A 'Symbolic' Election

Commuters make their way though Grand Central Station Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007, in New York. The station is one of the main train and subway hubs used by travelers in and out of Manhattan.
Ruling party candidates decorate their posters with the crescent, the emblem of Islam. An Islamic candidate has to use a hand, a pagan icon that traditionally wards off the evil eye. And a workers' candidate employs a rifle, a symbol of power.

Egypt's election is being fought on the field of symbols. But it's more than just using the elephant and donkey as mascots, as Republicans and Democrats do in the United States.

In Egypt, pictograms enable the illiterate half of the electorate to identify candidates on the ballots. In each district, candidates pick from a list of 40 symbols, drawn up by authorities. That symbol goes on posters, banners and next to the names on the ballot.

The use of representative party symbols is common in the elections of developing countries. Symbols such as bicycles, hands, flowers and animals are routinely used in India and Bangladesh.

But the problem in Egypt is that candidates do not have a free choice of symbols and many complain that the most powerful pictograms are given to ruling party candidates.

And some symbols have more positive meaning than others.

A date palm, for example, has more weight than an umbrella, said Jawad Fatayer, professor of social psychology at the American University in Cairo. The palm tree symbolizes reliability - it bears fruit year after year. The umbrella represents protection, but it is rarely used in Egypt.

Do symbols influence the vote? Ramadan Haridi, an illiterate voter, dismissed that idea as he cast his ballot for a candidate with a pistol symbol Wednesday.

"They do this so that if I don't know the name (on the ballot), I recognize the symbol. It doesn't make a difference, pistol or no pistol," Haridi said in Badari village in the rural central province Assiout.

Tell that to the candidates.

Weeks ago, when candidates registered to run in Cairo, there were angry scenes in the registration hall. Candidates shoved and shouted at each other to get to the front of the lines.

Many complained that the principle of first-come, first-served was not observed. The electoral officers seem to have reserved the camel and the crescent for President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Every NDP candidate in Cairo ended up with one of the more coveted symbols.

Symbols have their own identity and candidates hope that something of that rubs off on them. A camel symbolizes strength and patience and is an animal often mentioned in the Quran, the Islamic holy book, said Fatayer, who advocates a wider selection that is fairly distributed.

A crescent is pregnant with Islamic meaning. Every minaret is topped by a crescent. The Islamic year is based on the lunar calendar.

Charles Yamine, creative director of the advertising agency TMI-J. Walter Thompson, said the NDP is using the crescent to undercut the Islamic opposition. He suggested abandoning symbols in favor of colors.

On Wednesday, voting was held in the final part of three-stage parliamenary elections, which will conclude in runoff ballots Monday if necessary. In Cairo, all illiterate voters questioned by The Associated Press said symbols did not affect their choice. They voted for whoever would serve their interests.

But symbolism can operate on a subconscious level.

"To the intellectual, the influence is zero," Yamine said. "To the illiterate, I would rate it much higher."

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