May 18, 2013
Dispatches From Cairo: Testing Democracy
Posted on May 22, 2012
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!”
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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