the first time since the shortage began, while tomato sauce and canned goods, including beans, tuna and chickpeas, were once again found on supermarket shelves, alongside halva and jam.

As civilians waited in line for staple food items, Mada Masr visited the complex in the North Sinai capital where five schools were being used as polling stations. A number of elderly people, unable to spend long, grueling hours queuing for food, lined up to vote at the polling stations.

The situation in the Masaeed area, to the west of Arish, and the Salam district in the south did not differ much from what was playing out in downtown Arish, according to local residents.

One government employee who works in central Arish says that public employees asked for time off during the election to vote. Their actual goal, however, was to buy groceries. A number of workers returned to work after taking time off without any ink-stains on their fingers, indicating that they had not voted.

The employee, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, also says that shops were selling large bags of tomato sauce, cheese, halva, sugar and lentils at reasonable prices, all of which had been unavailable beforehand.

Transport in the city all but ground to a halt in February as gas stations were shut down after the launch of Operation Sinai 2018. The difficulty of mobility further contributed to civilians’ reluctance to go out to the polling stations.

There were 61 polling stations set up for the 250,605 eligible voters in North Sinai. Approximately half of this voting bloc is located in Arish, according to a statement issued by the governorate-affiliated Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC).

Media coverage of voter turnout was largely absent in the press and on television programs in North Sinai. The general silence on media channels came in conjunction with difficulties journalists faced in attempting to acquire coverage permits from the National Elections Authority (NEA) and the state television stations’ reluctance to send crew to the governorate due to the road closures.

Some journalists turned to the governorate’s general secretariat to try and coordinate visits to the polling stations. However, those who made it were prevented from taking photos by the judges for failing to show the necessary permits.

A journalist living in North Sinai was able to take photos outside one of the polling stations and filed a story, alongside the images, reporting on the low voter turnout. However, the correspondent, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says the piece was not published. The journalist’s supervisors reportedly said, “We are only able to publish piece if the turnout is high.”

Several hours after voting began on Monday, reports emerged quoting a NEA spokesperson as saying that North Sinai was one of the governoates with the highest voter turnouts.

Several online and television outlets broadcast images of voters queueing outside polling stations in the Kawthar district of Sheikh Zuwayed. The photos came from theFacebook account of Member of Parliament Ibrahim Abu Shaireh, who is a member of the pro-state Support Egypt Coalition and has voiced his support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s bid for a second term.

It is not unusual to see large numbers of voters line up at polling stations in the early hours of the morning at the start of an election, only for these numbers to dwindle throughout the day, according to one Sheikh Zuwayed resident, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. While photos taken at specific times in the day may show sizable crowds, this does not necessarily indicate a high overall turnout, the resident says.

According to the resident, the voting bloc in the city has significantly diminished in the past few years due to the ongoing conflict between the Armed Forces and armed groups on the peninsula, which has compelled hundreds of families to leave North Sinai, and the restrictions limiting residential areas to the central districts of Sheikh Zuwayed.

Ahmed Raouf, a judge assigned to monitor a polling station in Sheikh Zuwayed, was quoted in a Tuesday Reuters report as saying that only one person had voted at his station by the close of the first day of voting. The article also quotes a teacher who lives in the city as saying that residents are “queuing to buy groceries, not queuing to vote.”

In Sheikh Zuwayed, five polling stations were set up for a total of 30,794 voters, and six for the 34,750 voters in Rafah, according to a statement from the IDSC. Large sections of the city have been cleared and cordoned off due to the construction of a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip, which as displaced hundreds of people.

Thousands more have been displaced by the conflict in North Sinai, which has impacted the demographics in the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed in particular. According to the North Sinai Governorate census, an estimated 12,861 people were displaced as of August 2016.

Families displaced by the recent expansion of the buffer zone were unable to return to the city to vote in the presidential election as entry to North Sinai has been prohibited since the start of Operation Sinai 2018, and roads between the main cities have been closed.  

Many in North Sinai wish that the election period had not come to an end. For three days, the communications networks, which were previously cut off, functioned throughout the day without interruption and the security campaign, which had curtailed movement between certain neighborhoods with security forces confiscating residents’ cellphones, temporarily abated. Most significantly, many residents that spoke to Mada Masr say they hope that the sudden availability of groceries in Arish will continue now that the polling stations have closed.


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