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Dispatches From Cairo: Testing Democracy

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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

(Page 2)

A few days ago I had the opportunity to accompany my friend Magda, who had been a supporter of candidate Omar Suleiman and later Shafik, to a rally for Shafik. Once the doors closed on the 3,000-plus invitees and Shafik took to the podium to speak, shouts arose of “Feloul! Feloul!” (“leftovers”), the people’s name for the remnants of the deposed Mubarak’s corrupt regime. Police ushered the protesters out but not before their outcry and the lack of reaction or intelligent discourse from Shafik revealed to all present that he was not worth the people burning the country down and the army filling the streets with blood.

Magda, who hated the revolutionaries to the point of not caring if the army had to kill them, confided to me that she had changed her mind about backing Shafik. He is no good, she told me. The only answer is Moussa.

Some of the lesser-known candidates, notably the Nasserist socialist Hamdeen Sabahi, a longtime activist, supporter of the peasants and advocate of a tax on the extremely wealthy, have been gaining some momentum, but not enough to shake the front-runners.

The Muslim Brotherhood has run an organized and impressive campaign. It is using the tried and true method of helping the people and setting up information kiosks and tents all over. It has one in front of my building, where its backers give away small packages of rice, beans and oil. Every evening for the past week since campaigning has been permitted, I hear them arriving on my street. Young women and men with posters and signs, chant through a speaker perched on a car, “Freedom and justice! That is what you want!” “Down, down with the military government!” “The people want freedom and justice! The people want Mohamed Morsi!” In spite of the ban on religious slogans, they shout, “The rebirth of Egypt in Islam! With Mohamed Morsi! Freedom and justice!”


Square, Site wide
My friendly neighborhood fruit seller and his family took the packets of rice and oil but they will not vote, he told me. In any case, they do not trust the Brotherhood.

A few days after the debate, the unattractiveness of Moussa’s television face was mostly forgotten by Egyptians, who are good at forgetting far worse images than that. New and more flattering interviews have since taken place, as the candidates and local media figure out the tricks of this new campaign trade, though politicians wearing makeup for TV is still culturally out of the question.

After the television is turned off, what remains with the people are the words, their own fatigue, their fear of losing more and their need for stability. The polls showed Moussa and Aboul Fotouh lost voters after the debate, and Morsi, Shafik and Sabahi gained supporters. However, as the days erase the no-makeup sallowness of Moussa, his popularity has returned as the “least bad” alternative for many voters. “Moderate” Islamist Aboul Fotouh has lost some of the people’s confidence by trying to play to both sides while maintaining his commitment to Shariah; some doubt the truth of his disassociation from the Muslim Brotherhood, but he still remains a “less bad,” more centrist possibility.

Bashir, a young activist, Islamist and film editor, last week supported Morsi but now is displeased by the Muslim Brotherhood’s aggressive buying of votes. “Some people will still protest if Amr Moussa wins,” he told me, “but they will calm down without too much blood, Insha’allah.”

Whoever wins will have to make a deal with the 60-year-old deeply rooted Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which controls all the military, weapons, airports, natural resources and much of the industry. If the new president does not make a pact with the council and stay on its good side, he will be expelled. Thus no one is 100 percent sincere. This is a lesson in realpolitik.

The news two weeks ago of a legal action taken to delay or invalidate the election left most of us with that dreaded seasick feeling of not being on solid ground.

In fact there is a clause inserted into the interim constitution that gives the election committee (chosen by and responsible to the SCAF) the power to invalidate any candidate and the election even retrospectively at any time on any number of nuanced criteria. This article of law also makes the decisions of the election committee final and incontestable, and was one of the targets of the protests in recent months.

I watch, blinking in astonishment, the gigantic social chasms of my own small slice of the world as the newly elected French socialist Francois Hollande is revealed to have used a private jet and own many multimillion dollar properties. He is far wealthier than outgoing Nicolas Sarkozy, having spent millions on his campaign to distribute the wealth more equally. He moves into the presidential palace with his girlfriend and without his four children from his previous out-of-wedlock relationship with Segolene Royal, the socialist candidate in the last French presidential election. Meanwhile, in Egypt we live with a law that forbids sex outside of marriage, and women bear the brunt of the responsibility to not tempt men.

Mohamed, a friend who used to support the Muslim Brotherhood, says there are two things that will keep someone from winning an election in Egypt, the most richly mixed native demographic and largest Arabic country: a beard (like Morsi has) and a daughter who wears a bikini (like Moussa’s daughter has). We shall see if he’s right Wednesday and Thursday. We shall find out then who the two final opponents will be, unless one wins more than 50 percent of the vote outright, or unless there is vestigial subversion of the past regime that renders everything pointless and puts the Molotov cocktails back in the square. We all hope the election will go smoothly even without those foreign nongovernmental organizations that watched over things so well in the past.

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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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katsteevns's avatar

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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