The view from the ground.

Do Egypt’s Liberals Stand a Chance?

Two weeks before Egypt's first post-revolution elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the former ruling party look poised for a massive victory.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

MINYA, Egypt – The desert road south from Cairo to Minya, a well-paved army highway in a country where potholes and cracked pavements make speedy driving a roller-coaster ride of dips and jolts, curves in from the barren east, leading the driver through a dour vista of limestone quarries and half-built suburban apartment blocks -- New Minya, a sign proclaims -- before giving way abruptly to fertile green fields, palm trees, and the dusty alleys of the city proper.

MINYA, Egypt – The desert road south from Cairo to Minya, a well-paved army highway in a country where potholes and cracked pavements make speedy driving a roller-coaster ride of dips and jolts, curves in from the barren east, leading the driver through a dour vista of limestone quarries and half-built suburban apartment blocks — New Minya, a sign proclaims — before giving way abruptly to fertile green fields, palm trees, and the dusty alleys of the city proper.

Minya, a city of perhaps 300,000, marks a border of sorts between the comparatively cosmopolitan bustle of the north — Cairo, Alexandria, the Nile Delta — and the traditionally more tribal Upper Egypt of Asyut, Sohag, Qina, and Aswan to the south.

Well-established, moneyed families, many of whom by necessity allied themselves with the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), still hold much sway here, and the city itself, the seat of the Minya governorate, is a busy hub for industry. Minya’s factories refine local sugar cane and produce cement and other materials, including the white limestone brick ubiquitous in the area’s cheaper buildings.

Outside the city’s few main streets, Minya’s countryside is dominated by lush farmland and dotted by hamlets, the province of Egypt’s agricultural labor class, the fellaheen. Coptic Christians, estimated at around 10 percent of the Egyptian population, are heavily represented here, comprising perhaps a third of the governorate’s 4.7 million people and a majority in some villages.

Under Egypt’s three-stage system for electing its first post-revolution parliament, which begins Nov. 28, Minya will vote in the final group, on Jan. 3. It will account for 24 of the 498 representatives delivered to the new People’s Assembly.

In January and February, while the world fixated on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Minya had its own revolution. Patches of well-maintained graffiti still cover downtown walls, and the main square — once named for Suzanne Mubarak, the ex-president’s wife and a Minya native — is now called Martyrs’ Square.

But as seemed to be the case in other midsize towns outside Cairo, Minya’s revolution was different. Protests were small and kept in check by the security forces, residents told me, and nobody remembered any serious violence. Kerolos Emad Abeid, the 17-year-old son of a Christian farmer and political candidate, said he and his friends stayed home during the protests, preferring to use days of school closures to study for their exams.

Although Minya’s Christian population makes it a demographic outlier, the city and surrounding countryside pose a bellwether question: How much has Egypt really changed outside the big cities?  

In a country of more than 80 million people, sentiments can swing wildly between Bedouin settlements in the Sinai, working-class factory cities in the Delta, and agrarian townships in the south. But if Minya’s story reflects broader sentiments, Egypt’s first parliament since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak will be dominated by Islamists and heavily influenced by power brokers associated with the fallen regime.

Even here, where one might expect Christians to counterbalance the Islamist surge, most expect the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, to take the most seats[E1] . With more than 80 years of proselytizing and street-by-street charitable work under its belt, the Brotherhood is perfectly positioned to reap political benefits. Liberals and leftists, long powerless unless co-opted by the regime, for now look destined to remain splintered on the sidelines.

One night, in the dingy manager’s office of a budget hotel in one of the city’s darkened back alleys, I sat with Mohammed Ismail Abdelhalim, a local organizer for the Free Egyptians. Founded and funded by billionaire Christian telecommunications magnate Naguib Sawiris, it is considered perhaps Egypt’s most well-organized new liberal party.

Abdelhalim and his friend Osama Naguib, a Christian candidate with the nearly unknown Socialist Popular Alliance Party, chain-smoked and sipped tea as they dissected the impending fate of Egypt’s left.

I brought up the Wafd, the country’s most established opposition party, just as old as the Muslim Brotherhood and with a direct connection to Egypt’s 1920s independence struggle, though sullied by years of obeisance to the NDP. Perhaps, without the regime’s repression, they and others would finally get their chance.

Naguib dismissed the idea. When the regime briefly allowed a semblance of free and fair voting in 2005, it was the Brotherhood and not the Wafd that easily snapped up one-fifth of the People’s Assembly, he pointed out.

"It has nothing to do with being old or young. It has to do with the language you speak. Wafd has been around forever, and it has no support because it doesn’t know how to speak to people," he said. "Wafd won’t succeed — no party will succeed — if they sit around and talk politics like we are now, which is what all the parties are doing except for the Muslim parties. What we should do is take the way that they are reaching the people and use it. We need to do what they’re doing."

One night when Naguib was younger, he said, his uncle fell seriously ill. Most of the nearby pharmacies were owned by Brotherhood members, who tend to go into fields like engineering and medicine, so the family rushed to a neighbor who was a Brother, asking him to open a shop. Not only did they open a pharmacy; they delivered the medicine to his uncle’s home.

"If I wasn’t a leftist Christian, I would’ve joined the Brotherhood," Naguib said.

On the television in the corner, presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, a charismatic and staunchly conservative Islamist who has attracted support from strictly fundamentalist Salafi Muslims, was being interviewed on a major Egyptian satellite channel. Smoke filled the room.

Upper Egypt, called the Saeed after the Arabic word for plateau, has long been stereotyped as the country’s clannish backwaters. It is in the Saeed, Egyptians say, where honor killings remain prevalent, sectarian mobs flare up regularly, and feuds are settled by ceremonial reconciliation committees. Minya, I’m quickly told, is known as the "Bride of Upper Egypt," and it’s true that the city’s leafy corniche, set across the river from sandy cliffs with an "El Minya" sign spelled out in yellow block letters, is a relief from the soot of Cairo.

Large families have traditionally been able to exert outsized political power in the Saeed, and many here say they — and perhaps the Christian community, were it to vote as a bloc — represent the only force that rivals the Islamists in influence.

The Dakrouris are one such family.

When I first met Ahmed Dakrouri, a fuel shortage in Upper Egypt was spawning gas queues, 20-liter rations, and protests in Sohag, about 140 miles to the south. He picked me up in his black, older-model Land Rover — a "gas guzzler," he called it — and drove us to a second-floor restaurant by the Nile.

Dakrouri’s family has a long history with the NDP. Even in Cairo, political operatives know the name. His great-grandfather was elected to Egypt’s first parliament, in the 1920s, and his father, an NDP member, left parliament in 1995. Dakrouri tried to run with the NDP in 2010 but was disqualified. This year, he has decided to sit out the election.

A tall, exceedingly polite engineer with graying hair who was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he spoke English with an accent that would not have been out of place at a sales conference in Buffalo.

"I’m a development guy," he said, mentioning projects he pursues during regular trips from the capital, where he now lives, to his family’s historical stronghold in Minya.

Dakrouri is a precise man, and when he gives directions, he gives exact kilometers. The distance between Tahrir Square and his house in Cairo’s Mohandeseen district? Seven kilometers. The exactitude is at play even in the decidedly un-MIT-like universe of Minya politics, where families like his will inevitably attempt to exert their gravitational pull on the election.

"In the Saeed, if it’s my village, I can go stand in front of a polling place, and if 30 Islamists are marshaling 200 to 300 people, they won’t vote because of my power to prevent it," he said.

The ability to stop and start voter mobilization, while perhaps somewhat exaggerated in Dakrouri’s case, will be key in the elections, especially in the Saeed and smaller cities, where turnout depends more on religious and family networks than individual ideological preferences.

In the restaurant, Dakrouri introduced me to his "political advisor," a tall, well-built man with the high-and-tight buzzed haircut typical of Egyptian plainclothes cops. It quickly emerged that the advisor, who asked to remain anonymous if he was going to speak candidly, was both Dakrouri’s relative and an employee of the state security services. The man, whom I’ll call Farid, seemed to function as Dakrouri’s all-purpose political fixer, called in during campaigns and times of need.

"In six months we went from being completely absent from the scene to [No.] 1 or 2, and he was behind it," Dakrouri said of the 2010 campaign, smiling. "This is what we do."

Egypt’s electoral system seems deliberately designed to befuddle all but the deepest insiders. The governorate of Minya is divided into two districts, urban north and rural south, for candidates running on multiparty lists (think of them as coalitions) where the percentage of votes determines who and how many list members get into parliament. A further four subdistricts, two in the north and two in the south, are reserved for candidates running as individuals.

Confusingly, individuals can still belong to lists, and there are three of national importance: the Democratic Alliance, fronted by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party; the Egyptian Bloc, featuring the liberal Free Egyptians and Social Democrats; and the Islamist Alliance, to which hard-liners such as the Salafi Nour Party and Islamic Group’s Building and Development Party belong. The Wafd, riven by some key departures and internal divisions, is running alone.

Farid quickly sketched out his vision of the Minya playing field.

Hordes of candidates have entered the race in the individual districts; 113 in one, 79 in another, he said. Ninety percent are "nobodies," Dakrouri added, though the individual seats are where candidates with the most fame and local sway will likely do best.

As for the lists, the Islamists — primarily the Freedom and Justice Party, followed by the Salafis — will take the most seats, Farid said. The Brotherhood, particularly influential in the northern districts, will itself earn around 35 percent of the vote, he guessed (others believe it could win even more).

Beyond the Islamists, the Egyptian Bloc will place well, in addition to two new parties — Our Egypt and Reform and Development — which have allied with one another, he said. The latter two had not attracted much national attention, and I was later told they are among roughly a dozen parties running ex-NDP candidates, known disparagingly as felool, or remnants of the regime.

(Talaat Sadat, founder of Reform and Development and a nephew of assassinated President Anwar Sadat, briefly tried to revive the NDP after Mubarak’s downfall, while Rami Lakah, founder of Our Egypt and a business tycoon, was known for handing out "stipends" to constituents during a previous run for parliament.)

Dakrouri and Farid went on to describe political tactics. Some less-powerful parties, they said, will make their lists top-heavy with "workers" and "farmers," since 1950s-era Egyptian law requires half of parliament be filled with candidates who fit those descriptions, while the other half is composed of "class" candidates .

A major party’s list may win 75 percent of the vote, but because the district’s farmer and worker seats must be filled, a party with few votes but workers and farmers at the top of its list might find a disproportionate number of its candidates picked to fill the quota.

Nobody trusts the worker-farmer system, but Egypt’s military rulers have decided to keep it. Farid said that in the 2010 election, dozens of Interior Ministry generals ran as workers or farmers. Police officers are widely known to retire, buy land, and run as farmers.

Another favorite political tactic is to not-so-secretly insert and support unknown candidates in certain races to secure a favor from a prominent opponent in exchange for pulling the candidate out.

I wondered whether I was seeing this at play when Dakrouri asked whether I wanted to meet Iman, a woman running for an independent seat. When she arrived, I asked Farid whether she had a chance. He grimaced and shook his head. In fact, Iman is a relative of his, he said.

Once the questions began, Iman became nervous. She offered a few platitudes about improving education. I asked whether she had ever run before. She had, in 2010. I asked whether she won. Yes and no, she said. She glanced at Dakrouri and then said she had been "forged out" of the race. Dakrouri and Farid asked my interpreter not to translate that detail. When I asked whether I could follow up later, she said she wouldn’t talk without Dakrouri around.

After Iman left, they called another candidate, Ali Hassenein of Our Egypt, offering to arrange an interview for me. I suggested I set it up myself the next day. Hassenein, as it turned out, wouldn’t talk alone either — when I rang, he never picked up his phone.

Dakrouri told me he didn’t think the upcoming election will see the kind of fraud and occasional violence that marred previous votes in 2005 and 2010, helping to deliver the NDP more than 90 percent of parliament last year. But he said he feared the rise of the Islamist parties.

"They have a very well-developed and arranged system, and they can almost plot how many votes they’ll get," he said of the Brotherhood. "The general mood now is toward religion. In times of difficulty, people find a safe haven in religion."

Later, he turned to Farid and spoke in Arabic: "The people had given us a license to vote for them, and we abused it. Now they want to vote for themselves, and it will be chaos."

Farid looked at my interpreter. "Don’t translate that."

As we prepared to leave, Farid suggested we visit some tourist sites around Minya. He offered to arrange a guide or drive us himself. He also wanted to know whom we would meet.

We declined. The next day, when we met in our hotel cafe with Hussein Sultan, the local spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party, another man sat down at the next table. As we spoke, he smoked cigarettes and made phone calls.

Barely changed by the revolution, the security services were still watching, though whether at the behest of their superiors or Dakrouri was unclear. Yet Sultan, who under Mubarak would have never met so easily in the open with a journalist, seemed unfazed.

"See the man with the cigarette?" he asked. "Oh well, not a problem."

Sultan, a middle-aged man who is also running in the election, comes from a village called el-Kom el-Ahmar. He mentors students in Arabic at a local teaching center. Like almost all the Brotherhood candidates whom journalists meet, he was well groomed — wearing a suit and tie — and made encouragingly moderate policy prescriptions in well-formed statements.

Sultan is running at the top of the party’s South Minya list; Saad el-Katatny, the secretary general of the party, is running at the top of the list in the north.

According to Sultan, the Freedom and Justice Party’s own street polling shows it winning 60 percent of the vote. Although some Christians said they would vote for the party, Sultan said he wasn’t counting on their support.

Despite a government ban on campaigning in houses of worship, Sultan noted that when he "presented" the Freedom and Justice Party platform to a mosque in his village, many Christians attended.

He believed the Coptic community was being influenced by scaremongering Western media and rumors that Islamist parties were stirring up Muslim supporters with religious slogans like the Brotherhood’s tag line: "Islam is the solution." That wasn’t the case, he insisted.

"Muslims and Christians are equal, have always been equal in Egypt, and should still be equal under the constitution," he said. "[Christians] should have the same rights, and our party will give them that."

He pointed out that Rafiq Habib, a Coptic intellectual who associated himself with the moderate Islamist al-Wasat Party when it splintered from the Brotherhood in 1996, was now the third-ranking official in the Freedom and Justice Party, with the title of vice president.

In districts such as Cairo, Alexandria, and Sohag, the party was even running Christians on its lists, though not in Minya, he admitted.

Sultan tried to assuage fears that the Brotherhood would push for strict Islamic law when it came time for the new parliament to select the 100-member body that will write Egypt’s new constitution.

His party wants to "use the basics of sharia," including freedom of thought and religious beliefs, to write the constitution, he said.

"Our vision for politics [is that] there must be a very strong ruling party, but there must also be a very strong opposition, regardless of what this opposition is. Whether they’re democratic or socialist or liberals or Salafis, they must exist in order to create a sort of watchdog over the ruling party, and they must be given the freedom to exist," he said. "That is the only way to have a well-functioning democracy."

The party’s top priorities — improving health care and education — were not sectarian, he said.

I pressed Sultan on what, then, separated Freedom and Justice from the Salafis on one side and liberals on the other.

"Our party wants to give Egypt a confined freedom within the religion, with respect for Egyptian culture and tradition," he said.

Salafis such as those in the Nour Party lack the political experience to be effective in parliament, he argued, while "liberals want to give Egypt a foreign freedom that is adopted from the West, a freedom that is disrespectful for the culture and traditions, and it doesn’t really work well with the religion."

Shortly after we finished the interview with Sultan, the man at the next table followed us out of the hotel. As we waited by our car for our next contact to arrive, he drove up, waited, and then drove away. If he wanted to let us know we were being watched, he had succeeded.

A few blocks away, at the downtown YMCA, we met Emad Abeid, a Christian farmer from the village of Saft el-Laban, seven miles north of Minya, who is running with the Nasserist Party. Abeid — bald and missing two front teeth, wearing a traditional galabeya and flicking through a string of prayer beads — was joined by his friends Rafik Labib, a Christian high school math teacher, and Mohammed Saeed, a Muslim high school Arabic teacher.

The three men said they viewed Minya’s politics as a contest between large families like the Dakrouris, whose influence was waning, and Islamist parties using religion to mobilize support. The new liberal parties, their figures and platforms, were mostly unknown.

Abeid said his party might win one seat, but he hoped they were laying the groundwork for a better showing in later elections.

"There are still family mafias that are controlling everything. They’re influential, own land, hand out favors; it’s not necessarily about fear," Abeid said. "Only religious movements are challenging the families. They believe no one is above God, but they’re doing it in a very backwards way."

The men said Christians were feeling isolated by post-revolution sectarian violence that culminated on Oct. 9 in a bloody Army crackdown on a protest in Cairo at the state television building, known as Maspero, leaving 28 people dead.

Minya governorate itself is no stranger to sectarian tension. In the town of Samalout in January — before the revolution — an off-duty policeman boarded a train and shot dead one Copt while wounding five others. When Coptic protesters gathered the same day at the Christian hospital where the victims were being treated, police fired tear gas, some of which landed inside the building.

In August, Labib said, a church that had been built across the street from a mosque was "surrounded by Salafis" who demanded it be moved. They complained that prayers from both houses of worship were drowning each other out, despite the fact that Christians and Muslims observe different holy days. The crisis was resolved when a Christian agreed to allow the church to use his property if he could live on the church’s old grounds, Labib said.

He said he wanted to keep his Muslim friends and normal life as long as he could.

"A lot of Copts are trying to leave to other countries as refugees," he said, and concerned friends were calling him regularly while he attended his second job as a shopkeeper, warning him not to stay out late.

"There’s no safety [and] a bad economy. Someone was kidnapped three days ago in Minya, and I don’t feel like the country is very secure."

Late that night, when I met with Abdelhalim, the Free Egyptians organizer, and Naguib, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party candidate, in the hotel manager’s office, they too said they thought the influence of the big families was waning, especially because the dozen or so districts that used to allow Minya clans to dominate local constituencies had been consolidated for the new election.

The men’s real concerns were the Islamists and liberal disorganization. Naguib feared the imposition of Islamic law — cutting off the hands of thieves and forcing women to wear hijabAbdelhalim shook his head.

"That’s a phantasm," he said. 

His fear, near-term and political, was that Islamist parties like Freedom and Justice would rely on the Brotherhood’s time-tested tactics, busing their network of supporters to polling stations and handing out free meat, food, and cooking oil to win loyalty.

"Egyptian people are not used to voting for someone based on ideology. It’s basically personal gain, if someone has done charity in their neighborhood, and the Brotherhood has been very successful at this," he said.

But where Naguib was a pessimistic doomsayer, saying the Brotherhood and military — "fascists" both — were conspiring to control the election, for instance by campaigning in mosques, Abdelhalim accepted the challenge as a fact of life. Campaigning only takes place in certain mosques, he said, and is technically banned by the government. He doesn’t see it in the mosques he attends.

Although he admitted the liberal parties have little historical base and "have not been able to reach people" like the Islamists, he still guessed they would win 20 percent of parliament to the Islamists’ 40 percent.

I asked Abdelhalim whether he could talk about the Free Egyptians in his mosques. He wouldn’t want to, nor is it allowed, he said. "This is democracy. Whoever gets a majority wins."

After I left Minya, I returned to Cairo and met with Ramy Yaacoub, a senior strategist in the Free Egyptians and a member of the party’s political office who helped craft campaigns and occasionally directly advised Sawiris, the tycoon founder.

His assessment of the liberals’ fate was dire. Weeks of negotiations with the other parties in the Egyptian Bloc, most importantly the Social Democrats, had been more or less a disaster, in his opinion. Bickering over which candidates to run in which districts had led many smaller groups and locally influential figures to abandon the bloc. Many had joined up with the felool parties.

It was only four days before the candidate registration deadline in October that he and others were assigned to sit down with the remaining parties — Social Democrats, Tagammu, and the Democratic Front — to hash out their unified lists.

But metrics and criteria were quickly thrown aside as "primitive" bickering took hold, he said. Party negotiators yelled out governorates they wanted to claim and insisted that old promises made to local politicians could not be broken.

On the final day, the negotiators abandoned unified lists altogether. Instead, they allocated districts among the parties. The 400 or so candidates the Free Egyptians had planned to run dropped to around 133. Now the party will take responsibility for only 26 of Egypt’s 46 list districts, while the Social Democrats will handle 14.

The bloc won’t compete in at least six districts, and in some, its lists were disqualified. North Giza, a district that includes parts of Cairo, with at least 2 million people of voting age and 10 representatives to send to parliament, has neither a Free Egyptians nor a Social Democrats list, he said. Meanwhile, the Democratic Front had dropped out of the bloc.

Yaacoub did not want to say publicly how many seats he thinks the Free Egyptians will win, but the number he gave was a fifth of what he said he had once predicted when the party formed.

In Minya, the Free Egyptians will run three independent candidates, but the bloc’s list will be handled by Social Democrats, in whom Yaacoub had little faith.

Yaacoub did insist that Sawiris was a good leader and had never forced his personal opinions on the party.

"In fact, I believe the process was overly democratic; he actually believed in the democratic process excessively," Yaacoub said.

But there were other problems hampering the Free Egyptians. For one, the party never conducted its own polls, choosing instead to rely on independent civil society groups, Yaacoub said. Each time he arranged to hire analysts, he would be overruled or told there was not enough money.

"It was a complete mess," he said.

Now he estimates the Freedom and Justice Party will win 40 percent, the Salafis another 5 percent, and the felool parties 30 to 40 percent. The Social Democrats might take six seats, he said.

And though the latter’s party leadership, drawn from practiced political hands and old-school activists, may know how to survive as the loyal opposition, the Free Egyptians have no such luxury, Yaacoub said.

"We don’t have the political credibility; we don’t have the political history; we don’t have the sustenance to survive that."

Evan Hill is a former Al Jazeera America staff writer, currently researching and writing on the Middle East.

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