Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The President

The election season has flown by in live color and raw sound.  My eyes still widening from my morning NesCafe, my cab swishes by a billboard with a stern face promising jobs and a strong Egypt.  The newspaper stands on my way to lunch are riddled with headlines of the latest developments in the dramatic race.  After the heat has overcome the city, my afternoon cab swerves around a dozen supporters holding their candidate’s sign.  Popping by my neighborhood fruit stand on my way home, an interview with leading candidates blares out through rows of peaches and mangos.  Egypt votes for a president on Wednesday.  Egypt is choosing its leader in what will hopefully be its first fair presidential elections since its independence in 1952.  This is history, and Egyptians are making it.
Candidates' faces whizz by on my morning cab ride to work

“Did you see the march?”
“What march?”
“For Abu Ismail!”
All the doormen in Ayman’s building were giddy with political excitement about the nearby crowds.  It was almost midnight on a Wednesday, and thousands of Salafists, rather fundamentalist Islamists, had taken to the streets with “God is great” chants and fireworks in support of their favored candidate, conservative sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.  After weeks of rumors and accusations, Abu Ismail’s mother had been found not to have American citizenship, which would have banned him from running according to some bizarre Egyptian law.  I seized on the moment to ask Ayman, my doorman friend, who he would give his vote to (though my wording may sound strange, that is how it is phrased here in Arabic).  Instead of spitting out a name, he confessed to me how scared he was of a religious candidate coming to power and how adamantly he believed religion and politics should be entirely separate.  This shocked me, since religion plays such a prevalent role here.  He went on to explain that he felt the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists had proven themselves liars, traitors to the revolution, and since coming to power with 70% of the Parliament’s seats, nothing had transpired other than theater and lies.
Campaign banner for disqualified Salafist candidate Abu Ismail
As I was leaving, Ayman told me that he would be observing an election site somewhere in Cairo, as he has a part-time government job in a community center in his neighborhood.  He recalled an anecdote during the parliamentary elections of 2010, which, like all previous elections, had been rigged in favor of Mubarak’s party.  He was at his assigned election site when a soldier walked in - “He said his name was Nadar, I’ll never forget his name.”  The soldier spoke with Ayman, who was then forced to stand by while he and a couple other cronies stuffed the ballot box with a couple thousand ballots.  “Whoever we get next will be better than going back to that.”


“Abo al-Fatouh,” Karim told me, almost cautiously, once we inevitably got onto the subject of the presidential elections.  Mamdouh nodded alongside him, and it all clicked for me.   Abdul Moneim Abo al-Fatouh appeared to be the bridge that could connect secularists and Muslims in a country where religion is a constant, but not without much toil and debate.  For many of my young, liberal, Muslim friends, he squarely represents their worldviews, including their support of the revolution and their backgrounds as Muslims.  Having once been part of the Muslim Brotherhood, he started to break with the organization as his Islamic philosophy became more and more steeped with liberal openness.  He officially broke with them after announcing his bid for presidency in the wake of the revolution, which the Brotherhood at the time forbade.  Abo al-Fatouh seems to me someone that can appeal to large segments of society: a friend went to one of his rallies and described its energy as akin to Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Campagin poster for Abdul Moneim Abo alFatouh
The other candidate who speaks to liberal secularists is Hamdeen Sabahy, a firecracker leftist who had been opposing Mubarak’s party in parliament for years and joining activists in all sorts of protests.  Miriam, my colleague at work told me she respects him, but she is uncomfortable with his socialist background.


“Seriously, Amr Moussa?!” I shrieked at my friend Amir in shock.  Only a month or two before, we had watched a talk show interview with the former Mubarak statesman in which the man spent the whole interview regaling the audience with his heroic anti-Israeli antics during his tenure as Mubarak’s foreign minister, during which he broke with regime policy on the loathed Israel.  The former minister has been campaigning strongly with lots of funds, and friends have told me they fear his exploiting the popularity of his name and reputation and using his financial prowess to convince entire families to vote for him.  Uneducated people in the countryside don’t need much convincing to vote for someone; since little interest is shown in their villages, if a candidate makes a visit, he is more or less guaranteed a vote.  This is so indicative of the lack of political education here, in that a decision is not made based on who presents the best campaign and solutions, but rather, on where and at who money is thrown.
Some people see Moussa as being of the "faloul": this word refers to the remnants of the former regime, and is generally not said as a compliment.  A few weeks ago, there was a Friday protest against the faloul, who at the time also included Omar Suleiman, the notorious chief of intelligence in Mubarak’s regime who was appointed vice president after the revolution in an attempt to placate the masses; that obviously failed, and he was in fact the one to announce Mubarak’s resignation.  The other holdover from the Mubarak regime is Ahmed Shafiq, former aviation minister, and the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak before the revolution.
Amr Moussa campaign poster
Although one might think these faloul figures would be ostracized and hated, the two leftovers, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, enjoy seats at the top of the polls only 24 hours before they open.  This is because Egyptians also crave stability right now, and being practical, they see that only strong statesmen with experience in politics can set Egypt on the right course.  Christians like my colleague Miriam are also drawn to these secular faloul candidates, since they truly dread the possibility of an extremist Islamist government grabbing power.  The sentiment of wanting someone who will fix what is broken makes sense.  It doesn’t matter that Shafiq sounds like a broken record of Mubarak in his speeches; he has the political prowess to comfort people.  Egyptians have had a traumatizing year since their revolution broke out: they have lost hundreds of youth to police batons and army tanks, the economy has tanked, security fears have become rampant, there are shortages of gas and other goods, and well, not much has changed, or at least not enough.

I was also with Amir the night we heard about the “istiba’ad”, the expulsion of a number of top contenders for the presidency by the election council.  This was such a game-changer that Amir and I both took it for a joke at first.  But it was soon confirmed that Salafist candidate Abu Ismail had indeed been banned, as had former spy chief Omar Suleiman, and the charismatic adviser and financier of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat alShater (who I think would have won otherwise.)


“I’m sick of politics.  I’m just totally tired of all the drama,” Gamal threw his hands up in the air at my inquisitive question about whom he would vote for.  His sentiments were understandable, what with the explosive roller coaster ride the contest has been.  Every day has been a new allegation hurled from one political stronghold to the next, a new law drafted to ban remnants of the former regime, or en entirely new candidate!  

“So, have you made a decision, then?”  I pressed Gamal, half sarcastically, but also truly curious about whom this pious, intelligent, and simple man wanted to lead his nation.

“I’m just observing it all right now, gathering information, I don’t think I’ll make my decision until the last minute.”  I told Gamal I liked his approach; it reminded me of my first time voting in the 2008 primaries, between Obama and Hillary.  Gamal is pretty religious, so I pried him about whether or not he would be voting for Mohammad Morsi, the candidate the Muslim Brotherhood ended up fielding after their previous candidate, Khairat alShatr was banned.  He told me did indeed want Islam to be a greater part of government, but that he was not sure he trusted the Brotherhood anymore.
Billboard for Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate

Even with only a day left before polls open, I speak with Egyptians like Gamal and Miriam who are still on the fence, still weighing the options, still contemplating who it is they want to lead their beloved nation.  The first round of elections will be spread out over two days this week, Wednesday and Thursday, with a likely runoff taking place in mid-June.  Egypt’s new president should be announced by June 21st.  People generally seem optimistic that things will be peaceful, although there are worries that after the final result in June people could take to the streets in fury if their candidates do not win, or if the military council goes back on its word and does not hand over power.

Will the elections be clean?  More or less, if you don’t count the Muslim Brotherhood handing out packs of sugar or kilos of meat to sway voters, or the general inefficacy of Egyptian bureaucracy.  Will the SCAF support a certain candidate and refuse to respect the will of the people?  Everyone hopes not.  Will Egypt be able to change course under the guidance of a democratically-elected president?  That’s the idea, but ultimately, Allahu a’aalam, only God knows, so, khair in sha Allah, hopefully, all goes well.


  1. What a great breakdown of the candidates/issues. Loved how you personalize it as well by introducing individuals and their opinions.

    You should really write for a broader audience!

  2. Ditto to the above comment -- as always, you take us there, walking down the streets, riding in the cab, conversations with friends and their wide range of views (reflecting your ability to connect with so many different people). The New Yorker recently had a profile of a young Salafist Nour Party politician from Alexandria -- not a presidential candidate -- one Ahmed Khalil Khairallah. It focused on issues of how Islam and Sharia could work within a democracy. The last sentence was Khairallah's assertion, "The Egyptian revolution is one of the signs of the existence of God."
    Hmmm ...mmmmm. Great to hear from you -- we'll be waiting to hear who should rule Egypt. Laine

  3. I love how detailed your post are. Miss you!!!! xoxo keep posting!

    actually haven't finished reading it..let me read it all and then discuss ;)