LETTER FROM CAIRO, JULY 2014

Well, it’s done. Egypt has elected yet another president from the military establishment, its fourth since the monarchy’s overthrow in the 1950s: retired general, chief of military intelligence and former Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Considering his popularity, El Sisi’s election campaign was not especially inspiring. Because of security threats from his Islamist archenemies, he chose not to campaign publicly, only to air a few pre-recorded televised interviews. Nor were there debates with his sole opponent, Hamdeen Sabbahi, a left-leaning supporter of the 25 January uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

The presidential elections of 2012, the first open ones in Egypt’s history, were also short on plans and visions but at least they were more fun. Over a 1000 Egyptians requested candidacy, including an electrician, an undertaker and a man claiming to be the lovechild of King Farouk. One prospective candidate’s platform consisted of a pledge to rid the Arabic alphabet of the letter ‘waw’. Only 13 made it to the final race, enough to bewilder voters. When it came down to run-offs between Islamist Mohamed Morsi and Mubarak stalwart Ahmed Shafiq, people despaired at having to choose between a rock and a hard place. But until the very end, including recounts in numerous polling stations, no one was sure who would win.

This time around the concept of choice barely entered the equation, since everyone knew that El Sisi would triumph and largely agreed that their strong new leader would do all the choosing for them. Cairo was consequently subdued in the weeks prior to the election, but that didn’t stop some citizens from trying to ramp up voter enthusiasm.

I was coming home from the grocer when I noticed a working class man of around 50 striding down my street, looking around agitatedly and calling out as if he couldn’t believe his eyes: “What’s this? What’s this!” Spotting an ordinary street-side café, he roared: “Look at this! The people of Egypt are the greatest in the world!”

It must be said that my street is not clean. A brown tattoo of tea and coffee grinds covers the sidewalk in front of the café, where the waiter dumps them so as not to block his shoddy drains. The asphalt is greasy and embedded with a million soda bottle caps hurled and welded there by the weight of cars on hot days. The buildings are coated in grime; smoke issues from a kebab joint. Mechanics in tattered work-clothes do body work in the street. The man shouted in their direction: “The Egyptians are the greatest people in the world!” without loosing stride, swiveling his head to survey his surroundings as if it were the realm of the very gods.

A cluster of black-clad policemen lounged in front of the station, impossibly young, dark-skinned and scrawny, smoking cigarettes and trying to appear nonchalant although they have been the targetof a series of lethal bombings around Cairo in recent months. “Look!” the man shouted in their direction, “the Egyptians are the greatest people in the world!”

Walking behind him I could see people’s reactions as they approached. The trace of a smile
that appeared on their faces was neither ironic nor the condescending, embarrassed expression reserved for the deranged, either of which might have been expected. On the contrary, they smiled the way shy people do when receiving a complement.

And in response to their smiles, the man bellowed even louder, ‘Egyptians are the greatest people in the world!’

Maria Golia

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