Friday, June 15, 2012

The Traitor or The Killer?

“We have no choice.”  That is the most common refrain one hears rolling off Egyptians’ tongues these days when asked about the presidential elections.  Their tone drips with disappointment and frustration.  The fascinating part is that you will hear this from Egyptians of all colors, liberals, Christians, Muslims, and it’s not because they agree.

The first round of elections surprised many.  I remember watching the results trickle in at an Egyptian friend’s house.  The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammad Morsi, was in first place with 25% of the vote was no shocker, considering the amount of money the Brotherhood had put into the campaign and the way they exploited networks that they have been nurturing for years with charitable social programming.  What threw everyone for a loop was Ahmed Shafiq’s close tailing of Morsi with 24% of the vote; Shafiq is a pillar of the military, was Mubarak’s aviation chief, and then was his last prime minister before protesters demanded he leave office in March of 2011.  He is the epitome of falool, a “remnant” of the old regime, and most were expecting the other leftover to do well, Amr Moussa, but he came in last out of the five strongest candidates.  The other black horse was socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy, who came in third by gathering most of the revolutionary vote, while liberal Islamist Abdal Moneim Abo alFatouh came in third.  Many of my young liberal Muslim friends lamented the fact that revolutionary forces did not coalesce around one candidate, either Sabahy or Abo alFatouh, which would have possibly enabled them to propel a candidate representative of the revolution into the runoff.  Shafiq and Morsi were both able to exploit mostly rural networks based on clientelistic and familial ties, whereas the revolutionary candidates swept city votes based more on ideology.  How bitterly ironic that a revolution meant to topple a broken system has led to elections between that very same corruption and the forces that were always its worst enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.  The most pessimistic see this election as one between a traitor and a killer, the traitor being Morsi and the Brotherhood for how they have failed to protect the revolution, and the killer being Shafiq, for his compliance with the Mubarak regime.
Cartoon floating around Facebook, by Amr Okasha
Of course, questions have been asked, doubts fielded, accusations hurled, about whether or not these were truly fair elections.  There is no doubt that there was nowhere near the level of widespread fraud that dominated Mubarak’s years, but there were certainly concerning discrepancies, such as stations not being monitored, a random box of ballots being found in the desert, and candidates either paying money or food to voters.  I know many who allege that there is no way elections could be free and fair under the military.

Before I delve into the three different ways in which Egyptians “have no choice”, it’s worth noting how low voter turnout was.  Only 46% of registered voters cast ballots, compared to 54% in the parliamentary elections last fall.  That’s not to say we have a much better rate in the states, and we could speculate to no end about why voters don’t go to the polls.  But one thing that struck me is that Egypt has no absentee voting system, forcing voters to return to where they are registered if they intend to vote.  In a country with many workers who migrate from the countryside to Cairo and Alexandria, many are hard-pressed to find the time and funds to return sometimes extremely long distances to scribble down their vote.  During the first round on May 23rd and 24th, I asked the man who works in the kiosk across the street if he had voted.  When he responded “Not yet,” I asked him what he was waiting for?  He then explained to me that he is from alMinya, which would take at least 10 hours to reach by bus or train, and I’ve never seen a day where that man is not filling grocery bags at that kiosk.  This is just something to keep in mind as we see the elections results, particularly since an even lower turnout is expected in the second round: only about half of Egyptians are choosing their president!

“We have no choice,” the girl giving me a manicure said, shaking her head.  “I’m voting for Shafiq.”  She went on to explain that, even as a Muslim, she was scared that under Morsi and the Brotherhood’s presidency, Egypt would turn into Iran, where civil liberties are limited and women are forced to cover their heads.  My taxi driver earlier that day had told me that originally he worked in tourism and had only started driving a cab when all the tourists fled after the revolution, so naturally, he, too, would cast his ballot for Shafiq.  It is widely believed that Shafiq will restore security to the country, and thus bring back tourism, which speaks to many who have just been plain terrified in the last year, what with numerous violent clashes and a slight rise in other crime.  You must understand that crime just doesn’t happen in Egypt, not even in Cairo, a city of anywhere from 18-24 million; stealing or killing is considered haram in religion, and communities are just very tight-knit.  So for Egyptians, the security vacuum since Mubarak stepped down has been tangible and deeply unsettling, and Shafiq has boasted he will restore security in as little as six hours!  Many Christians feel that Shafiq is their only choice, since in an Islamic state they will truly lose their place in their homeland.  Liberals say you can’t trust the Brotherhood, given their constant flip-flopping in the last year in the interest of grabbing power.  Others argue Shafiq should be given a fair chance, since he was only prime minister for a month or two before popular demands labeled him as Mubarak’s crony and forced him to step down.
Ahmed Shafiq
“We have no choice,” said the man selling fruit on my block.  “We have to elect Morsi, or else it’s like the revolution didn’t even happen.”  Shafiq is a carbon copy of Mubarak, in both his mannerisms and his ties to the military and the corrupt business elite.  He is even accused of being involved in pitting security forces against protesters during the revolution, and many see him as a killer.  If he comes into power, many of my young friends fear that the military will remain the “state above the state”, with its economic holdings and budget kept secret and safe.  Over dinner last night, my friend Mahmoud and I laughed over Shafiq’s claim that he will restore security in six hours, but his attempts to do so would undoubtedly include random detentions and arrests of journalists and protesters, and the security state would be as strong as ever.  On Facebook after it was learned that Shafiq would be in the runoff, I saw a joke that read, “Breaking news: Mubarak dies of laughter at the people”, referring to the absurdity of the same regime coming back to power so soon.  At least, Mahmoud says, the Brotherhood recognizes the revolution and has participated in it to varying degrees; they deserve a chance to prove themselves to the people.
Mohammad Morsi
“We have no choice,” said my friend Ahmed.  “I’ll either boycott, or nullify my ballot.”  This is a stance that has gained some traction recently, although it remains relegated to a small segment of society mainly consisting of young liberals.  Nullifying their ballot means they will go vote, but write something inappropriate that will make their vote not count: these ballots are still counted in total voter turnout, which seems to give it more legitimacy to me.  Ahmed plans on writing, “Yasqut, yasqut hokm alaskr – Down, down with military rule.”  I don’t see this action as being able to affect the outcome or public opinion very much, but it will certainly empower those that participate, and it will demonstrate that all of Egypt is not electing one of these two worst-case scenario candidates.  These will be the people that go down to Egypt’s squares again.

Amidst the depression at having no choice and being forced to choose between two, there is other political drama at which to balk and pull one’s hair out.  On June 2nd, Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib alAdly, were sentenced to life in prison on charges of not having done anything to stop the killing of protesters.  The charges were legally very weak, obviously meant to satisfy the masses, and on appeal, their sentences will likely be reduced.  Even life in prison is not enough for many furious at the deaths of almost 1000 revolutionary martyrs, and Egyptians poured into Egypt’s squares in throngs after this verdict.  They are also livid about the fact that a number of high-level police officers were acquitted of any charges of killing unarmed protesters, as if those people just killed themselves.  Mubarak’s sons got off on corruption charges with a slap on the wrist.  Shafiq himself, called as a witness to testify at the trial for one of the most important and tragic battles of the revolution, the Battle of the Camel, didn’t even show up to trial, showing how much he cares for justice.  More innocent sentences get passed down to the falool and their cronies on a daily basis.  Furthermore, yesterday, a third of the parliament was dissolved by the courts, ruling that single-seat representatives were unconstitutional.  Morsi’s and Shafiq’s camps bombard each other daily with vile claims (just like in America!), but behind the scenes, it seems that Shafiq has promised to stack his Cabinet with Brotherhood members.  It looks more and more likely that with the army’s backing, Shafiq will indeed become Egypt’s next president.

Egyptians are tired, but not yet defeated, and with the unwavering strength and determination that characterizes these peoples, they seem ready to stand tall and take whoever comes their way.  At my fruit stand, the fruit seller shrugged his shoulders at his lack of presidential options, saying they could always vote for someone else after four years if nothing went well.

“What if Morsi or Shafiq reinstate emergency law or just don’t allow elections to happen again in four years?” I asked, playing devil’s advocate.

“Well, then we know the way to Tahrir Square now.”

Let’s hope he is right.


  1. This is an excellent post on a truly crummy situation, ya Gamila. I much prefer your take on things to blow-hards like Thomas Friedman (though on this particular topic, your views are probably in alignment.) As bad as the state of affairs is with the presidential election, I am really curious about what is going to happen with parliament and the Constitutional Assembly.

  2. Thanks for another fine post - informative and insightful. It is indeed tragic that Egypt continues to be haunted by both its past dictatorial governments and its present fundamentalist religious leaders. I must say, though, that I am reminded of our supposed democracy and our lack of choice in this upcoming presidential election. Yes, I will vote for Obama, but it feels like both candidates are at the beck and call of corporate/military interests that make doing anything that supports fairness, justice, equity almost impossible here as well.
    In the meantime congratulations on your Tufts appointment, which seems to make perfect sense. And thanks for all the wonderful reporting you have done for us back home. I hope our paths cross in August.

  3. Excellent writing, dear daughter. Thank you for giving us readers a perspective on such a complex issue in that part of the world. I miss you greatly, and so wish I could visit.