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.