Egypt’s election: an argument without resolution

When the clock ticked 9 a.m. on Sunday in the poor neighborhood of Boulak in the Greater Cairo governorate of Giza, Ahmed Hassan was having difficulty finding transportation to the polling station miles away.

A minivan had hardly slowed down near to him, but Hassan – noticeably tall, with hardened facial features that belied his determination to vote, as well as the bitter days behind – jumped inside and implored the other passengers crammed into the creaky vehicle to offer him space to stand. 

As Hassan boarded, Egypt’s first post-Hosni Mubarak presidential runoff election—taking place that day—was the topic of an argument brewing inside the vehicle. 

“Can you tell me what benefit the revolution has brought us?” one passenger asked another, while the others among them opened their eyes and pricked their ears, nodding in agreement. The scorching heat already was scarring the day and was particularly bad for those sitting close to the van’s broken-glass windows.

“It has brought us nothing but joblessness, high prices, and insecurity,” one man said. “The other day my son was robbed in broad daylight, and there was nobody to save him or arrest the thieves.”

The vehicle screeched suddenly to a halt, and the driver jumped out to engage in a fistfight with the driver of another car. A crowd formed to try to keep the battle from getting any worse, but inside the minivan, the verbal battle on the presidential runoff persisted, now with Hassan at its center.

“The revolution has brought us freedom, and this is enough,” he said. “I committed no crime, yet I spent 18 years in prison. My son was only 5 when I was arrested, and when I got out, he was a father,” Hassan told the others.

The presidential election runoff on June 16 and 17 was in the process of proving divisive in a country still reeling from decades from repression and political marginalization under Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in February 2011 as a result of a popular uprising orchestrated by educated, middle-class activists, and embraced and supported by millions of poor Egyptians.

The weekend’s runoff pitted a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist organization that got its start in 1928 as a charity movement but later turned to politics to apply Islamic laws – against a man who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister and, before that, his aviation minister for eight years.

For some of the 50 million eligible to vote in the runoff, this was a battle between the future and the past, the revolution and the counter-revolution. The Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi, an engineering professor who had done a stint teaching in the U.S., introduced himself as the candidate of the revolution, the future president who will bring justice to millions of Egyptians beggared by Mubarak’s policies for 30 years.

His rival, Ahmed Shafiq, an air force general like Mubarak himself, introduced himself as the representative of a secular state, where adherents of all religions will live in peace, and the man who will bring Egypt’s internal security and stability back. His opponents, however, fear he would revive Mubarak’s regime, thereby ending any of the gains of the revolution.

Nevertheless,  Shafiq’s campaign had some appeal for millions of ordinary Egyptians exhausted by skyrocketing food prices, scarce fuel for both car and home, security chaos and above all the ongoing demonstrations on Tahrir Square, which served as the primary gathering place to express anger against Mubarak last year, and continues to serve for the outpouring of anger against the ruling military junta now, along with other squares across this country.

The naysayers, however, pointed to the danger of a comeback by the former regime, whose head, the octogenarian former president, is now serving a life sentence in jail. More than 850 people were killed and thousands were injured when they took to the streets late in January and early in February 2011 to demand Mubarak’s ouster.

“I will vote for the Brotherhood’s candidate, not because I like the Brotherhood’s ideology, but because I want to see a real end for Mubarak’s regime,” said ex-deputy prime minister Aly el-Salmi. “I will vote for Mursi, because I do not want Egypt to fall in the military’s hands yet again,” he added.

Regardless of who would win – and by Tuesday Mursi was claiming victory, though the results were not expected to be made official until Thursday—the next president will have to quickly deviate from this revolution-versus-former-regime rhetoric and get down to serious business, economists warn, or there will be another revolution soon—this time led by the poor and the hungry. By Tuesday, on Tahrir Square, tens of thousands of people were protesting a declaration by the military government late on Sunday that would give the new president almost no power and focused everything in the hands of the generals. At the same time, thousands of people were celebrating Mursi’s victory, chanting, dancing, congratulating one another and setting off fireworks. Inevitably the celebrations will end, and the people’s reality will hit hard: The government announced a few months ago that almost 25 percent of Egypt’s 86 million people live in poverty, including 4.8 percent in extreme poverty.

The new president must find some $22.5 billion needed to bridge a budget deficit for the fiscal year 2012-2013. Unemployment is running at around 12.4 percent – around 3.4 million people out of a total workforce of 27 million remain unemployed, according to the Manpower Ministry.

Egypt spends as much as six percent ($16 billion) of its total GDP to subsidize energy and electricity every year – 20 percent of total government spending. Another $9.6 billion is spent on other government subsidies, according to the Carnegie Endowment.

The World Bank, however, says most of these non-targeted subsidies do not benefit the poor.

And in the absence of a strong government and law enforcement – both of which have lapsed in post-revolution Egypt—these poor suffer more than ever.

Back in the minivan, Amany el-Gamal 50, a civil servant and mother of four, told the group:  “I really want to see an end to this turbulence. True, Mubarak was a thief, but at least he gave us security and food to eat,” she added.

For his part, Hassan continued to defend the revolution and its candidate to the other passengers in the minivan, which had started to move once again, now that the driver had finished his street fight.

“Do you want to go back to Mubarak’s repression?” Hassan, a plumber by profession, asked the others, expecting them to tell him no. “We’ll be the laughing stock of the whole world if we bring Mubarak back to power by voting for his prime minister.”

“Don’t say laughing-stock,” riposted one passenger after darting a look at Hassan, who had started to sweat by then. “Nobody can laugh at us,” he said.

“You want us to vote for the radical Brotherhood,” another woman pitched in. “Don’t they say they will force working women to stay at home? They’ll impose the veil on all women. They are as repressive as Mubarak.”

“Yes,” the other passengers agreed.

“Yeah, right,” Hassan said, disembarking when the driver told him they had reached the polling station.

Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) is a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Egyptian correspondent.