Going Rogue In Egypt
By Jess HillMay 22, 2012
Campaign or circus? In Egypt’s first post-revolution vote, it’s hard to draw the distinction. Hop on the bus with Egypt’s frontrunner for president, Amr Moussa, in the final days of the campaign.
It's one o'clock in the morning, somewhere west of Alexandria. Our bus, crammed to standing with foreign journalists and campaign aides, has, inexplicably, pulled into an abandoned lot. The engine cuts out, and the bus goes dark. "Unbelievable," someone mutters. What now?
We've been with the Amr Moussa team for 18 hours straight on one of the last days of Egypt's presidential campaign. For the past two hours, the bus has been engulfed by a frenzy of ecstatic villagers, an epic carnival scene going past at a blur. The view from one window: men and children crowded in an open, horse-drawn carriage, chanting Moussa's name and brandishing official election posters. At another window: an elderly man in a Moussa T-shirt waggled his hips like a woman, lifting his shirt repeatedly to kiss the image of Moussa on its hem, while behind him, a girl of about two, wearing a tulle skirt, balanced on her father's hands in mid-air; they were followed by an impromptu band — a drum, a trombone — in the tray of a ramshackle ute; alongside the ute, a man was shooting fireworks into the air, and every few minutes, a jet of flame would burst above the crowd — one enterprising young Egyptian had converted an aerosol can into a flamethrower.
Leaning out of the front door and into this maelstrom was 75-year-old Amr Moussa, Egypt's frontrunner candidate for president, reaching out to touch the surging mob.
But now the crowds have melted away and Moussa is off the bus. Outside our windows are darkness and abandoned cars. The bus is quiet for a moment. Then a voice floats up from the front…
"We've run out of gas."
"Alhamdullilah! [Praise to God!]" cries one woman, triggering a wave of nervous laughter. "I feel like I'm at summer camp," giggles one journalist. "Maybe we should look for a taxi," someone suggests. "Where are you going to get a cab from?" another retorts. "We're in the middle of nowhere!"
"You don't need to get a taxi," says Ahmed Kamel, Moussa's media coordinator. "Can't you see? They're refuelling using some incredibly dangerous method. Nobody light a match." Outside, a few of the campaign's volunteers siphon petrol from another vehicle. They pose for photographs, as Moussa's aides stand around cracking jokes.
In this chaotic and unpredictable election, the likes of which Egypt has never seen, Moussa's aides seem adept at diffusing any situation with humour. Take this moment on the Moussa campaign bus, at the beginning of that same epic journey on the Friday of the last weekend before voting: We've been on the road for two hours when we see glass strewn across the freeway up ahead, the traffic queuing behind. This is bad news; we are already running late for a campaign rally, thanks to whoever smashed the campaign-bus windshield last night.
Suddenly, our driver backs up and crosses onto the opposite side of the road, leaning on the horn. As the bus swerves this way and that to avoid the oncoming traffic, I lean over to one of Moussa's aides as he casually strolls up the aisle. "Are we on the wrong side of the road?"
"Yes, but that's not our biggest problem," he says deadpan, gesturing to his colleague, a gentle-looking, bearded man sitting beside me. "Our biggest problem is that he has blown up two shopping malls." My neighbour rolls his eyes, rebukes the aide in Arabic, and laughs. Black humour — a survival mechanism, a bridge between where Egypt has been, and where it might be heading.
UNDER FORMER PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK, so-called election campaigns were strictly choreographed, his supporters handpicked and scripted. The new Egypt is chaotic and unpredictable. This campaign, for example, has seen moments bordering on total anarchy; unbridled displays of adulation, desperation and mob hysteria, in which the candidates are brought within spitting distance of the general public, often without a policeman in sight.
The race to win the Egyptian presidency is being contested by 13 candidates, but most commentators agree only four are really in the running. Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa are from the old regime — known as felool, or remnants. And there are two political Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi and the liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member running as an independent.
But it's Moussa — Egypt's foreign minister during the 1990s, before a rumoured falling out with Mubarak had him moved to the helm of the Arab League — who is shaping up as the candidate to beat.
When the uprising began in January last year, Amr Moussa detected Mubarak's change in fortune early. He joined protesters in Tahrir Square on February 4, a full week before Mubarak's abdication. On February 11, as Egyptians celebrated all over the country, Moussa quit the Arab League and two weeks later he declared his intention to run for president.
His public roles to date give him one key advantage over his opponents: familiarity. Toward the end of his tenure as foreign minister, Time magazine called Moussa "perhaps the most adored public servant in the Arab world", a reputation due largely to his biting criticism of Israel and the United States. One Egyptian crooner even wrote a song in his honour, called I Hate Israel and I Love Amr Moussa, which became an overnight smash hit.
Of course, having been a high-ranking Mubarak official can also be held against Moussa.
Moussa supporters say Egypt needs a statesman, someone with experience in governing, who can represent Egypt on the world stage and be a bulwark against the agendas of political Islamists in the parliament. His detractors, however, say he is vain and "Pharaoh-like", a "career apparatchik" who will do nothing to challenge the economic and political power still reserved for the country's old guard: the Egyptian military.
THE BUS GRINDS TO A SUDDEN HALT, and the glare of the noonday sun reflects harshly off the sand. We're in Amreya, just south of Alexandria, and somewhere beyond the campaign signs, the marquees, and the cheering Bedouin, Amr Moussa is campaigning.
His media coordinator, Ahmed Kamel, power-walks with me off the bus. "I tell every journalist that comes with us that this is a circus. They have to understand this," he says, his pace quickening. In the past few weeks, Kamel explains, the campaign has visited each of Egypt's 27 governorates, some several times over. "I've seen things I never knew existed," he says, walking ahead. "Don't get lost," he calls over his shoulder, leaving me to be mobbed by Moussa enthusiasts who flaunt his campaign materials and insist on being photographed.
But the rally is already finished, and Moussa is being waved out of the area in a black four-wheel drive. I run out to the parking lot and, by some miracle, find the bus parked a few hundred metres down the road, its engine running. "C'mon, c'mon!" urges Kamel, as I run up the steps. The other busload of journalists has vanished; we were separated back at Moussa's headquarters in Cairo this morning, and we haven't seen them since.
We're barely on the road before we stop again, this time in the driveway of a grand villa, surrounded by men in traditional dress. "Amr Moussa has been invited to lunch by one of the tribal leaders in this area," says Kamel as an old man ushers us in, with his rifle, through a side-passage.
The reception room is unfurnished and crowded with Bedouin men. Sitting casually under the window is Moussa, who receives the men one by one, with the familiarity of an old comrade.
We're here to eat beef and rice with members of the Agag tribe, whose familial connections extend into Libya and across North Africa to Morocco. "We love Amr Moussa for what he did for our brothers in Libya," says one of the men, referring to the then Arab League chief's support for a no-fly zone in Libya last year.
Seated next to Moussa is Mona Makram-Ebeid, a prominent Coptic figure from one of the oldest political families in Egypt. Egypt's Copts make up six million of the country's 50 million eligible voters and at this stage of the game their vote is pretty well split between Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq. It's crucial that Moussa win more of them to his side.
Out the back of the villa and out of sight are the women and children. The matriarch, who has lived in this house for more than 70 years, is seated on her single bed in a small bedroom, her weathered face marked with faded geometrical tattoos. Why does she support Moussa, I ask? Her son translates. "Amr: yesterday, and tomorrow," she croaks softly, then adds, "Amr is between the Arabs." Exactly what she means is difficult to discern, and her son doesn't elaborate.
By the time I emerge from the backroom and shake a Bedouin man insisting I add him on Facebook, Moussa is outside, preparing to leave. I rush to the door, just in time to hear the first shots fired.
On the lawn, a few metres away from the group encircling Moussa, one tribal elder has both hands wrapped around a pump-action shotgun, and is firing round after round into the air. Several younger men join him, enthusiastically firing celebratory rounds at the sky. Suddenly, Kamel is beside me. "That's nothing," he says back on the bus. "When we were in the Sinai, they were using RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. In Upper Egypt, they had anti-aircraft weapons."
WE ARRIVE AT THE HELNAN PALESTINE HOTEL IN ALEXANDRIA. It's late in the afternoon and Moussa is resting. The foyer is full of hot, angry journalists. They've spent much of the day sitting on the side of the Alexandria Desert Road in a broken-down bus. "Were you on the good bus or the bad bus?" one journalist barks at me, demanding to know whether I've spoken with Moussa. "This is just symbolic of the whole thing," fumes one French journalist.
"They hate me," groans Kamel. "I hate this."
As the foreign press threaten to leave, a treaty is brokered: Amr Moussa will hold a 20-minute press conference.
In a conference room at The Palestine, Moussa takes his place confidently at the head of the table. "I trust you have all read my policy outline," he says, looking over his glasses.
The questions begin. Does he plan to appoint any members of the old regime to his government? "What do you mean people of the former regime?" Moussa shoots back. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is full of people from that generation, so is the Ministry of Education, so is the Ministry of Social Affairs. I don't know if you understand this or not: there is a difference between a regime and a government. Do you understand that?"
The journalist protests, but Moussa cuts her off. "The former regime has come to an end. It is finished."
But there are still people from the police department who have to be prosecuted..."The law, the law, the law. That's it."
What about the future role of the military? "The army is the army. Where are you from?" Moussa asks. "Spain," the reporter replies. "So what is the difference between the army in Spain and the army in Egypt?" A few of us suggest that the Spanish army doesn't control a large portion of the country's economy, but Moussa pays no heed. "The army will hand control to a civilian government at the end of June." Pressed to answer a question on corruption in the army, Moussa shuts down. "This question is not even proper… As for anything pertaining to the army, I am not going to discuss it in this conference. Do you understand?"
What about reform of the Interior Ministry, the most hated institution in the country? "We start by the police force, not the Interior Ministry. We want to decisively bring back security. This is the first thing we should do in the first 100 days."
What about Syria? "Egypt must stand alongside civilian populations that rise for their freedom." Does that mean support for the armed opposition? "Armed opposition and spilling blood is not my policy."
Kamel steps in. "Khalas — finished."
There's more local campaigning to be done.
WE'RE RUNNING LATE FOR THE NEXT RALLY because our driver is lost. "Amr Moussa?" he calls out the window, and pedestrians point him in various wrong directions.
When we finally arrive at the rally in Idku, a Nile Delta town east of Alexandria, the crowd is relatively subdued.
"This new republic came as a result of the revolution," Moussa expounds from the stage. "We had an opportunity in '52 [when the Free Officers deposed King Farouk]," he continues, "and we lost it. We had another opportunity in '73 [after the Yom Kippur War], and we lost that, too. Now we have another opportunity — and we won't lose it!"
Standing to the side of the open field is Mohammed Abdel Manem Mehady, founder of the Idku youth coalition. He's supporting Moussa, on the basis that if Moussa wins he will keep his promise to serve just one term. "We believe he is good for this period, because what we don't want is the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood."
Photo by Jess Hill
Photo by Jess Hill
Photo by Jess Hill
Photo by Jess Hill
A man in his late 50s approaches us. "I am felool!" he exclaims. Mokhtar Tayloun explains that he was a member of the former governing National Democratic Party but that he lost faith in the party 10 years ago. "Amr Moussa, I go for today," he says solemnly. "Four years only. Then Moussa is out."
My Egyptian co-reporter, Mandi Fahmy, looks up at the stage and realises Moussa is gone. "We have to go. Now," she says, and runs towards the fence. We clamber over the broken perimeter barrier and push through the crowd to the bus, which already has its engine running.
Moussa is sitting at the front of the bus, smiling and waving at the crowd clamouring outside. One man blocks the road, shouting and banging loudly on the front windscreen.
"The people of Idku don't understand!" he shouts. "You didn't tell them what you're going to do! They deserve to know — they have been suffering for 30 years!" He pounds the windscreen with his fists. "You should listen to me! This is supposed to be a democracy!"
The bus forges slowly for several hundred metres through the crush of people and finally gets moving. We're all exhausted. I check my GPS to see how far we are from Alexandria, where most of us will spend the night. That's when I realise we're heading away from Alexandria. "Why are we driving away from Alex?" I ask.
Because there are two more rallies planned for tonight, which nobody had bothered to tell us about. From here we will be on the road for several more hours, until we eventually run out of gas.
Leaving the next rally brings the bus to yet another mob, this one envelops the bus completely. Standing alongside the bus are two men, holding handguns aloft. They shoot until their guns are empty, reload, and empty them again. Nobody from the Moussa campaign seems perturbed. There's not a single uniformed police officer in sight.
At one of those rallies, as the bus again crawls through thousands of excited Egyptians waving posters of Moussa and chanting his name, Ahmed Kamel grins like a kid. "We are so going to win this election," he exclaims, looking excitedly at the crowd outside. "He is bigger than Elvis."
Additional reporting by Mandi Fahmy.