Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On the Trail of an Audacious Presidential Campaign

As Egyptians are on the cusp of choosing their chief executive for the first time ever, the idea of popular participation is under attack. Revolution-fatigue is manufactured and promoted by the same intellectual peddlers who served Mubarak. Bookstalls and air waves are full of ancien regime figures, holding forth on “the missed opportunities” of the Mubarak era. Old myths about the fecklessness and gullibility of the people are refurbished and packaged under the respectable labels of “public opinion” and “the general mood.” Mubarak’s old trick of belittling and smearing aspirants to the top job is alive and well in those corners of the media bankrolled by his erstwhile cronies.

In this setting of military rule supported by anti-revolutionary cultural production, enter a group of citizens backing a dynamic activist lawyer for president. Having just turned 40 last month, the minimum age required to run for the office,
Khaled Ali is the youngest presidential hopeful, but age is not his most striking asset. It’s his disarming sincerity and fierce dedication to his core constituency, the downtrodden who he belongs to and doesn’t just talk about.

In this maiden presidential race, electability is hard to gauge. But if credibility is a criterion, then Khaled Ali has it in spades.

Banking on the Black Box
Like any campaign headquarters, Ali’s is a den of chain-smoking, sleep-deprived organizers, fresh-faced college student volunteers, and the odd journalist or visitor roaming the halls. A good chunk of Baradei supporters gravitated to Ali’s campaign after their guru pulled out of the race, bringing with them a fondness for political marketing gimmicks. What’s unique about the Ali campaign are the legion of laborers backing his candidacy, real flesh-and-blood workers determined to claim their share of the new Egyptian state (under construction).

Different subcultures coexist in the campaign office, operating on parallel tracks. In one room, a group of burly local labor leaders sit around a large table planning outreach and canvassing strategies, led by a vivacious middle-aged Mahalla woman who was arrested during the April 6, 2008 protests in the town.

In a corner of an adjacent room, a handful of intellectuals are smoking up a storm and heatedly debating something. The next two rooms are occupied by young organizers staring intently into their laptops or pacing back and forth talking on their cell phones, a whiteboard listing the details of Ali’s campaign visits above their heads.

Amr al-Qadi is a third-year engineering student at Ain Shams who became a campaign volunteer shortly after Ali declared his candidacy. Al-Qadi had initially supported
Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, considering him the most viable pro-revolution candidate to compete against Mubarak holdover Amr Moussa. Then he met Khaled Ali by chance and was impressed by how modest he is.

“It felt as if I was sitting with one of my friends. He’s not arrogant at all and he doesn’t insist that we call him Ustaz and stuff like that. I could imagine how if he became president, he’d treat everyone equally. He’s also the only candidate who’s serious about social justice, and something he said stuck with me: we need to translate social justice slogans into public policies.”

An Egyptian academic who lives in Europe said she was a big Baradei supporter but transferred her loyalties to Ali when Ali joined the race. She was drawn to the Ali campaign’s responsiveness and solicitation of citizen proposals, volunteering her expertise on cultural resource management. “It’s an individual initiative of many individuals,” she said, capturing the campaign’s micro-organizational ethos.

That ethos worries Ali’s core group of advisers. Veteran human rights defender
Ahmed Seif al-Islam is Ali’s mentor and fellow traveler in the fields of law and politics. He identified the influx of volunteers as one of the campaign’s two main challenges. An asset in terms of raking in fresh ideas and embodying participatory politics, managing the volunteers is a daunting organizational task, especially for a grassroots campaign high on enthusiasm but short on funds.

But Seif harbors no worries about the utility of what they’re doing. “We’re running a different kind of campaign. We’re not in this to sell our candidate, but to mobilize voters, that’s the whole point.”

He brushed aside all the ambient theories purporting to map out the preferences of Egypt’s electorate based on the parliamentary election results. “What people don’t understand is that Egyptians didn’t vote for the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis because they’re religious parties, they voted for them as a reward for opposing Mubarak. The logic is, ‘we’ll reward you and let’s see how you make out now.’”

Out of the 30 million voters expected to take part in the presidential poll, Seif thinks maybe five million will vote with fixed preferences, including the bloc of religious voters, based on his reading of the Shura Council elections. “That leaves 25 million voters that we don’t know anything about! They’re a black box.”

He believes four elements will structure the vote: region, ideology, age, and occupation. Each voter’s calculus will be some alchemy of these four, he says, but we can’t know it in advance, especially since there’s no precedent of electing an Egyptian president.

Native Son
On a balmy moonlit evening, the campaign bus rolled into Khaled Ali’s home village of Mit Yaeesh in Markaz Mit Ghamr, Daqahliyya. Before it could stop, the bus was encircled by athe crowd and a boisterous band of musicians playing the mizmar and drums. The scene could’ve been out of a film: the native son gets a rousing hero’s welcome for doing his people proud.

Ali’s family and supporters hugged and kissed him as he was serenaded by the troupe, then he ducked into the front seat of a car that was part of a large cavalcade of cars and pick-up trucks slowly making its way to the rally site, snarling traffic something awful but no one complained.

Two huge amplifiers on the back of a pick-up truck blasted music, and carefree girls in hijab hung out of car windows, drumming on the car roofs and swaying to the music. Every few minutes, a tractor headed in the opposite direction squeezed by the procession, its driver raising both arms in celebratory greeting, and one local notable with a mighty turban passed by on his horse, raising his cane high up in the air to salute the procession as his mare clop-clopped on its merry way.

On either side of the narrow streets, residents leaned out of their balconies and stood outside shops to watch the spectacle. A young storekeeper cradling an infant swaddled in a pink blanket gently gathered the blanket around her ears. A toddler sat on a stoop, clapping delightedly to the music. A baqqal stood on a stool with his back to the street, fussing over the already artfully-arranged wares on his shelves, never once turning around to see the commotion.

Ali got out of the car to greet a gathering of women standing in a bend in the road, their joyful ululations rising to the moon and rippling its surface.

There’s a negative stereotype of the Egyptian human rights lawyer jet-setting from conference to conference and spending more time on television than in the courtroom. Although he’s very much a part of the Cairo human rights crowd, Ali is an outlier.

Unlike many professionals from poor backgrounds, he speaks unashamedly about his past. His father’s salary as a coast guard wasn’t enough to support a family of five girls and three boys. So as the second oldest child, Khaled worked odd jobs before and after Law School to help meet his own and his siblings’ expenses, insisting on helping his sisters marry first before he married in 2002.

In an interview with talk show host Hala Sarhan, Ali poignantly recalled his experiences as a worker at a rice-hulling plant and a machine operator at a biscuit factory. For a year after Law School he worked as a waiter at a coffee shop, eventually leaving the job for the humiliation inflicted on him by the boss.

In 1996, he began his human rights career by joining the revered leftist lawyers Ahmed Seif al-Islam and the late Hisham Mubarak, heirs to the Egyptian tradition of cause lawyering pioneered by
Nabil al-Hilali. Ali developed a reputation for defending the rights of laid-off workers and arrested protesters. In 2009, he started his own NGO, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, where he honed his strategy of filing lawsuits before the administrative courts to challenge the corrupt privatization of state-owned factories under Mubarak.

A handful of high-profile court rulings in his favor in 2009 and 2010 brought Ali to national prominence. He began appearing on television, especially after he succeeded in persuading Magles al-Dawla to rule in favor of a national minimum wage in March 2010. Inspired by the court ruling, a minimum wage was one of the four core demands of the January 25, 2011 protest action, and has since become a key item in the revolution’s political economy agenda.

After the revolution, Ali’s NGO was a key facilitator for the independent trade unions supplanting the defunct state labor federation, and he went after SCAF’s March decree criminalizing protests. His most recent legal success is a court ruling stipulating a special monthly pension for those injured during the revolution.

Ali received and refused an offer to join Essam Sharaf’s cabinet as Minister of Labour, and later he also turned down an offer to become an appointed member of parliament. He insists on the bottom-up route to presidential candidacy, vowing to collect the required 30,000 citizen endorsements and to drop out of the race if he can’t meet the threshold.

The Dignity of Work
At an ahwa in Boulaq al-Dakrour after Friday prayers, under a flimsy plastic tarpaulin rustling in the spring breeze, Khaled Ali has the attention of around 70 neighborhood men who’ve gathered to hear him out. They listen intently as Ali reels off the ill-gotten gains of Mubarak’s cronies. “They carved up the country between them like a cake!”

Ali isn’t a smooth talking politician or a natural performer. His speaking style is very much that of a lawyer making his case before the bench, piling up facts and figures in a dizzying succession of details than can tax his listeners. But he shines in interactive question-and-answer sessions, engaging meaningfully with the audience, cracking jokes, and capturing the essence of his message in pithy one-liners.

The ahwa audience particularly appreciated his phrase, “We import even pencils from the UAE, while our country has become a display case for Chinese goods.”

All of the presidential hopefuls are making requisite nods to social justice, but Ali relentlessly harps on the imperative of redistribution. His stump speeches are almost exclusively focused on the basic economic conditions that structure Egyptians’ lives: the human fallout of privatization; the extinction of public services; the erosion of local manufacturing; and the misuse and under-use of Egypt’s natural resources.

The fact that Ali doesn’t tailor his message to different audiences irks some of his diehard supporters who want him to win, not just be an also-ran.

At the campaign headquarters, in a packed room discussing the game plan for collecting the 30,000 citizen endorsements, a seasoned labor activist stood up to plead with Ali that he needs to broaden his rhetoric to reach a wider range of Egyptians, not only the working classes and the poor. “You need a truly national discourse,” the man said, gesturing with his hands for emphasis.

Ali seems reluctant to dilute his trademark message. The emphasis on redistribution is what makes him different from the carefully calibrated, intentionally vague speeches of the typical vote-seeking politician. And he’s gifted at translating the clunky terms of political economy into the lived experience of regular Egyptians.

Speaking from his own experience, he’s especially effective at rendering the material and emotional toll of unemployment.

At a town hall meeting in a middle-class social club in 10th of Ramadan City, in front of a crowd of businessmen and professionals for whom redistribution is a scary word, Ali’s description of work as constitutive of human dignity drew appreciative nods and murmurs from a skeptical audience.

“Egypt is not poor,” he said. “It has resources and brains, but it has policies that keep poverty in place. I know what it’s like to be a laborer, because I was one. I know what it means to work hard all month to finally get your wages that are sorely needed for the family’s expenses. And I know what it means for a family’s breadwinner to lose his job. Millions of Egyptians have these same stories, and even more difficult than mine.”

But his advocacy of a partial return to the public sector got heated pushback. “Have you ever worked in the public sector?” An older man prodded him. Ali said no. “I didn’t think so. The public sector was our worst experience and we don’t want to go backward. There is no role for the public sector.”

A few minutes later, he won over the audience when he passionately delivered one of his best lines, “Mubarak is not a person. It’s a system and a network of interests that refuses to leave and will not leave.”

An older man went up to the microphone and said, “What I like about you is that you’re unaffected, mafeesh takleef. I fear that this presidential race is going to be dominated by the big people with the puny brains. You’re a fida’i among the dinosaurs. Rabbena yawfaqak.”

“Please stop or you’re going to make me cry now,” quipped Ali from the podium, flashing a boyish smile as the hall filled with laughter.

"فلاح! فقير! رئيس من التحرير"
Ali’s message of taking back a stolen country resurrects the ethos of popular empowerment that made the revolution but has been under attack ever since.

Popular participation isn’t being threatened just by the SCAF’s decrees and use of violence, but in the reproduction of conservative ideas about the futility and danger of bottom-up action. Already, the presidential elections are being sold as a matter that will be decided by the big people striking deals behind closed doors, and the little people will go out on voting day in a folkloric pageant simply to certify the elite pact.

Trial balloons about a “consensus candidate” between SCAF and the Ikhwan are met with a
counter-elite argument to forget about choice and competition and anoint Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh as the only viable alternative to the man chosen by the powers that be.

How ironic. Even after Egyptians stunned themselves and the world by overturning a vile and immovable structure of domination, they’re now being goaded to forget all that and “be realistic,” i.e. to please cooperate in rebuilding the foundations of their exclusion.

Thankfully, Khaled Ali’s campaign and the campaigns of other honorable candidates are fighting tooth and nail to defeat the loathsome doctrine of politics as elite pacts. “The people have to protect the elections,” Ali told the huge crowd in Mit Yaeesh. “They want to force someone down our throat, but if all Egyptians go out to vote, they can’t do that.”

The audience roared back with the most popular chant of the evening:

"فلاح! فقير! رئيس من التحرير"