This article appeared in Business Today Egypt, the May issue, in the printed edition. Will post a link once it is online.
Don’t blink, for in the nanosecond between having your eyes open, then shut, then open again, the Egyptian political scene will have changed dramatically. Lately, events have been shaping up ever so rapidly and so unexpectedly that Egyptians remain out of breath, out of the loop, and quite light headed.
Where does one start? A good example of the whirlwind Egyptians have faced is corroborated by the ups and downs Hazim Abou Ismail, the Salafi ex-presidential hopeful, went through. First, he decides to run and emerges as a strong candidate gaining huge support. He campaigns forcefully leaving liberals baffled by the intensity of his approach; then his mother’s dubious citizenship is questioned, but the court concludes his mother is an Egyptian after all, only to have the Presidential Election Commission disqualify him from the race for the same reason.
Ismail cries foul denouncing the American and Egyptian authorities for providing “forged” documents, and he appeals the ruling. Finally, the Election Commission does not accept any of the appeals presented including Abou Ismail’s. His followers are furious, and demonstrations and sit-ins ensue—Abou Ismail goes from an apolitical Egyptian, to a political figure, to a probable president, to a fraud, and finally to a person non gratis—all in a matter of days.
The Founding Committee of the Constitution or the Constituent Assembly, as it is otherwise called, is another case in point. According to the constitution referendum, the committee is a body of 100 members chosen to draft the new constitution. However, the referendum does not specify how the members are to be chosen exactly. So Parliament MPs choose the members, who were to have been 50 percent from parliament and 50 percent from renowned figures of the society. But the committee established is largely formed of parliamentarian Islamists; in other words, the MPs chose themselves. And slowly but surely all non-Islamist members withdraw from the committee in an act of defiance. Finally the State Court decides to suspend the committee as it stands.
In the meantime, the Head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, (SCAF), Field Marshal Tantawi, announces that the Egyptian Constitution will be written before the presidential election is finalized. With no established committee, and no members in place, it would be extremely difficult to have a constitution written by June. And Egyptians wonder if this would delay the presidential election.
The tug of war in Abou Ismail’s case and in the case of the Founding Committee of the Constitution is indicative of all the other events that keep changing scenarios on Egyptians in a blink. In the meantime, Egyptians are trying hard to fathom each new bombshell, but the causes and benefactors are all beyond the understanding of ordinary Egyptians.
So, is there a hidden agenda behind these twists and turns? Are the blunders intentional or coincidental? Are they indicative of a superpower—Egyptian or otherwise—that wants to play havoc with the stability of Egypt?
If one can say that the changes and the transformations that have taken place recently were the makings of a single person, and that that “someone” knew all along the outcome of such events, then I would elect this person as the president of Egypt for being the mastermind behind so many upheavals. He is definitely ahead of the game, and ahead of everyone in Egypt.
However, how could anyone have foreseen Abou Ismail’s mother’s dual citizenship? Would someone have anticipated, amidst the campaigning contest Ismail was flailing, his being disqualified? Did one envisage the withdrawal of the liberals and leftists on the constitution committee only to have the court suspend the committee’s activities? Add another twist: would anybody have predicted Ahmed Shafik’s wife passing away? No, I don’t think so.
So why are events in general and the presidential race, in particular, resonating so much volatility? And leading to so much turmoil?
The first reason for this volatility is the availability and immediacy of news. Egypt had lived six decades of almost total political blackout—Egyptians were never made aware of the wheeling and dealing that took place behind closed doors. Today, in contrast, it is difficult to keep a lid on information. News, real or even made up, reaches Egyptians as it is being shaped and gets redistributed electronically. Then, worthy news goes viral reaching millions. Obviously, millions of Egyptians are utilizing social media—blogging and tweeting—from within the eyes of storms.
Another reason is the change in Egyptians themselves. Egyptians, again for six decades, enjoyed an indifferent, blasé attitude towards the goings and comings of their country. They didn’t have much hope, especially in recent decades, and consequently went about their businesses ignoring the political scene and putting it on the backburner, but suddenly, and definitely after the Revolution, they became keen and avid followers of Egyptian politics. Soap operas are taking a nose dive, while talk shows are gaining ground with amazing speed.
Talk to Egyptians on the street, and more often than not, their responses are right on the mark. Talk to a taxi driver and you will find him exceptionally well informed on article 28 of the constitution. Sit amongst café visitors on a busy street and everyone has an opinion on presidential candidates and their platforms. This newfound zeal to read into events, worry about the choice of leader, and be concerned about one’s country is all new to Egyptians.
On a more negative side though, it is in the nature of Egyptians to want to come across as though they are well informed and up to date, that they have an “in” somehow and can decipher events and happenings. Ask an Egyptian for directions, and that person will guide you even if he doesn’t know the exact route. No one would say, “I don’t know”—quite the contrary, and more often than not, the person would say, “Take the next right.”
By the same token, when a piece of news surfaces, right away Egyptians will dissect and analyze the reasons behind the event as if they have inside knowledge. Take, for example, the Presidential Election Commission’s decision to disqualify ten presidential hopefuls. Immediately, streets and media hum and buzz like a beehive and get jammed with innuendos and wisecracks. Reasons, doers and backers, and the integrity or the lack of those disqualified, and the committee itself, are discussed blatantly and in an outright fashion.
How could Omar Suleiman, one of the most formidable and devious Egyptians of the previous regime, the Spy Chief, not count accurately and hand in 31 fewer support letters? Was it preplanned so that he can cause the turbulence that he did? And why doesn’t Abou Ismail simply present the papers that validate his mother’s citizenship? Definitely, the Americans do not want an Islamist to rule Egypt. But of course, El Shater is being disqualified over a technicality, same for Aymen Nour. What about the Commission itself? They’ve disqualified candidates from both sides only to come across as fair. And the list goes on. As you can see, Egyptians have outdone themselves in trying to analyze events.
And the bigger picture is quite similar. Some say that the turmoil Egypt is facing is Mubarak and his followers’ doings, while others believe that corruption has become ingrained in society—everyone is at fault. But maybe it is the preplanned intention of SCAF to destroy the country so that Egyptians can beg for protection and for the return to normalcy; while others lean towards the conspiracy theory with foreign hands and overseas manipulators. “Instigated chaos,” and “instigated sectarian strife” are common phrases in the Egyptian dictionary today.
In addition, the Egyptian authorities are also adding fuel to the fire. SCAF, each and every appointed government, and the parliament, too, are all not equipped to lead. Governing is not a simple matter, and making mistakes, intentional or otherwise, creates a ripple effect of even more haphazard mistakes. To get out of a mistake, authorities rescind previous decisions and revoke their own statements ultimately leading to loss of esteem and standing of the authority itself. All this while Egyptians stand on guard waiting for authorities to err to take them to task.
But most importantly, Egyptians wanted immediate change. They wanted the Revolution to resurrect a free and just Egypt with authorities willing to work on pressing issues such as education and poverty. And they would have liked to choose the perfect president to represent them along this path. They had hoped that people, authorities, and parties would embrace the Revolution and start afresh, but as the saying goes, “the winds do not blow as ships desire them to.” Yes, the Revolution led to freedom of choice—and that gave people the right to choose parties and presidents, but simultaneously polarized the whole nation. Instead of having one umbrella encompassing the whole society, the society has divided, each group self serving itself instead of Egypt.
Back to the presidential race, amidst the influx of information, the errors authorities made, the misinterpreted freedom the revolution caused, the fundamental changes in Egyptians themselves, amidst all this, the presidential race, as is the case with everything else that happened in the last little while, has proven to be quite a feat.
It is going to be a tenuous task to find a president whom all Egyptians would find fitting for the position: with integrity, political astuteness, no allegiance to the previous regime, charisma, and the ability to unite the different factions—some task that is going to be.
In the meantime, don’t blink, or else the Egyptian political scene may pass you by!