28 Nov 2011

Egypt's best chance of change?

Jonathan Rugman blogs on Egypt’s historic day of change, as people prepare to vote following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

I’ve just met the refreshingly new face of Egyptian politics. Her name is Dina El Ashry. She’s running for parliament at the age of just 28, and back in January she was a headscarfed revolutionary, braving the tear gas in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Now Dina’s battles have gone local. She’s back in her home town of Al-Fayoum, promising to fight corruption, provide healthcare and fix the sewage. And she has no time at all for the past week of mayhem in Cairo and elsewhere.

“What is happening is chaos,” she tells me during her final campaign tour through dirt poor streets, shoring up her support before today’s vote. “We want elections to parliament and we want stability. We want life to get better and to keep on with the revolution, yes – but people are causing chaos!”

Al-Fayoum is an agricultural town, watered by the River Nile two hours south of Cairo.  Away from the revolutionary politics and violence of Tahrir Square, there’s a very different buzz of expectation here. Today’s elections feel like a breath of fresh air, blowing through what was until 9 months ago effectively a one party state.

A military junta still runs Egypt, but nobody we met in Al-Fayoum complained about it, apparently because so much else has changed.  Where we filmed, over 70 local candidates are running for parliament. Before now, the only politicians who dared stand did so on the ticket of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s President who was ousted in February’s revolution. None of the 70 are from Mubarak’s party today.

Nobody stopped us filming all day, which is remarkable given that nine months ago Egypt was a police state.  As for the police themselves, well we didn’t see any. Egyptians seemed both  worried about their insecurity and relieved that the heavy hand of the Mubarak regime had gone.

“This is freedom! This is my vote, I can do what I want with it!” one man told me. He seemed to think his vote might actually count for something this time, and that today’s poll wouldn’t be rigged as last year’s apparently was.

Don’t get me wrong: life in Al-Fayoum is far from perfect. Yet there is an excitement about what is probably Egypt’s most important election since the Generals took over in 1952, even if that excitement is tempered by a history of broken promises.

“The big shots of the old regime didn’t look out for the common people,” one woman said. “Everyone is talking about reform and change now – though we really haven’t seen it yet.”

All over town are the posters and banners of the competing parties. Around 40% of Egyptians can’t read or write, so they will instead be choosing between party hieroglyphics. A bust of Queen Nefertiti is on the ballot paper, as is an ancient pyramid.

The posters of the religious fundamentalists or Salafists look particularly forbidding ; stern-faced men with beards which look as if they have been grown in fierce competition. The Salafists are fielding women candidates , but the women’s faces have been banned from appearing on the posters.

Amid the fog caused by scores of previously unknown politicians jostling for office, Islam is for many the only clear choice.

“They told us all the symbols, but I don’t know any of the candidates,” one peasant farmer told me as he was collecting cabbages . “So we will vote for the good person, who speaks about religion. Because the religious man understands everything – that we are very poor and that our kids have no future.”

And so it is that the Muslim Brotherhood now stands on the brink of power in places like Al-Fayoum, after being outlawed by Egypt’s Generals for almost 60 years.

Hatim Abdel Azim is one of their local candidates.  He’s a smooth talking university professor in his mid 30s who says its “wonderful” his once banned party is free at last.

“Islam is THE Solution,” says the poster outside his party headquarters. Religious slogans are supposedly barred from Egyptian politics, but nobody here is enforcing that.

“Islam is our identity and in Egypt it has a moderate face,” Mr. Abdel Azim assured me.  “Our models are Malaysia and Turkey. We have no agenda to clash with the western world or Israel.”

Who knows how long this vision of harmony lasts. Egypt’s Christians, who account for 10 percent of the population, have more cause for fear than most. And who knows if the Brotherhood, suppressed during decades of dictatorship,  will one day impose a fiefdom of their  own.

Whatever the outcome in Al Fayoum, I left it with a sense of history being in the making today. Apart from February’s revolution itself, this election gives the desperately poor Egyptians I met their best chance of change in decades. And they seem determined not to waste it.

Follow @jrug on Twitter.