July 2012, Week 2


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Wed, 11 Jul 2012 23:01:59 -0400
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Adam Shatz

19 July 2012
pages 34-35

During the long, bewildering week in which Egyptians
waited for the results of their presidential election to
be announced, I took a train from Cairo to Alexandria. The
Muslim Brotherhood had declared that its candidate,
Mohamed Morsi, had defeated Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last
prime minister, by a million votes. The Brothers had
collected signed tallies from all 16,000 polling stations,
and their counts were said to be meticulous. (It turned
out they were off by only 0.06 per cent.) But Shafiq had
declared victory too, and in the last week of the campaign
looked eerily confident, as if he knew the elections had
been rigged in his favour. The longer people were forced
to wait, the more they began to worry - or hope - that the
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would try to pass
Shafiq off as the winner. Until 24 June, when Morsi's
victory was announced by the electoral commission, nothing
was certain, even whether the former president was alive
or dead. As the train reached the station at Alexandria,
my fixer, Magdy, got a call from his boss, a reporter for
the Telegraph, to say that Mubarak had died. 'I guess he
couldn't bear to see Mohamed Morsi sitting in his chair,'
Magdy said. By the time we got to the hotel, CNN was
reporting that Mubarak was in a critical condition, maybe
on life support. 'They're playing with us,' Magdy said.

On 14 June, two days before the election, the revolution's
most concrete achievement - a freely elected parliament,
dominated by Islamists - had been dissolved by the Supreme
Constitutional Court, a body of judges appointed by
Mubarak. The court's argument was that because members of
political parties had run for the third of the seats
reserved for independents, the entire parliament was
illegal. With parliament dissolved, the SCAF was ruling by
decree. The timing of the decision and the speed with
which it was implemented led many Egyptians to see it as
another power grab by the army. This perception was
reinforced when, on the last day of voting, the SCAF -
advised by the same judges who had dissolved parliament -
passed a series of constitutional amendments, as if it
were taking out an insurance policy in the event of a
Morsi victory. Thanks to these amendments, the SCAF now
has the right to dissolve the constituent assembly which
was formed to draft a new constitution, and whose future
is already uncertain since it was chosen by an 'illegal'
parliament. It also has the right to veto any article in
the new constitution that is held to violate the
revolution's goals. The presidency meanwhile has been
stripped of many of its powers, including the power to
declare war.

This wasn't a military coup, as some claimed: the coup had
already taken place on 11 February 2011, when the SCAF
took control and the revolutionaries agreed to give it a
chance, a decision many came to regret. But this 'judicial
coup', as some had it, hardly inspired confidence that a
handover to a civilian government would take place by 1
July, as the SCAF had promised. 'We'd be outraged if we
weren't so exhausted,' the human rights activist Hossam
Bahgat tweeted. Some of my friends warned that the army,
with the support of the feloul - remnants of the old
regime - might try to put an end to the democratic
process, as the Algerian generals did in 1992, sparking a
decade-long war. The Egyptians were too tired to fight a
civil war, but they already seemed to be choosing sides on
the basis of whom they feared more, the army or the

In Cairo, the old, narrow politics of self-interest - or
self-defence - seemed to be crowding out Tahrir Square's
expansive visions of a democratic future. I wondered
whether Alexandria, a port city with a rich history of
political independence, would be any different. It had
dazzled Cairene intellectuals by voting for a charismatic
socialist politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, in the first round
of the presidential elections, while the rest of the
country went for either Morsi or Shafiq, as if people
couldn't see beyond the old regime and the old opposition.
Alexandria, they said in Cairo, was a city that made up
its own mind, a city where the revolutionary spirit lived
on. Alexandrians basked in the admiration. 'The sea makes
us braver,' one activist told me. True or not, it
certainly makes the place feel more open than Cairo, where
you can hardly see the sky. The cafes have charming names
that 'read like a Levantine requiem', as David Holden
wrote of old Alexandrian phonebooks. From the terrace of
the fish restaurant where I had lunch, I watched children
playing on the beach; a few women were in bikinis, a rare
sight in a city where more and more women wear full
niqabs, including black gloves. Alexandria, once known as
the queen of the Mediterranean, may no longer be the city
of 'unsurpassable sensuality' described by Cavafy, but it
seems more serene than Cairo. Maybe that was an illusion:
the only difference between Alexandria and Cairo, someone
said, was the weather.

Egypt's second-largest city, with more than four million
inhabitants, Alexandria hasn't been the capital in
centuries. But Cairo, as Alexandrians see it, is loud and
uncouth. 'Cairo is a garage, Alexandria is a city,' one of
them told me. Anyone, he explained, can move to Cairo.
Alexandria - at least its historic centre on the
waterfront - is restricted to those who have lived there
for generations. Older, wealthier Alexandrians sometimes
talk about their poorer neighbours with disdain, much as
Lawrence Durrell once spoke of Egyptian Arabs.

Alexandria was the scene of two traumatic events during
the run-up to the uprising against Mubarak: the police
killing in June 2010 of a young man called Khaled Said,
now an icon of the revolutionary movement; and the still
unsolved bombing outside the Saints Church on 1 January
2011, when two dozen worshippers were killed. Only a few
days into the uprising itself, Alexandrians torched
government offices and drove out Mubarak's police. For
three months, the city policed itself, with considerable
success. Since then, Alexandria has styled itself as a
vanguard of the revolution and a seat of opposition to the
SCAF. It has also earned - or reinforced - a reputation
for being defiant, unpredictable, even fickle. In last
November's parliamentary elections, Islamists won 70 per
cent of the vote in Alexandria, divided between the Muslim
Brotherhood and, slightly behind them, the Salafis of the
al-Nour Party, a group so literal in its interpretation of
'modesty' in dress it covered a statue of a mermaid in a
public square. But the Islamists in parliament alienated
poor and working-class people by failing to address the
country's most critical issues - unemployment, the rising
price of bread, the housing shortage. Hence Alexandria's
vote for the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, an advocate of
social justice whose campaign slogan was One of Us. Coming
second behind Sabahi was another candidate of the
revolution: Abdel Monim Aboul-Fotouh, a liberal Islamist
who'd been expelled from the Brotherhood. The Brothers
were stunned by this defeat: Alexandria has been their
base since the 1950s

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