EGYPTIAN POLITICS: WHATEVERYBODYIS TALKING ABOUT!

By: Mona Abdel Fadil, Fafo.

In Cairo, ‘everybody’ is talking about politics incessantly. Heated political discussions intermingled with facts, jokes, gossip, and rumours can be overheard at nearly every street corner, café, or talk show. The last weeks’ events have certainly given everyone a great deal to talk about. Speculations about the Muslim Brotherhood’s political agenda, the legal eligibility of several Islamist presidential candidates, the Salafist MP’s infamous nose-job, and discussions of the presidential candidacies of Sha’bi singer Al-Soghayar and former Chief of Intelligence Omar Suleiman have all been hot topics in Egyptian media and everyday talk.

While Islamists sweepingly won the majority of parliamentary seats, in the Post-Mubarak election, it seems that support for the Muslim Brotherhood may be waning. Many of those who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood say they did so ‘to spite Al-Kutla’, an alliance of liberals and leftist seculars, and the rather unpopular al-Sawiris (billionaire and leader of Free Egyptians Party) in particular. I suspect that this comes in addition to a sentiment that religious rather than secular MP’s would benefit Egypt and Egyptians. That said, the tides seem to be turning for the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in part. Many people are now saying that they regret giving the Brotherhood their vote, and that they no longer trust them. To be more specific, the argument is: ‘The Brotherhood say they will do something, and don’t do it, they say they will not do something and then they go ahead and do it!’

Another biting critique against the Brotherhood often uttered is that they have shown that they put their own interest above the interest of the nation, and that it is not the first time in history. For instance, a cartoon strip, portrays the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Khairat Al-Shater as a school boy at a desk, with the teacher asking him ‘So ya Shater, what is 9 x 6?!’ ‘Ya Shater’, is a wordplay on Al-Shater’s name which means ‘clever’, so the sentence actually reads ‘so clever one, what is 9 x 6?’. ‘9 x 6’ is a reference to the short-lived alliance that the Brotherhood forged with Nasser in 1954. Hence, the ‘lesson’ in the cartoon is not only mathematics, but also a history lesson. The cartoon can therefore be seen as a comment to the Muslim Brotherhood’s current political commitment and agenda.

However, it should be noted that The Brotherhood have recently made efforts to rekindle their support amongst the people, and dispel allegations that they have struck a deal with SCAF, by launching harsh critique of SCAF, and arranging a mass demonstration in Tahrir on Friday 13th of April in coalition with salafis. Thousands of Islamist-supporters filled the square and chanted ‘down with military rule’.  The demonstration is likely to contribute to an image of the Brotherhood still being committed to the revolution. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, Al-Shater is facing difficulties with regards to the legality of his candidacy due to his previous imprisonment under the Mubarak regime, which dictates that he looses his political rights for six years. His case is to be determined by a court April 24th.

One of the events that simply begged for attention in both media and everyday conversation is the case of Salafi MP Al-Balkimy’s notorious nose-job. Al-Balkimy recently had plastic surgery to alter his nose. This in itself is something notable bearing in mind that he is an adherent of a conservative reading of Islam, which entails considering alteration of God’s creation as forbidden (haram). It is therefore understandable that he tried to keep his plastic surgery a secret. However, Al-Balkimy fabricated an elaborate cover up story of being attacked in his home, which he fed to the media. This web of lies eventually led to the arrest of possible culprits. In response, to this dramatic turn of events, the plastic surgeon who performed the nose surgery leaked to the media that Al-Balkimy’s story of attack was false, and at the time of the alleged attack Al-Balkimy had in fact been under the knife. Many Egyptians delight in this story not only for its sensationalism, but also because it goes to the heart of the question of religiosity. Indeed, this person is supposed to be pious, yet his actions suggest that he does not live up to the basics of religious conduct: being honest. Some people think he should not have covered up something haram i.e. the nose-job with something else haram i.e. lying. Others emphasize that Al-Balkimy could have simply used a less elaborate lie, like ‘I fell!’ rather than an entire fictional film plot, that caused the arrest of innocent people. Following the unravelling of this scandal, Al-Balkimy has publically apologized and resigned from his post, but not before the public got to relish in this incredible story.

Controversies surrounding a number of the presidential candidates, has also caused great public debate. For instance, the Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail has been accused of keeping his mother’s American citizenship secret so as not to be disqualified from the presidential race. Abu Ismail and his ardent supporters requested that the Electoral Commission put forward evidence that Abu Ismail’s mother is in fact an American citizen. The actual facts were hard to establish but this did not stop the talk. For a number of days, many Egyptians have been discussing how Abu Ismail first said that he had no relatives in the US, then said that he had several, then said his mother only had a green card and not a US-passport, and then finally admitted that his mother did have a passport but claimed that a US-passport is not the same as US citizenship. There was also talk of how Abu Ismail’s mother had used her US passport several times in Saudi Arabia when performing ‘Umra. This is a good example of how rumours spread like wildfire. Indeed, rumours were multiplying so fast, that there was also talk of a number of the other presidential candidates being disqualified on grounds of their parents holding dual citizenship. But, on Wednesday, an Egyptian court ruled that Abu Ismail is still in the presidential race, following the Interior Ministry’s failure to provide evidence of his mother’s US citizenship. Still, it is possible that evidence of Abu Ismail’s mother’s American citizenship will be surface around the next corner, thereby disqualifying him from the race.

A little over week ago, the popular (sha’bi) singer Saa’d al-Soghayar announced that he was running for president. Al-Soghayar even released a sha’bi song as part of his media campaign, singing ‘I want to be president!’ (http://youtu.be/qqTUTUWAjvY). In media interviews Al-Soghayar was asked whether he was serious about running for president, and why he was doing it. He responded that he had made it as a popular singer without being particularly talented, so why not try his luck as a president? He subsequently rounded up 55 000 signatures in support of his candidacy, nearly double of the amount required and, before revealing that he had no intention of running for president, as he was utterly unsuitable for the post: ‘If I got the job as the president, there would be little hope for Egypt’, he said. In other words, the signatures, the song, the interviews, were all part of an elaborate media stunt and joke, in order to prove a point: the current criteria for running for Egyptian presidency are far too general.  My impression is that Al-Soghayar’s media stunt was highly successful and a well received eye-opener.

Another presidential candidate that has got everyone talking is former Chief of Intelligence Omar Suleiman. After first stating that he would not run, Suliman perhaps counting on the element of surprise, submitted his candidacy just 30 minutes before the deadline. Upon the news of his candidacy mock slogans circulated from mouth to mouth and online, such as the slogan ‘You are all Khaled Said!’, a sardonic reference that Egyptians may expect random violence if he becomes president. Those who dislike or distrust Omar Suleiman fear that if he is elected, nothing will have been won: the demonstrations and the ousting of Mubarak, will have gone a full circle, bringing Egypt back to before the uprisings January 2011. Suliman’s candidacy also fostered the joke that Mubarak himself would be running for president. The concern that previous top politicians of the Mubarak regime may suddenly be elected to power, is a very real one. While detested in some circles, Omar Suliman could in fact harbour votes from voters who will do anything but vote for Islamists, and of course remnants and beneficiaries of the old regime. On Thursday the parliament passed a law forbidding Mubarak-era officials from running for president, a law that would make both Omar Suliman and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq’s candidacies void. Still, this might well be too little too late since the law was paste after the deadline for the nomination of presidential candidates ran out.  And more importantly, the law is subject to approval from SCAF. Sceptics doubt that the law will be approved, as Omar Suliman is considered by many to be SCAF’s favoured presidential candidate, although SCAF is attempting to dispel such a view as baseless.

So, what is going to happen next on Egypt’s political scene? The most common answer seems to be: ‘No one knows…’

It was on this note that I planned to end my blog entry, early Saturday afternoon, April 14th. Yet, only a few hours after I had written the last sentences, word of presidential candidate Omar Suliman having falsified over 20 000 signatures began to circulate Egyptian media and everyday conversations, thereby instigating animated discussions of his disqualification from the presidential race. And, by early evening, many Egyptians received the news that shook the nation: the Presidential Electoral Commission announced its decision to exclude 10 presidential candidates from the presidential race. Among those disqualified are: Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat Al-Shater (MB), salafist Hazem Abu Ismail, Ayman Nour (Ghad party), and former chief of intelligence Omar Suliman. The Electoral Commission’s announcement has sparked a fervent debate and indeed anger in some circles. Both Ayman Nour and Al-Shater are barred on the grounds of their previous prison sentences, even if they were political prisoners. This does not go down well with their supporters. Abu Ismail’s exclusion is related his mother’s alleged dual citizenship. As for Omar Suliman, he apparently did not meet the formal requirements with regards to gathering signatures from a variety of Egyptian governates.  Many are speculating that the exclusion of the ten candidates will benefit former Muslim Brotherhood member Abu Al Fotouh and former secretary general of the Arab League Amr Moussa, in their attempt to become Egypt’s next president. However, the new political map, is certainly not carved in gold.

In fact the verdict is not final at all. First of all, the candidates may appeal the verdict within 48 hours, and both Omar Suliman and Abu Ismail have already announced that they plan to challenge the decision of the Electoral Commission. Second, there may also be a question of the legality of the verdict, as several candidates such as Ayman Nour, Al-Shater and Abu Ismail were set to receive court verdicts in their individual cases of eligibility at later dates.

These latest developments certainly seem to underscore the common sentiment in Egypt about the political scene: no one knows what will happen next …

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