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Lion or elephant?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 04 - 2012

Nashwa Abdel-Tawab attends elections for a new king of the jungle at a preschool in Cairo, part of a path-breaking experiment in democratic rule
Zein enters a polling station decorated with the Egyptian flag, goes straight to a table with three teachers as his judges and observers, gives one of the judges his ID card, scribbles something confidently, as if signing his name, and goes behind a curtain to choose the animal he wants to vote for. Re-emerging, he casts his ballot into a transparent ballot box, put his right index finger into kid-friendly electoral ink, takes his ID card back and puts on a pin saying "I voted".
Then three-year-old Zein leaves the room, shouting to his friends, "Lion! Lion!"
This would be an unexpected scene in any pre-school, but what is going on in Egypt's political life is also having effects on all its citizens, even the very youngest of them, who might stutter when they say their names but amazingly know how to cast a ballot. These are kids who know how to talk politics.
Some 88 children from three to five years old took part in the elections at the Trillium Montessori Preschool in New Cairo, where the lion and the elephant were competing to see who would rule the jungle. A further 88 children below these ages watched the process and cheered the voters on. A total of 13 teachers out of the school's 40 staff also cast their ballots.
It was difficult to miss the campaign banners on the walls, which had been up for most of the previous week. Banners for the lion read, "Don't be shy, give Mr Lion a try," "Mr Lion is the best, so forget the rest," and "Go with the flow, and don't be slow." Banners for the elephant read, "Be bright, vote right," "A leader for a change, so leave no child behind," and "Free drinks are on me."
Some of the candidates in the real presidential elections were also invited to witness the school elections, though only Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh came. He talked with the kids and watched the process. "It's a practical training in democracy for kids," Abul-Fotouh said, to one of the satellite TV channels which was covering the event. "It's a great idea and has a lot of creativity in it. I admire the experiment, but I fear the kids will only choose the lion."
Gawad Nabolsi, who was injured in the eye during the 25 January Revolution and is the co-founder of the Midan Nebny Foundation, a youth group, also came to watch the polls. "These elections teach children the principles of democracy, choice, and social responsibility. It reminds me of the Egyptian movie Empire of M, in which people relearn to have opinions and to be able to choose at home as well as in the country as a whole," Nabolsi said.
The idea was the brainchild of one of the school teachers, and all the staff shared in making it a successful educational experience. "I voted for the lion," said three-and-a-half-year-old Zein confidently, "because he is strong."
Zein said he liked the lion best and thought he was the most suitable candidate to be king of the jungle. Zein's friends Salman, Hassan and Zeina said they thought the lion was the best candidate because he could run more quickly than the elephant.
However, despite these early exit polls, counting the votes in the transparent ballot box at the end of the elections, in a ceremony attended by the whole school, showed that the elephant was the winner, receiving 80 votes as against 41 for the lion.
Then the cheers and tears started.
How was the idea of holding the elections first introduced to the children? "Kids belong to the world we live in," said Sherine Ibrahim, owner of the pre-school, "and this experiment reflects the Egypt we are living in today. We are providing the children with training in the democratic process. They know both animals' electoral programmes, and they have been trained, thanks to the Montessori Method, on critical thinking."
"We want to plant the seeds of democracy in the children. We want to provide the country with a generation that is aware of the electoral process, is able to think critically, and feels part of the country with its ancient history, present needs and future goals," Ibrahim said.
Two teachers acted the parts of the lion and the elephant in the election, and both spoke about their respective electoral programmes. The lion arrogantly spoke about his strength and promised the kids more free milk, while the elephant promised them water but asked about their needs.
"Amazingly, the children asked each candidate about the other's promises, asking the lion if he was going to play with them as the elephant had promised, or asking the elephant if he was as strong as the lion, and so on," Ibrahim added.
When the counting ended, the lion's supporters were naturally sad and around eight children started to cry. The elephant's supporters cheered their victory, but all the children were provided with milk, water and other refreshments at the end.
"It is important that the children understand gains and losses, which is part of the educational experience we are targeting," said Ibrahim. "Trillium works to nurture the 'whole child' in his or her physical, intellectual, emotional and social development. We hope to achieve this by providing a variety of developmentally appropriate activities that recognise the individual needs and differences of the children. We provide them with a safe and supportive place where they can enjoy their independence and where their creativity is celebrated and nurtured. They are used to the idea of voting if they want to read a story, for example, when they are used to respecting the will of the majority."
More than 23 candidates had submitted their registration papers in the actual presidential elections before the doors closed last Sunday. Late additions to the line-up and efforts to exclude some frontrunners have shaken Egypt's first free presidential elections, which are due to be held in May and June.
The victor will have to steer the Arab world's most populous country out of more than a year of precarious military rule, even as the economy languishes and people grow increasingly impatient to see the dividends of a revolution largely driven by outrage at poverty and corruption.
Seeing the innocent faces, charming smiles, loud laughs, and light spirits in evidence during the Trillium school's animal elections was a reminder of what many Egyptians had died for, or suffered injuries for, in the hopes of achieving.
"They were able to vote at the age of three, whereas I had to wait until my thirties and others had to wait until their seventies to vote. How do you think the future will be if there are lots of such sincere experiments to develop Egypt's future citizens," asked Ayat, one of the teachers at the school.
Unlike expected resuls and Aboul Fotouh's fears, the children showed themselves to be aware of their needs. They didn't choose power, strength and nourishment, offered by the lion, which are basic elements for physical life. Instead, they chose what the elephant was offering -- love, high hopes, big hearts, great dreams and a collective effort to live happily together.
Who can say that they were wrong to do so? And could adults follow their steps?


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