On the way to Baharmos on Wednesday, lost in Giza’s rural fringe, I saw a group of three men attacking a single man, one of them armed with a plank of wood. They were crossing the road as they did this, all the while pounding their victim insistently. Nearby, a group of men sat on chair outside shops observed with their arms crossed.
It was an inauspicious start to the day. In a polling station in Baharmos – home town of Hazem Abo Ismail, the Salafi sheikh who had his presidential dreams crushed because his mother had American nationality – we found a group of Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh campaigners in matching fluorescent orange safety vests gathered around a laptop.
We asked them how things were going, and they immediately launched into an impassioned complaint about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they said were influencing female voters by telling them that a vote for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi would take them to heaven.
A man on a motorbike who overheard the latter part of the conversation interjected, calling them liars, and the inevitable back and forth ensued until we buggered off inside the polling station.
A woman who had just finished voting told me she chose Morsi, “because he is a man of the book and will serve us”.
At the men’s section of this polling station I asked a queue of voters who would get their tick, and it was non-stop Morsi and Aboul-Fotouh, Aboul-Fotouh and Morsi with the occasional Ahmed Shafiq thrown in for variety. This was repeated at almost every polling station I went to in these rural parts other than one in Manashey, El-Qanater.
Voters in this polling station were extraordinary, and not only because I stumbled across the lyricist for Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, the multiple-watch wearing singer famous internationally for “I hate Israel” (the lyricist, a cheerful man in a red baseball hat voted for Shafiq because Shaaban is voting Moussa. “That way we have all bases covered,” he chuckled).
Almost every candidate got a vote in that polling station. A group of four friends were voting for Aboul-Fotouh, Sabahy, Shafiq and Khaled Ali. Elsewhere in the queue there were Moussa and Morsi fans. I found no explanation for the variety of political views in this ordinary countryside town.
Leaving behind the fields we went to Imbaba, the urban conurbation on the edge of Cairo that has spilt into Giza’s countryside.
There we found a group of women in a queue who half-smilingly refused to disclose who they were voting for with a sort of flirtatious resentment. “These are our secrets,” one of them said as she bustled away a child.
I found a lone Mohamed Selim El-Awa supporter in that queue, who said that he was supporting him because he is a good person. There was also a Shafiq man, voting for him because he “has promised to restore security and can do it”.
Security and God were recurring themes in the queues – and they found their expression in the final result. In Sudan Street on the edge of Imbaba a man told me he voted Moussa because “Egypt is a nest around which 5 or 6 eagles are circling” and it needs an “experienced, strong, leader”.
It was halfway through the day that I realised that most of Egypt – or at least my acquaintances and political commentators who had pontificated on his chances – had been fooled by Ahmed Shafiq. He had been dismissed as a buffoon, and the reception he had been given during public appearances (shoes launched at his head, mobbed and forced to seek refuge in a mosque in Qena) had been interpreted as representing voters as a whole.
On the evening of the second day I attended a count in a polling station in Dokki, the same polling station I voted in. This polling station, a classroom in the El-Medina School, was presided over by a well-groomed, tall judge with an Errol Flynn moustache and a handgun strapped to his waist. He kept a tight ship, barking out instructions at his staff in a sonorous voice while keeping things light with the occasional joke.
He insisted that the count be carried out in complete silence from start to finish, and it was. Anyone who knows Egypt will realise what an achievement this is. The count was attended by campaign representatives (Morsi, Sabahy, Aboul-Fotouh and Moussa) and NGO monitors from a local group and the Arab League. A couple of army soldiers and police observed at the classroom door.
The judge chose an unorthodox method for the count, if the counting I saw subsequently on TV is anything to go by. The votes were firstly unfolded and laid flat on top of each other in piles. Then they were arranged into bundles of around 100 and tied together with some black string. This took about half an hour (there were nearly 3,000 votes). Then he sat down at the teacher’s table and grasped the first bundle of votes in his hands. He announced that everyone should shut up because he wouldn’t repeat himself. He cut the first string. Ready? Go.
He read out candidate numbers. Everyone had drawn up a chart with the candidates’ names and we put marks next to their names every time a number was called. Sabahy was 10. Shafiq 9. Moussa 4. Aboul-Fotouh 5. Khaled Ali 12. Morsi 13.
The judge went at breakneck speed, and the silence with which it was conducted leant it the solemnity of a religious ritual. We paused after every bundle, a couple of times for a cigarette break and once for the Aboul-Fotouh representative, who fussily requested that she be allowed to move closer to the civil servant noting down the official count.
A rhythm was soon established, variations on 4, 9, 5, 10. There was the occasional Khaled Ali, El-Awa and two Abol-Ezz El-Hariris. It soon became clear that Moussa, Sabahy and Shafiq were leading. I saw that on one vote a voter had written “yes” instead of a tick next to Shafiq’s name, referendum style.
Attending the vote was one of the most wonderful moments of the election, better even than voting.
To witness it was deceptively empowering, and I left with the feeling that this was democracy made tangible through the corporality of these votes carefully indexed by the strict judge. In the Mubarak days counting took place in central polling stations, giving much scope for funny business and fights as the ballot boxes made their precarious journey to them. I left the polling station abuzz – even though my guy Hamdeen did come second to Moussa.
Everything came crashing down the next day when the disaster of the Shafiq numbers became clear. The bumbling, uncouth, irate idiot had come second to Morsi. Sabahy was third. I spent Friday alternating between soaring hope and searing desperation as results trickled in and for the first time in 16 months experienced that special brand of fear that the National Democratic Party inspires, the sense of some imminent evil.
Events in Egypt appear absurd, often tragically absurd. How is it that a mediocre septuagenarian, a former prime minister appointed by Mubarak and removed by Tahrir Square protests, who was publicly roasted during a television appearance in 2011, is now in the runoffs?
In between the hand wringing and cheek slapping a host of theories have been put forward the most popular of which is that it was a vote against political Islam. But why didn’t they vote for Moussa, whose ran on the same stability, security and secularism ticket? Another is that Shafiq is the army’s candidate, with all the advantages attendant on this. There have been allegations of fraud, but none that I have come across have been substantiated.
The idea that people voted for Shafiq of their own volition is distinctively unsettling, both cognitively and emotionally – but only if you believe in January 25 2011 and are willing (or able to) to ride out the ups and downs that have come in its wake because you have a conviction that something better is on the horizon. For everyone else, Shafiq has marketed himself as a safe harbour in a storm, the man who will restore law and order within 24 hours of being elected.
I felt this most acutely on the second day of the elections in Fayoum. In one petrol station the queue for fuel (there has been a fuel shortage for some months now) was longer than any of the polling stations queues of voters I saw.
In a hotel on Fayoum’s beautiful, still lake, in the broiling early afternoon heat, we stopped for sustenance and sat by the lake to have a cup of tea. A man in a rowboat appeared, the sad-looking little vessel fitted out with a canopy of old sheets to keep out the sun.
He invited us to go on a ride around the lake, we could take our tea with us. It was a tempting offer, to briefly escape it all on that serene water. The hotel waiter came out and said that we weren’t allowed to take our tea on the rowboat, resolutely ignoring the rowboat man’s protests that he would return everything intact.
There being zero other customers, the rowboat man, Farag, stuck around and shot the shit with us. He was a gentle man somewhere in his 30s who said he wasn’t sure he would go and vote, but if he did he would vote for Shafiq. He rejected the idea of voting for an Islamist candidate because he had heard that they would “attack tourism”, and tourism is already on its knees, he said – nobody comes to the lake anymore.
Crime had increased in the area since the revolution. He mentioned no positive change in his life since February 2011.
In the old days he voted for “the camel” (the NDP symbol). We suggested that he should vote, giving him the spiel about making a difference and his voice being heard and all that bullshit. We advocated voting for anyone except Moussa or Shafiq because they were connected to the old regime.
Farag sat there, being rocked up and down gently on his decrepit boat, politely listening to us. Without meaning to present him as representing anyone other than himself, the election results show that Farag’s priorities are shared by at least 5 million other voters. He wants food on the table, security and enough money to pay both rent to the boat’s owner and the fee demanded by fire services officials for their services.
He didn’t during our 15-minute conversation mention freedom or living in dignity or democracy or human rights or military rule. His only mention of the old regime was to say that some of its members used to build illegally on the shores of the lake before the revolution.
Now all these things might matter to Farag but they don’t seem to be his priority. Shafiq, who has continually bored us with his security rhetoric, addresses his priorities in a way that other candidates fail to do.
It’s not that Aboul-Fotouh and company told voters that they must put up with their homes being looted and their womenfolk raped in the streets while we turn Egypt into Switzerland, rather that the emphasis was different.
Another, crucial, factor is Shafiq’s connection to the old regime. There is a critical mass of Egyptian voters who regard this as an asset, rather than a fault. For them, Shafiq is the strongman who understands Egypt and Egyptians and knows how to keep them in check – unlike the refined diplomat Amr Moussa and the Tahrir Square and Muslim Brotherhood upstarts.
A couple of people on my Facebook have talked about Shafiq’s “experience” as qualifying him for the job. Shafiq was Minister of Civil Aviation for 10 years and is constantly crowing about the Cairo Airport terminal built on his watch. Read this for more about that marvel. As Kamal El-Ganzoury and Essam Sharaf have demonstrated, previous government experience is no indicator of capability. By “experience” these people might mean that Shafiq is a wide boy who knows how the system works in Egypt and will get his hands dirty to keep it ticking over.
Keeping the system intact is obviously what the network of individuals who benefited from the Mubarak regime want. More importantly Shafiq has tapped into the fears of the millions of people who didn’t necessarily benefit under the Mubarak regime but whose situation hasn’t improved after the revolution, either.
To dismiss Shafiq supporters outright as felool (regime remnants, a disparaging term used to describe anyone connected with the old regime) is a fundamental mistake. It alienates them. I don’t think Farag is felool.
The real problem is that The Former Regime is spoken of like it is an inanimate object, some lurking monster growling in the corner when in fact – and this isn’t breaking news – the regime is the people themselves.