Monday, May 21, 2012

The Striver

In normal times and places, elections are moments of emotional overdrive. Egypt’s extraordinary elections take that intensity to a new level, evoking a welter of dizzying emotions. There’s lots of doubt, a good dose of fatigue, plenty of heart-pounding anticipation, and an irrepressible sense of hope that things will turn out well. Nowhere is this bundle of feelings more manifest than on the campaign trail of the charismatic neo-Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahy.

During the final stretch of presidential campaigning, Sabahy cranked up an already hectic schedule, visiting dusty hamlets and provincial capitals alike while making sure to appear on every single TV talk show during the past three weeks. In both his stump speeches and media appearances, Sabahy casts himself as the citizen-president who’ll put an end to the aloof, imperial mien of the modern Egyptian president. “One of us” is his campaign's brand, and it resonates with those who want a peer and not a patrician as their national leader.

Sabahy made his name contesting rigged elections under Mubarak, turning his seaside hometown of Balteem into a flashpoint electoral district that witnessed several voter deaths in 1995 and 2005. After the revolution, he immediately set to work on cultivating a national political profile, trying to maintain his Nasserist core while building a broader constituency to launch a credible presidential bid.

In this he faced the same political and organizational dilemmas as his university mate and competitor Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, but the latter has had more success in crafting a broad-based winning coalition. A maverick without the Islamists’ formidable electoral machine or the national name recognition of Mubarak-era insiders, Sabahy’s electoral fortunes depend on whether voters are persuaded that he represents a viable third way.

Presidential Campaigning, Egyptian-Style

On a recent Friday afternoon, Sabahy’s campaign cavalcade eases into Tamay al-Amdeed, a dusty town in Daqahliyya province, Egypt’s third-largest population center. Daqahliyya’s fertile countryside is a stunning procession of emerald fields, holding cabbage patches, vineyards, drenched rice paddies, citrus groves, and bushels of freshly harvested golden wheat.

It’s onion season, and the main roads were dotted with stands selling just-picked onions in red mesh bags. A little girl riding next to her father on a huge tractor tugs at his gallabeyya sleeve and points to the passing campaign cavalcade, laughing in delight.

Rather than focus only on strategically important, densely-populated cities, Sabahy’s campaign makes sure to visit out-of-the-way places like Tamay al-Amdeed, to the delight of the locals. They gather to watch him go in and out of mosques, churches and other places of local repute, and old and young alike run alongside his motorcade, snapping cell phone photos, bantering with him, and shaking his hand heartily.

On the Daqahliyya trip, Sabahy was escorted by the district’s MP Mostafa al-Guindi, Sabahy’s fellow opposition parliamentarian from the Mubarak days and a co-member of the shadow parliament formed after the rigged 2010 general elections. al-Guindi’s endorsement was an added attraction, drawing people out on their balconies and into the streets to watch the ever-smiling Sabahy waving to them as he stood out of the sun-roof of Guindi’s gigantic black Hummer.

Earlier in the week, at an evening rally in Luxor in the public plaza adjacent to the magnificent Luxor Temple, Sabahy was accompanied by other local luminaries who were his warm-up acts before he took the microphone. The charismatic young Saïdi poet Hisham al-Gakh was by far the most rousing speaker, expressing southerners’ signature mix of intense regional pride and intense resentment at their marginalization in national politics. “The rest of the candidates are afraid of us Saïdis,” al-Gakh bellowed, “Except him!”

The crowd cheered wildly as Sabahy took the microphone and shouted out his love for this neglected part of the country. “We love you too ya Rayyyyyyes!” screamed out a middle-aged woman behind me. A man near the stage called out, “Ya Rayyes, when are you going to get Saïdi citizenship?!” Sabahy retorted playfully, “But I’ve had the citizenship min zamaaaaan!”

The crowd went bonkers, clapping and pumping their arms in pure delight. A turbaned older man to my left called out to no one in particular, “A second Abdel Nasser walllllahi!” A young man standing next to me beamed and sucked his teeth appreciatively, “What a respectable man. He just looks presidential, mesh keda?” Hussein is an army conscript so he can’t vote, but he’s assigned to secure a voting station in Cairo’s Nasr City, he told me excitedly. On his day off, he attended Sabahy’s rally to show support for the candidate he would’ve voted for.

The Sabahy Brand

Sabahy is a superior communicator both on outdoor stumps and in television studios. He’s a magnetic public speaker, holding listeners’ attention with his unscripted, conversational style and lucid arrangement of ideas. He never prepares or practices his speeches in advance, so there’s very high variation in what he says, depending on audience, context, and TV interlocutor. This makes for an entertaining listening experience and draws crowds, but it’s not always a good thing.

The lack of preparation hurt him on his television appearance on Hafez al-Mirazi’s show, where he was grilled on his policy positions by several experts. He passed the political questions with flying colors, but his answers on economic policy revealed a lack of interest in crucial details. Sabahy gave the impression that he’s not aware of the tough economic trade-offs that must be made if he becomes the chief decision-maker.

But perhaps more than any other presidential candidate, he’s a natural politician. He rarely looks tired, stiff, or uncomfortable, is very quick on his feet, and appears genuinely sincere in his meet-and-greets, not just glad-handing. He’s the only candidate who seems to enjoy unstructured physical contact with large crowds, often riding into his rallies on the shoulders of a supporter surrounded by a huge human wave.

When his aides and escorts appear frazzled, sweaty, and short-tempered, Sabahy is the picture of cool poise, kissing babies, cracking jokes, and engaging in simple gestures that delight his audiences, like drinking frothy sugar cane juice from local shops and throwing carnations into the crowd.

The link between Sabahy and his supporters tends to be highly personalized. His core devotees who’ve known him for years are like groupies, brooking no dispassionate discussion of their man. The new ranks of supporters he’s drawing from the large pool of undecided voters are attracted by a mix of charismatic and programmatic appeal.

At a huge rally in Mansoura where people waited two hours for him to appear, a Syrian woman from Der’aa married to an Egyptian and living in Egypt for 19 years said she decided on Sabahy because she didn’t like either the Ikhwan or the old regime. “Shafiq is buying votes and just look at how the Ikhwan behaved in parliament, and they’re pressuring people to vote for Mursi. When I listened to Sabahy I believed him, I feel that he’s sincere in what he says.”

Two days later, at Sabahy’s last public rally, in Cairo’s densely-populated Matareyya neighborhood, a 23-year-old law school graduate said she decided to vote for Sabahy two weeks ago after watching his interview on the CBC channel. “My vote in 2016 will go to Khaled Ali, but this time I’m voting for Hamdeen. The reason I’m attracted to him is that he focuses on the completely neglected strata of society. If he succeeds in bettering their condition, then the revolution will have succeeded.”

Her friend, a social work graduate, said that until recently she was an Aboul Fotouh supporter. “I felt that Sabahy had no chance, but after a negative experience volunteering for a day with the Aboul Fotouh campaign and watching Hamdeen on CBC, I sensed his sincerity in defending poor people’s interests.”

Despite his apparent surge in the last two weeks, Sabahy’s brand of personal appeal and pro-poor policies are unlikely to match Aboul Fotouh’s bandwagon. The question is whether his vote share will keep him an underdog or lift him up to third or fourth place.

Politics as Spectacle

In the days of Mubarak, and by his design, politics was a ridiculous, vacuous spectacle, unconnected to most people’s real concerns. The political class was intentionally made to look foolish and venal, to reinforce in people’s minds the notion that politics is futile, dirty, and dangerous.

As many commentators have pointed out, the revolution reversed Egyptians’ forced alienation from politics. It put politics back in its rightful place, in people’s daily lives where it belongs. And not just in the form of freer political speech and expression, but more importantly in the form of political praxis.

On Sabahy’s campaign trail, I saw regular people enthusiastically partaking of this new field of politics. It was a different kind of political spectacle, one where people came of their own volition to engage in a meaningful political performance, not be forced to act out empty political rituals.

Both on weeknights and weekends, entire families came out to listen to Sabahy’s speeches. Enduring the heat, dust, and stifling crowds, they stood patiently waiting for his arrival, politely suffering through boring, untalented introductory speakers and sometimes appalling logistics.

In assembling, they instantly created a public sphere, an Egyptian agora where they exchanged political views with strangers, watched other people, drank tea and ate tirmis, and clowned around to pass the time.

These little guys were heroic, waiting quietly for hours until Sabahy finally took the stage at 11:50 pm in Mansoura. Like me, one of them began to wilt, but the other kept us awake with his valiant cheer leading.

Not everyone who showed up did so to support Sabahy. Some were curious, others hostile, and others just looking for laughs. In the town of Belqas, a group of young men kept parodying the revolutionary slogan Sabahy has appropriated: “‘Aysh! Hurriya! ‘Adala Igtima’iyya!” turning it into “’Aysh! Hurriya! Ta’meyya!”

In Tamay al-Amdeed, as the campaign cars filed out of the town to head for the next stop, a resident called out from a balcony, “And don’t you come back here again!”

In Matareyya, a woman in the audience was livid, railing the whole time. “These politicians are doing all this just for themselves and for fame! They all want the seat! Why doesn’t Hamdeen Sabahy go visit this kidney hospital right here? Let him go see the conditions of the people in there. He’s just good at talking.”

After Sabahy left Matareyya, organizers started swiftly dismantling the stage and putting away chairs. An elderly resident with a cane took the microphone and started speechifying. No one lingered to listen; people scattered to pursue the rest of their evening’s plans. The man gave a moving lecture on the impending danger of a feloul comeback, instructing everyone to make sure to vote.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Egypt's Extraordinary Elections

These are no ordinary presidential elections that we’re about to experience in two weeks, and not just because they’re the first real competition for the top job. They’re extraordinary because they’re being held in the shadow of an American-backed military junta. So instead of delving into exciting, substantive debates about the presidential candidates’ comparative strengths and weaknesses, or bickering over their relative electoral fortunes, we first have to deal with the higher-order problem of presidential elections under military rule.

Like any stubborn oligarchy, SCAF and their foreign patrons won’t simply step aside and allow an elected president to exercise real power. I think their game plan is to preside over a new and improved form of elite rule where the president and parliament are popularly elected with great fanfare, but SCAF retains power over three reserved domains: foreign policy, economic policy, and domestic policing.

It’s a grim prognosis, but it doesn’t warrant defeatism, or the lazy assumption that SCAF pulls all the strings and we’re all hapless bit players in a dirty Machiavellian game. Instead, this is the latest and perhaps most exciting chapter in Egypt’s revolutionary drama, the struggle to replace rule by the few with rule by the many.

The Big Fight between Oligarchy and Democracy

Since February 11, 2011, every corner of Egypt has been locked in a power struggle between bottom-up self rule and the attempt to re-impose oligarchic control. In every government department, university faculty, shop floor, and far-flung governorate, the forces of the ancien regime have been desperately trying to reimpose old hierarchies. In some sites, the revolution has won and in others the counter-revolution reigns supreme.

Control over parliament is testament to this mixed picture. The people delivered a resounding defeat to the noxious feloul, replacing them with more broadly representative, new social forces that were locked out of parliament for decades. But the majority Ikhwan and Salafi deputies poured icy water on revolutionary aspirations, opting for a moderate approach rather than building creative links with extra-parliamentary groups.

Then again, that isn’t so surprising since parliaments aren’t hospitable places for revolutionary politics, especially if they operate under the watchful eyes of greedy juntas (and if the parliamentary leadership shares the oligarchic worldview of the military overlords).

For SCAF and its American enablers, the fifteen months since the uprising have been an object lesson in the dangers of democracy. In every crucial domain, revolutionary action threatens sacred hierarchies. Relations with Egypt’s two regional allies experienced their greatest turbulence in decades when the people stormed the Israeli embassy, eventually forcing it to relocate, and surrounded the Saudi embassy, prompting its ambassador to leave in a huff. In the economic domain, the people have had the temerity to weigh in on matters of high state policy, under the subversive notion that “individuals should be involved in how the country is run,” as the great Wael Khalil put it.

As for the vast policing apparatus that ruled the population for 30 years, the people have simply refused to let it reconstruct itself again. After its initial devastating defeat on January 28, 2011 and citizens’ storming of State Security headquarters in March, the policing apparatus has been out of order. The SCAF now resorts to military police and the arming of plainclothed muscle boys to kill and maim peaceful protestors, and has so far evaded popular demands for civilian control over the police force.

If the SCAF continues to rule directly, it risks a very dangerous escalation of these cascading popular invasions of all its reserved domains. The Abbassiyya demonstration and sit-in outside the Ministry of Defense is simply the tangible physical embodiment of this unstoppable popular encroachment.

The presidential elections are thus a life raft, enabling the SCAF to take all the credit for organizing a free and fair poll. They can then let the elected president be the fall guy, and quietly wall off their key policy domains from further democratic meddling.

This wouldn’t be the first time that oligarchy retains the levers of power under a veneer of democracy. Authoritarians have always found ways to limit the power of elected institutions, not by the crude methods of election rigging alone but the trickier means of removing certain policy areas from their jurisdiction.

Who’s up to the Challenge?

But it’s not a stable formula. Even if the SCAF and their American friends get their best-case scenario and an anti-revolution man fills the office, problems abound. This “wise” president will be left to deal with a messy country and its rambunctious people, while SCAF gets full control over the sacred policy trio: foreign affairs, key economic decisions, and the domestic security sector. But does anyone really believe that the wise man will pacify a populace that now knows its own strength?

If a popularly-chosen renegade captures the most powerful state institution, then a real struggle for power will begin. An outsider president will be a huge headache for the oligarchs, because he won’t accept sitting duck status. He may get it into his head to whip up popular support, purge the bureaucracy, forge an alliance with parliament, and use this as a launching pad for a big fight with SCAF over democratic control of the three policy domains.

The conditions are there for such a confrontation. Not only is the public fed up with SCAF’s repeated killing of peaceful protestors, but there’s growing public awareness that the generals fancy themselves a caste of mandarins standing above the state. They themselves like to remind us of this periodically, while simultaneously using a paternalist-nationalist rhetoric that they’re selfless guardians of the republic. But thanks to the vigilance of citizen watchdogs, we have a very good understanding of how they hoard public resources for their exclusive gain.

A revolutionary president thus won’t have to convince the public that SCAF is a bunch of shady characters. He just has to create the conditions for a viable, sustained confrontation, working against the military myth-making machine that attempts to invoke sanctity around a caste of kleptocrats.

The wise man’s campaign ad says “we’re up to the challenge,” but the only challenge he faces is getting Egyptians to believe his preposterous sales pitch. There are only two candidates up to the real challenge of wresting executive power from the generals and subjecting them to public accountability. I love the fact that they both started their political careers on the same day in the same room (February 2, 1977), by standing up to a dictator.

I should add that neither Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh nor Hamdeen Sabahy are naïve radicals who will go after SCAF from day one. I think they’re very fine politicians and real leaders who will know how and when to pick their battles; what to prioritize; how to seize opportunities; and how to learn from mistakes. We have no precedent for a democratically-elected pro-revolution president, but I think either of them is a very good start, with Aboul Fotouh possessing greater chances of winning than Sabahy.

A Real Choice

Even if the new Egyptian presidency ends up being a hamstrung institution, popularly-elected but unable to do much, it’s remarkable that these elections do offer a choice between real alternatives. The alternatives aren’t religious rule and “modernity,” as the wise man would have it, but reconstructed authoritarian rule versus rule by the people.

The first option is represented by a middling insider trying to sell himself as an exceptional statesman, and the second is embodied in two talented outsiders propelled by the hopes of millions of people for a fairer, more democratic society. Each alternative has a substantial group of adherents on the ground, neither of which can be dismissed.

There is a third option: the Muslim Brothers. They’re neither consummate insiders nor total outsiders, occupying a hazy middle ground all their own from which they’re mulling their next move on how to become the new insiders.

At a slightly more abstract level, the presidential elections are a fight between two rival doctrines: the age-old and still-powerful doctrine of contempt for and fear of the demos, and the insurgent idea that Egyptians have the right and the capacity to rule themselves, without elite trusteeship, military guardianship, or foreign domination.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Aboul Fotouh Bandwagon

To kick off the official start of presidential competition, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh’s campaign did a smart thing and showcased the most energetic part of his base: university students. Bedecked in the cheerful orange color of the campaign, they packed into dozens of buses from across Egypt and poured into Alexandria’s famed al-Qaid Ibrahim Square where they put on a marvelous show, pulsating with hope and jubilation at the imminent prospect of real presidential elections.

It’s impossible to be around a gaggle of college students and not catch their enthusiasm, especially if they’re wisecracking the whole time while working like bees. After a march on the Corniche, they stationed themselves in a nice grassy public space next to the Ibrahim mosque and set up shop. An instant fairground emerged, with booths selling campaign commodities and booths to sign up more volunteers; a poet’s corner; a wall display charting milestones in Aboul Fotouh’s public life; art stations; two roving guys with a drum; and a huge orange mural constructed and painted by Alexandria University students.

The poets’ stage hosted a string of eloquent spoken word performances and one hilarious stand-up routine where a young man parodied some highly imitable public figures, including Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the vulgarian Tawfiq Okasha.

God’s cutest creatures were also out in full force, showing their support for Aboul Fotouh.

An energetic, friendly woman was supervising the students constructing the mural. Dr. Yasmeen Zaki is a professor in the Engineering faculty at Alexandria University and was responsible for securing a permit from the Alexandria authorities and dealing with their bureaucratic obstructionism. “We’ve been working like ants for the past six days, almost round the clock,” she said cheerfully, as students carrying buckets of orange paint darted back and forth.

Zaki defines herself as a liberal, and began working with the campaign a couple of months ago during the collection of citizen signatures. She said that what most attracts her about Aboul Fotouh is his personal honesty and ability to gather together different currents, which she said secular candidates she respected like Hamdeen Sabahy and Abul al-Ezz al-Hariri have not been able to do.

The theme of beyond-partisanship was amplified by a group of recent college graduates from the town of Etay al-Baroud in Beheira province. Unprompted, they took turns introducing themselves as “I’m ex-Baradei, I’m ex-Ikhwan, I’m ex-April 6th.”

Hailing from one of the Delta’s hardcore Ikhwan pockets that they said never allowed an NDP member into parliament in the past 30 years, they delighted in describing how residents reacted to their door-knocking for Aboul Fotouh. “I had dirty water thrown on me,” said one with a huge grin. “I had dust and dirt flung at me,” piped in another. Not to be outdone, a third quipped that he was lucky because he got only clean sudsy water thrown on him.

Muhammad Abdel Rahman Hamada, a recent law school graduate from Etay al-Baroud, explained why he’s a fierce Aboul Fotouh loyalist. “Non-partisanship is good for this juncture, because partisanship is exclusionary. My problem with the secular candidates like Hamdeen who’s a Nasserist and Khaled Ali who’s a socialist is that they exclude Islamists.”

Overhearing the Etay volunteers recount the hostility they faced from Ikhwan supporters in their district, an Ikhwan supporter interjected to explain why a strong party and organization were crucial in the presidential elections. A heated argument erupted over who Ikhwan youth would vote for. “The Ikhwan youth say they’ll support Mursi but they’re really supporting Aboul Fotouh,” asserted Hamada. “The problem with the Ikhwan is that their rank-and-file have no say whatsoever,” yelled a middle-aged man who was listening in.

By this point, the sun had descended into the Mediterranean and students had packed up the fair and filled the square outside Ibrahim mosque for the evening’s main event. Tens of thousands of students and Alexandria residents filled the streets radiating from the square, where a large stage had been set up and two giant screens were stationed farther back for crowds far from the stage.

Under huge strobe lights, in strode poet Abdel Rahman Youssef, starting things off with high-energy oratory that was met with wild cheers from the audience and drumbeats and chants from the Aboul Fotouh Ultras.

Like a series of warm-up acts before the entrance of the rock star, a string of luminaries then took the stage to deliver punchy, rousing endorsements that revved up the audience. AUC professor and Aboul Fotouh adviser Rabab El-Mahdi said that Aboul Fotouh represented the promise of true inclusion after decades of Mubarak’s destructive divide-and-rule policies, leading the crowd with rousing chants of “Yasqut yasqut hukm al-‘askar!”

A representative of the association of the deaf and mute announced their backing. A representative of the Revolution Youth Coalition, the most credible post-revolution youth alliance, announced his endorsement. A famous athlete, a young parliamentarian, an old friend of Aboul Fotouh: all tramped on and off stage, stoking the sense of anticipation.

The crowd went wild when it was the turn of Salafi Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar, greeting him with throaty chants of “One hand! One hand!” Khaled Said was there in spirit, as the Ultras invoked his memory and led the crowd in a haunting chant with heart-pounding drumbeats: “Fil Ganna! Ya Khaled! Fil Ganna! Ya Khaled!” And when Wael Ghonim came onto the stage to announce his endorsement, commotion ensued, with young people standing on chairs and screaming wildly.

“And now, the student who stood up and said no to Sadat….” but before the female MC could finish her sentence, the crowd erupted, the Ultras set off massive fireworks, a campaign theme song started blasting, and Aboul Fotouh strode onto the stage in a cream-colored suit sans tie. Before starting his speech, he had to wait a good three minutes as this corner of Alexandria thundered its support for his bid to become one of the world’s most powerful political leaders.

From his origins as a charismatic leader of a faction within the Ikhwan, in less than a year Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has experienced a stunning political transformation, metamorphosing into a national leader to be reckoned with. Unlike other dissidents who shined under Mubarak’s debilitating dictatorship only to be eclipsed in the exciting rough and tumble of Egypt’s new politics, Aboul Fotouh has augmented and diversified his political capital, comfortably easing into the role of presidential contender.

His trajectory is but one vignette into what this revolution has done, smashing the brick ceiling on Egyptian politics and giving free rein to a host of political talents and possibilities.

Looking around me at the Alexandria rally, it wasn’t the hyperactive students who stunned me, but the middle-aged mothers and fathers (and a few grandparents) who came out to stand three hours in the open air on a weeknight to listen to a politician. Aboul Fotouh has tapped into the Egyptian middle class’s thirst for public engagement, the same middle class that Mubarak shoved away from politics and steered into parochial neo-conservative privatized pursuits and corrosive conspicuous consumption.

To this educated middle class, Aboul Fotouh’s scrambling of the old categories of Egyptian politics is profoundly attractive. Here are mainstream Islamists piled onto Salafis piled onto Wasat Islamists piled onto liberals and leftists and feminists and unaffiliated people and people who still harbor a deep disdain for and mistrust of politics (one of Mr. Mubarak’s many parting gifts). For this diverse voter bloc, ideological purity or even ideological co-existence is less important than finding a trustworthy problem-solver president who isn’t going to fleece us all over again.

Aboul Fotouh’s programmatic appeal lies in an effective mix of a bold foreign policy (“strong Egypt” is his chief slogan), a centrist economic program, and an inclusive, ecumenical stance on identity issues that plays up Egyptians’ shared benign conservatism, whether they’re Muslims or Copts, and rubbishes the inward-looking aggressive conservatism that’s flourished within both communities over the past 15 years.

Personally, Aboul Fotouh is an unassailable character. He has plenty of integrity, lacks artifice in his political speech, possesses a pleasant old-fashioned reserve, and has a strong sense of dignity that doesn’t come off as imperious or in any way entitled (that’s Amr Moussa’s territory). He’s one of those rare Islamists who are not embarrassingly provincial like Muhammad Morsi, or remote, calculating organization men like Khairat al-Shater, or fence-sitters like Muhammad al-Beltagui, or any of the yet-untested Salafi upstarts.

It’s an open question whether Aboul Fotouh’s personal and programmatic qualities can bring his brand to the lower classes, who are equally intent on political participation but lack the time and leisure of middle class citizens. Here lies the significance of the Salafis’ bombshell endorsement of Aboul Fotouh, for it is they who’ll carry his message to the lower and working classes. However, given the internal diversity of the Salafi world, it remains to be seen whether Fatehoon Salafis can convince their communities to switch allegiance from Hazem Abu Ismail and Muhammad Morsi to Aboul Fotouh.

If he does make inroads into the pious, suffering lower classes and peels off some supporters from the nervous upper classes, the divided Copts, and the fractious secular left, Aboul Fotouh’s bandwagon will be hard to beat.