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Dispatches From Cairo: Testing Democracy

Posted on May 22, 2012
AP/Fredrik Persson

Egyptians listen to the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi at a rally in Cairo.

By Lauren Unger-Geoffroy

We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about Egypt’s imminent presidential election.

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Here in Cairo every conversation turns to this week’s presidential election, hopefully the first true democratic election in the country’s history. Since Egypt’s first presidential debate May 10, which featured the two leading candidates—liberal Amr Moussa and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh—every person has reflected, discussed and rethought their choices.

It has been an amazing few weeks of logical discussions, without violence or blood. People are truly searching for a best choice, and beginning to really believe they can decide the future of their nation. In every cafe, shop, office, street and home, people are calmly exchanging their thoughts and opinions and weighing pros and cons.

It remains to be seen whether they will understand and accept the principle of democracy: The candidate chosen by the majority becomes the president, and the other contenders must yield to the voters’ decision, game over.

I watched most of the four-hour marathon debate over pastries and 7UP at the home of my former neighbors and close friends, a retired general and his wife with whom I had passed many evenings during the first 18 days of the revolution.


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The apartment building where the general and his wife live, and I used to also, is on an isolated dark street. Near the end of the time I lived there, it had been evacuated except for my two female roommates and me, a Chinese guy who kept telling us that we would be raped and killed, and the general and his extended family, who own the building. We had no TV in our flat, where all that remained were our mattresses and piles of books. We were all about to move. I was in the middle of relocating to the apartment building I live in now when it was firebombed and the area became inaccessible. So I stayed on with my roommates huddled in our empty apartment, listening to the shots and explosions and yelling outside through bolted shutters with lights out so as not to reveal our presence. Severe curfews were in place, tanks and thugs were everywhere, gunshots were coming from all directions and men stood guard with baseball bats and sabers around campfires at street intersections, serving as block patrols. The telephone and Internet had been cut off, and food was scarce.

Back then, we gathered cautiously downstairs in front of the general’s TV while his son and grandson took their turns as street guards with the other men of the block. I remember how the general spoke of President Hosni Mubarak’s appointing Ahmed Shafik as prime minister at that time. The general knew Shafik well, having fought beside him, and didn’t like him. The general had been invited to state military affairs and honor dinners, but he had no love for those he considered corrupt and he was happy for the revolution.

As we watched the debate two weeks ago, I was looking forward to seeing how the general felt about the candidates, knowing that he was somewhat religious and sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, following a few of its religious speakers. Before the debate started, he told me he had no preference for one candidate over the other.

Two hours into it, Moussa’s lack of charisma, jerky body movements and no sense of conviction or confidence turned us off compared to the more appealing Aboul Fotouh. However, by the end of three hours Aboul Fotouh had been trapped into revealing his own insincere currying of favor from opposing camps, and we soured on him as well. The questions were well chosen—and the traps were set for both.

Moussa was forced to say that Israel is the enemy, and was goaded into losing his cool, becoming aggressive and insulting.

Aboul Fotouh was forced to say that a man could worship as he wanted, in regard to the Quran-ordered Shariah law that states if a Muslim converts to Christianity he must be killed. He had previously confirmed the opposite to the Salafists, whom he was also courting.

After three hours, the general had had enough of both of them and switched channels—first to watch wrestling, which he is convinced is true blood sport, and then to the prepared interview made by the Muslim Brotherhood with its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who had declined to participate in the debate. The well-rehearsed Morsi came across as a savior, pure, honest, simple, warm, noble and pious yet reasonable.

I couldn’t take more than three and a half hours, so the general and his wife drove me home around 1 a.m. I asked him who they would vote for (as he, of course, decides for both of them) and he laughed, saying he wasn’t going to vote. He had never voted, he said, as there was never any point before and he didn’t want his name on anything. You never know what someone might do with it.

In the days after the debate, I talked with friends and people in the street. People of all socio-political tendencies had watched it and were talking about how they were unimpressed by the two candidates. Many said they suddenly felt a new spark of infatuation with either Morsi or one of three other lesser-known, non-majority candidates.

I have been hearing a surprising number of people say that they are considering Shafik, the former commander of the Egyptian air force, despite the fact that the street’s reaction to his election would cause a revolution more massive than we have seen yet, and the army would have to kill all the protesters. He has been helped by national media propaganda putting him forward in shamelessly invented polls, the usual tricks.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, May 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment

“hopefully the first true democratic election in the country’s history. “

In spite of our 30 year efforts to keep a boot on their necks.

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By gerard, May 22, 2012 at 10:46 am Link to this comment

Sorry for the typo:  “Hulot’s Holiday.”

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By gerard, May 22, 2012 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

This Lauren Unger-Geoffrey is great at catching irony by the tail—for example again, contrasting what is happening in France (ergo, Europe and the U.S.) contrasted with what is happening in Egypt (and much of the rest of the world). The chasm is enormous and patently unjust—a powerful warning against making quick judgments and decisions,thus falling into violence, chaos and extinction. And yet—decisions must eventually be made.
  Do any of you remember in “Mr. Hulo’s Holiday” the scene with the broken taffy machine?  Hilarious, and at the same time very precisely tragic.

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By katsteevns, May 22, 2012 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

Excellent comments.

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By balkas, May 22, 2012 at 6:15 am Link to this comment

well, if egyptian believe in or rely on personal saviorism, then, we can expect no change for better.
the system of rule in egypt is overly influence and shaped by islamists. islam shld not have any role in how a
country is managed.
but even in u.s, theocrats and organized cults hold enormous powers on econo-military-monetary-educational
and as long ‘religions’ [peculiar ideologies or sciences] have as much influence in muslim and christian lands,
we can expect more insecurity, warfare, exploitation, anger; greater degradation of the planet, etc.
100% sure.
after all, we’ve had organized ‘religion’ [let’s not confuse it with a belief in a deity] for at least 10 k yrs, and look
what it had done for us thus far!!
can it get more bizarre, mean, cruel, fatalistic? yes, as long as priests and their serfs rule the world to the
degree that they do!

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By madisolation, May 22, 2012 at 4:42 am Link to this comment

Just who IS this awful woman? A General and his wife are her best friends? A woman who supported Omar Suleiman—-the torturer—is also a good buddy of hers? She condescendingly writes at the beginning:
“It remains to be seen whether they will understand and accept the principle of democracy: The candidate chosen by the majority becomes the president, and the other contenders must yield to the voters’ decision, game over.” 
She sounds like Hillary Clinton. Maybe that warmongerer is her BFF, too.

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