Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
9 -15 November 2000
Issue No.507
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

The politician versus the businessman

By Gamal Essam El-Din

Azbakiya Minya
From Azbakiya in Cairo (left), to Minya in Upper Egypt, the third stage of parliamentary elections have been especially heated. Judicial supervision, in ensuring the fairness of the poll, has intensified the contest.
In the photo (right) business tycoon Rami Lakah, in a show of largesse, asks the police not to arrest an over-zealous opponent after the latter had physically assaulted him

photos: Mustafa El-Senoussi and Magdi Abdel-Sayed

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Azbakiya is the most important commercial district in Cairo, and probably in all of Egypt. Attesting to this fact are the presence in the area of some of Cairo's main wholesale markets: Al-Faggala, Al-Tawfiqiya, Al-Falaki, Al-Sabtiya, Clot Bey, Al-Gomhouriya and Al-Qolali. But this is not all it is famous for; it is home to headquarters of the Egyptian Railway Authority and the Postal Authority, while its Al-Dhaher residential area boasts historical sites such as Al-Dhaher Baybars mosque, Al-Sakakini Palace and the Arab Music Institute.

Given that many of the area's inhabitants have a strong communal identity based around pride in the district, it is noteworthy that neither of the MPs for Azbakiya and Al-Dhaher are from its commercial community. The holder of the professionals' seat, Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin, Head of Parliament's Arab Affairs Committee, is a member of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and a prominent lawyer who was born in the Delta governorate of Al-Gharbiya. Mahmoud Ibrahim, the workers' representative is a social worker at a textiles factory.

Supervision by the judiciary has encouraged many merchants and traders to try to replace the outsider incumbents by nominating themselves to stand for the elections.

Mohamed Abbas, an Azbakiya merchant, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Azbakiya and Al-Dhaher residents are fed up with their current representatives. "Azbakiya is Egypt's number one commercial centre and the vast majority of its residents are involved in commercial activities such as the wholesale trade in ceramics, bathroom fixtures, office equipment, books and car accessories. The fact that the current two MPs are not from our community is no longer acceptable. The ruling NDP used to impose its candidates on us, but now we want two MPs who belong among us and who can represent our interests in parliament," said Abbas.

The number of voters registered in Ezbekiya and Al-Dhaher is close to 83,000, of whom 23,000 are women. According to Cairo governorate statistics, 50 per cent of the residents of Ezbekiya and Al-Dhaher district are university graduates. "Wealthy" people comprise 40 per cent of the residents of the district, 50 per cent are "average-income" citizens while the remaining 10 per cent are craftsmen of limited means. More significant is that 25 per cent of people in this densely populated area are Christian.

The above factors are highlighted in the attributes of the 20 hopefuls who nominated themselves as candidates for the district's parliamentary seats this year. These include 14 for the workers' seat while the remaining six will run for the professionals' seat. The NDP's professionals' candidate, Gamaleddin, the incumbent, will face two strong rivals: the independent business tycoon Rami Lakah and the Wafdist Wagih Iqladious.

Lakah is a prominent businessman who is primarily involved in manufacturing hospital equipment and supplying medical services. Iqladious is an Azbakiya electrical appliances wholesaler. To the surprise of many, Iqladious was nominated in 1984 as a candidate for the Islamist-oriented Labour Party. Later, he resigned from the party and joined the late writer Farag Foda in establishing what was called "the Future Party." Following Foda's assassination in 1993, he decided to join the ranks of the Wafd Party. Both Lakah and Iqladious are Roman Catholic Christians.

Another candidate who is considered a major contender for the professionals' seat is businessman Mohamed El-Shimi. Running as an independent El-Shimi is an Azbakiya wholesale trader of iron and steel products.

The ten hopefuls running for the workers' seat are mostly craftsmen from Azbakiya.

Perhaps more than any of Cairo's districts, the struggle for Azbakiya and Al-Dhaher's two seats has captured the attention of people throughout Egypt during the past two weeks. Businessman Rami Lakah, who was rumoured to have fled Egypt this summer to escape LE1.2 billion in debts, has attracted many supporters in the area. An integral part of Lakah's campaign was his payment of regular stipends to more than 850 families of limited means in the area.

Making a greater impression on a wider number of the district's inhabitants, however, was Lakah's donation of expensive medical equipment to the Railway Authority Hospital. One Azbakiya resident told the Weekly that he was sold on Lakah when the businessman gave this equipment to the hospital. "I will give my vote for Lakah because it is better to vote for someone able to offer tangible services than to give a person who can do no more than talk," the Azbakiya resident said.

As Lakah and the NDP's Gamaleddin positioned themselves as the main contenders, the race's dimensions as a contest between a businessman and a politician were highlighted.

Sensing the increase in Lakah's popularity, NDP incumbent Gamaleddin launched a counter-attack by filing lawsuits and verbally attacking candidates from the business world who he said were trying to buy a seat in parliament.

The battle between the politician and the businessman intensified when the Administrative Court decided on Sunday to accept Gamaleddin's petition for the disqualification of his rival Lakah on the grounds that the businessman is a dual national, holding both Egyptian and French citizenship. Lakah successfully appealed this decision, then launched a counter-offensive by filing a petition to have Gamaleddin disqualified, claiming that the NDP politician was ineligible to run in Azbakiya, since he is not a resident of the area.

The battle in Azbakiya was one of the fiercest in Cairo. And, if Lakah wins he will be the first independent Christian candidate to be elected to parliament in the last 50 years.

Related stories:
Business blues 24 - 30 August 2000
Businessmen held to account 28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Lakah buys time 31 August - 6 September 2000
Politics of business 19 - 25 October 2000
See Elections 2000

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