Talisman Gate

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Carnival in Cairo

September 14, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Carnival in Cairo

September 14, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/20016

Any self-respecting carnival must feature a freak show, and the farcical elections in Egypt last week were no different. But the Bush administration had demanded a show of democracy, and President Mubarak gave them a show. And what a show!

Bulaq al-Dakroor is a poverty-stricken neighborhood on the western outskirts of Cairo where redbrick and concrete tenements seemingly lean into each other as they tower over narrow, unpaved alleyways. The balconies are festooned with colorful hanging laundry. Muslims and Christian Copts team the streets where grime glazes over sectarian tensions. On election day Wednesday, the people of Bulaq voted back into office the man who had ruled over them for almost a quarter of a century. Pick-up trucks, which also double as "buses" here - were decked-out with loudspeakers blaring the praises of the national leader. Apparatchiks from the ruling National Party were on hand to huddle the masses into the voting booths. They are getting six more years of Mr. Mubarak, and they seemed euphoric about it. One has to wonder why.

Across town, on the eastern outskirts of Cairo, the inhabitants of the Qarafeh neighborhood around the Imam Shafi'i shrine were biting their tongues. Wednesday was also the birthday of their patron saint, whose shrine is the center of a vast cemetery that bears his name. Except that people here are so poor that they opt to inhabit this necropolis where roofed family burial plots provide free shelters. Hundreds of thousands of them keep the dead company, and their once-a-year bit of fun is the mawlid, or celebration of the local saint's birth, that was postponed for a day by the Egyptians authorities so that local people would focus on the elections.

But on Thursday night, the street leading up to the shrine was turned into a low-budget Luna Park with rickety rides where Mickey Mouse motifs alternated with Islamic crescents in garish colors, and carnies were loudly ushering the gullible masses to their stalls while Sufis were testing the sound stages for their devotional concerts. But these living grave-dwellers were genuinely enjoying themselves in the raucous commotion. Again, given their hard reality, one has to wonder why.

A certain generalization can be made of the Egyptian people, and that is their propensity for humor and spontaneous fun. Living for millennia along the banks of the fickle Nile River made life hard, and whatever can deflect reality for a moment, whether a joke or uninhibited dancing, was welcome. Egyptians also found ways to humor their despots to ward off the latter's excesses, and they humored Westerners, be they invaders, tourists, or meddlesome governments.

So if Mr. Mubarak wanted to put up a show, and the Americans wanted to watch a show, the people of Egypt were willing to oblige and make the most out of these show-case elections. They certainly knew that their lot was not going to change, but the pretense made them feel a little better, just like pretending that a saint that died in the ninth century still enjoys having his birthday celebrated and thus may endow the celebrators with his blessings.

The 19 days of campaigning were quite fun. Sure, there is some progress being made, but it isn't a reflection of democracy and responsible citizenship; rather it is a symptom of political hysterics. I am told that nine months ago, before the small elitist and leftist Kefaya movement took to the streets and got Western press attention, this sort of Mubarak-bashing was inconceivable. But times have changed, and Mr. Mubarak wants not a vibrant democracy, but the illusion of vibrant politics. Hence the silly, conspiracy-oriented freedom to rant that looks good in print and on CNN.

Mr. Mubarak's campaign started off with a visit to a typical rural dwelling in the Nile Delta. He was hosted by a farmer and his wife who were very grateful for this honor. The septuagenarian Mubarak was re-inventing himself as an alpha male, with tie-less pastel shirts in a campaign choreographed by his 43-year-old son Gamal, who is widely perceived as the heir apparent. However, a week later, an enterprising local journalist tracked down this particular farmer and found that he lived about 30 miles away from where he had hosted the president and that the secret police gave his wife a tray of tea glasses to serve. The Mubarak campaign did not issue a denial or an apology.

Ayman Nour, who took about 7% of the vote versus Mr. Mubarak's 88%,was busily promising the nation three hot meals a day and an unemployment benefits program worth $2.5 billion over two years. He claimed he could pay for this out of Egypt's cash-strapped budget by combating corruption. But Mr. Nour could not offer any sober reforms and resorted to promising castles in the smog-congested skies for Egypt's poor.

The other nine candidates were even more colorful: my favorite was Ahmad al-Sabahi, who started out life as a tram ticket collector. During the 1940s, Mr. Sabahi joined the quasi-fascist Green Shirts that sought to find an Islamic copy of Nazi ideology. His Ummah Party was licensed by President Sadat even though 35 out of the 50 founders bore the last name Sabahi. He is noted for the sentence "I am Khomeini and Khomeini is I," which he uttered many years back. Sabahi promised Egyptians a mandatory enforcement of tarboush or fez wearing and state-subsidized interpretation of dreams.

Rifaat al-Ajroudi wanted to build a secret underground city for Arab nuclear scientists, while Usama Shaltout sashayed around in attention grabbing Pakistani garb and demanded that all Muslim alms paid by the oil-rich Gulf States should be channeled to Egypt.

Ibrahim al-Turk's slogan was "One Nile, One People" which rationalized re-annexing the Sudan, a sore point between Egyptian and British authorities (and the Sudanese people as well) for over a century. And finally Fawzi Ghazal promised to re-orient Egyptian agriculture toward pharmaceutical plants (the botanical kind, not the factories) that are, according to him, the "new oil fields."

Campaign sloganeering sounded a lot like the supposed blessings of Imam Shafi'i as explained by the shrine's keepers: eyesight for the blind, child-bearing for the infertile, and finding hidden gold by digging-up graves. This was not an election, but rather a mawlid celebration, where voters joined in the fun fully knowing that it was not going anywhere. After all, the downtrodden need to dream of better times.

The Bush administration hailed the Egyptian elections as a step forward, but voter apathy was telling. One hardly found ink-stained fingers while roaming Cairo on a day that felt like any other day in this chaotic city. Less than a quarter of the electorate voted, even though they were threatened with a constitutionally mandated $20 fine amounting to half of an average monthly wage.

President Bush made a good call on Iran's election several months ago by denouncing it as a non-election, but now seems reluctant to hold his ally Mr. Mubarak to task for this carnival. The Egyptian people, forever humorous and humoring, can see through this charade and yet feel helpless. Maybe a resounding reality check from Washington would have them take a closer look at their dire circumstances in places like Bulaq and Qarafeh, and demand some accountability from their politicians. If Mr. Mubarak gets away with his election as a benchmark for "democratic" progress, then a central tenet of Mr. Bush's vision for democracy in the region revolving around human dignity would be rendered meaningless.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C., and currently visiting Egypt. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

September 14, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >