Watching Elephants Fly
SOMEDAY I’d love to create a journalism course based on covering the uprising in Egypt, now approaching its first anniversary. Lesson No. 1 would be the following: Whenever you see elephants flying, shut up and take notes. The Egyptian uprising is the equivalent of elephants flying. No one predicted it, and no one had seen this before. If you didn’t see it coming, what makes you think you know where it’s going? That’s why the smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes.
If you do, the first thing you’ll write is that the Islamist parties — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al Nour Party — just crushed the secular liberals, who actually sparked the rebellion here, in the free Egyptian parliamentary elections, winning some 65 percent of the seats. To not be worried about the theocratic, antipluralistic, anti-women’s-rights, xenophobic strands in these Islamist parties is to be recklessly naïve. But to assume that the Islamists will not be impacted, or moderated, by the responsibilities of power, by the contending new power centers here and by the priority of the public for jobs and clean government is to miss the dynamism of Egyptian politics today.
Come with me to Cairo’s dirt-poor Shubra el-Khema neighborhood and the dilapidated Omar Abdel Aziz School, where I watched the last round of voting on Wednesday at a women-only voting center. We were guided by Amr Hassan, a 22-year-old commerce student from the ‘hood — a secular youth, who fought to topple the Hosni Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square last year.
Here is what was so striking: virtually all the women we interviewed after the voting — all of whom were veiled, some with only slits for their eyes — said that they had voted for either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists. But almost none said they had voted that way for religious reasons.
Many said they voted for Islamists because they were neighbors, people they knew, while secular liberal candidates had never once visited. Some illiterate elderly women confided that they could not read the ballot and just voted where their kids told them to. But practically all of them said they had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist candidates because they expected them to deliver better, more honest government — not more mosques or liquor bans.
Here are some quotes from Egyptian women on why they voted Islamist: “I love the Muslim Brotherhood; they are the only honest ones. … I want good education and clean air to breathe. … We need proper medical care. … I want my kids to be properly educated. They can’t find any jobs. … The Muslim Brotherhood is not just an Islamist party. It is going to help solve all the problems of the country. … We have to get the youth working and to raise salaries. Education here is only getting worse. … My biggest fear is lack of security. We sit in our homes — afraid. You are afraid your son won’t be able to go back and forth to school without being kidnapped.”
Meanwhile, when I asked our young guide Hassan, the revolutionary, whom he had voted for, he said that he wrote on his ballot “Down with the SCAF” — the acronym for the Egyptian military council now running the country. He spat out his disgust with the fact that while secular youth like him toppled Mubarak, the Islamist parties were winning the elections and the army generals — who abandoned Mubarak to save themselves — were still in power!
And there you have Egypt today — a four-way power struggle between the army, the rising Islamist parties, the smaller liberal parties and the secular youth of Tahrir Square. All of them will have a say in how this story plays out. “We want to see a new Egyptian government with new thoughts,” said Hassan. “I am ready to go back into Tahrir Square if I have to.”
Indeed, everyone feels more empowered now. The army has its guns and now runs the country; both the Islamists and the liberals have won electoral mandates; and the secular youth from Tahrir feel empowered by the street — by their now proven ability to mobilize and to fight whenever they see things going awry. Even the silent majority here, called “The Party of the Couch,” feels more empowered, having just voted in high numbers in an election where the votes actually got counted.
My favorite election story was told to me by an international observer, who asked not to be identified. His voting station had just closed and as the polling workers were loading up the box filled with votes onto a bus to be taken to a central counting station, an Egyptian woman, who had just voted, ran over to them and shouted: “Please, never leave that box alone. This is our future. Go and make sure they put it in the right place.”
That box and all the hopes stuffed into it by so many average Egyptians is surely necessary for a new beginning here. But it is not sufficient. The country needs a leader — there is still a huge vacuum at the top — who can take all those votes, all those hopes, and meld them into a strategy to create the jobs, schooling, justice and security that all Egyptians clearly crave. If that happens, those ballot boxes really will have delivered a different future for Egypt. Until then, I am just taking notes.