Symbol and significance
Political party emblems are either public myths or make-belief private myths as this round's elections corroborate, registers Gamal Nkrumah
Symbols are presumed to peel away the encrusted myths and hoary propaganda surrounding political parties. Not in Egypt, though. The parties' symbols and those of the individual candidates are polemics, cut-and-pasters and figments of the imagination of apologists, brainwashing propagandists, curious recyclers of historical memorabilia and nostalgia, and dubious distortions and indoctrinators. So when parliamentary polls commenced on 28 November, 2011, the first to be held in 60 years, with political parties competing for 498 seats in the People's Assembly representing opinions and ideological orientations spanning the entire Egyptian political spectrum.
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An exhibition entitled "The Politics of Representations" signalled the political significance and in some cases insignificance of the signs and symbols, posters, stickers, banners, fliers and political ephemera adopted by the contending political parties in the country to coincide with the first round of the parliamentary polls was staged at Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
Rather charmingly, there is no universal agreement on the meaning, hidden, symbolic or denuded. Most, however, are abstruse and cryptic with their deeper meanings rarely laid bare. The point it seems is to dazzle the bewildered voter. It is against this bizarre backdrop that Townhouse Gallery, Downtown Cairo, staged a fascinating exhibition entitled "The Politics of Representations" focussing on the posters, stickers, banners, fliers, photographs and other ephemera -- organised chronologically and by political party -- depicting the visual strategies deployed to communicate their ideological orientation and political message.
A voter versed in politics often finds these symbols difficult to decipher. Even when they are neither tendentious nor tangled, the symbols are often either amusing or whimsical. The politicians and prospective parliamentarians try to pluck the gauze of melodrama from the election campaigns in vain. The post-25 January Revolution period is, after all, an era of outsize, often pleasantly puzzling personalities.
Heliopolis's melting purple sunsets unveiled a plethora of electioneering campaign signs and symbols. My identity card determines where I can vote -- the constituency as well as the particular polling station. This meant that even though I reside in Maadi, a suburb to the south of Cairo, I was obliged to vote in Heliopolis, the other end of town in the northeastern periphery of Cairo. I have several personal friends and colleagues at work who live in Heliopolis and had to drive all the way to Maadi to cast their votes. Personally, I knew exactly which candidate I wanted to vote for when I cast my ballot. I was conscious that some of my fellow voters were not so sure. I read the names of the candidates and the political parties they represented carefully. I was also acutely aware that others were having a difficult time and the supervisors were meticulously taking care that neither I, nor any other voter at the polling station in Heliopolis for that matter, interfered in the voting process.
How does Townhouse Gallery assemble a mystifying archive of political and ideological ephemera? Incidentally, the political parties do not necessarily choose the symbols, colours and designs the voter will ultimately identify them with. An elderly peasant in a baby blue galabeya obviously at his wits end, was desperately seeking some guidance. Most voters turned a blind eye to his predicament. "Where are the Scales," he looked tremulously around with trembling hands.
Parenthetically, there is a great deal we do not know about the symbolism of the emblems of the various contending contemporary parties. However, we do know pretty much about the myths that have been able to outrun and outlive the emblems of the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) that dominated Egyptian politics for almost four decades. The NDP used the crescent, a decidedly Islamic symbol, and the camel an indefatigable and robust creature as its enduring symbols for so long.
The NDP had assiduously shunted all other political party symbols aside. With the NDP disbanded, discredited and laid to rest, a formidable assembly of rival emblems, signs and symbols have risen to the fore. The use of symbols in the Egyptian political arena dates back to the Arab Socialist Union of the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He devised symbols to enable the largely illiterate electorate to distinguish between the various contending candidates and prospective MPs, all incidentally who belong to the ruling party in the then one-party state. In those long forgotten days, there were roughly about 30 symbols. Today, in the post-25 Revolution era there are no less than 250 political symbols in the current parliamentary elections much to the utter confusion and chagrin of the electorate, and especially the more than 50 per cent illiterate and functionally illiterate voters.
In the blazing heat of the Egyptian summer the Supreme Elections Committee took matters into their own hands and decided to select the symbols of the various contending parties itself. The various parties had little say in the matter, even though some such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party did insist on the symbol of the Scales to highlight their dedication to the concept of social justice.
The ravishing candidate Nihal Ahdi is a single-minded bombshell that does not avail herself that easily to volumes of political advice. The fair-skinned strawberry blonde wasn't ruling anything out. She teamed up with fellow liberals, and is a candidate for the Wafd Party and proudly and perhaps appropriately was fortunate enough to have the sunflower as her emblem, or rather her party's logos.
Hind Akef, a onetime popular actress turned politician, deliberately I presume chose her personal symbol as a rocket -- the Arabic equivalent translates into saroukh, a lurid euphemism for a "seductress" or femme fatale. We shall not see, alas, whether the result is indeed a knock-out.
Akef's bold manoeuvre unleashed a spate of contemptuous jokes and even more discourteous graffiti. After resigning from the Egypt Nationalist Party (Masr Al-Qawmi) established by the late Talaat El-Sadat, she tried to run as an independent contesting the low-income district of Sayeda Zeinab, but had to withdraw because she was short of funds. Hard luck.
Unbeknown to Akef, another parliamentary hopeful Rafael Boulous of the Shubra constituency was also landed with the symbol of the rocket; in his case, I presume he took it to be a virile masculine, perhaps even a phallic symbol.
There are few plain, unvarnished stories as far as Egyptian political emblems are concerned. Even when there are neither admissible nor inadmissible reasons for the dropping of a political party symbol the accounts of the significance of a particular emblem are often overblown. Actually, Boulous replaced Akef as he is also a member of El-Sadat's Egypt Nationalist Party. There will be both thrills and exasperation in the weeks to come.
The holes in the record of the Egyptian party logos present one hazardous enigma. Does it really matter what symbol a candidate is given? With symbols, affairs of state and ideological orientation sometimes have mysteriously fallen away over time, leaving the electorate with affairs of the heart and nostalgic appeal. The Arab Nasserist Party, which claims to uphold the true legacy of the late president Nasser, has been bequeathed as its emblem a pistol. Whether that implies that it is a revolutionary or gangster-like Mafiosi organisation is unclear. In the absence of facts and figures, myth rushes into play, and the kudzu of political games plays on. The Egyptian political establishment comes to an abrupt, aggravating halt partway through the power or powerlessness of the political parties' logos.
Nasser Amin, director of the Centre for the Independent Arab Judiciary and an independent parliamentary hopeful, has no qualms about accepting the rather ridiculous symbol of the eyedropper. "I did not choose the eyedropper as my emblem. The Supreme Elections Committee gave the eyedropper emblem to me. I couldn't care less. I am an independent candidate and I didn't think whatever symbol I was given mattered. I knew that I have a faithful following who will vote for me because of my programme and not because of the emblem presumably representing me personally. The eyedropper doesn't say anything about my politics," Amin told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Amin, who ran and lost the combined Helwan and Maadi Cairene constituency, has filed an appeal against his opponent. Amin does not reckon that he lost because of the eyedropper, though. He suspects foul play on the part of his rival.
Already on treacherous grounds, independent candidates and those representing the smaller and less organised parties are naturally wary of adopting unattractive emblems. Individual candidates fare no better. A Muslim Brother, of the Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed Eissa, has the designer brand Lacoste crocodile as his symbol. Heartthrob Amr Hamzawy, whose landslide victory in Heliopolis guarantees him a seat in the forthcoming People's Assembly was as kismet would have it a ring as his symbol, perhaps it hints at his probable betrothal to his paramour, the gorgeous brunette actress Basma. At any rate, Hamzawy is certainly Heliopolis's and possibly Egypt's most eligible bachelor and it is ironic that he opted for a ring as his personal emblem.
For men in tune with their feminine side, some businessmen's briefcase is not on. But one candidate went for one. Women's rights champions will no doubt object to the preposterous allusions to women voters attracted to a blender or a dining-room chair. The laptop and CDs are meant to lure the high-tech savvy youthful voters. Young men voters, for that matter, may be more interested in a ballistic missile, a high-speed train, a basketball, or a motorbike rather than a bicycle.
A donkey-drawn cart or a screwdriver is, I would imagine, a real turnoff. And, perhaps a professor or an armchair revolutionary might go for a tobacco pipe. Mustafa Bakri, newspaperman and media star chose the camera as his symbol. Amr El-Shobaki went for the wrench, traditionally presumably a masculine instrument meant to be the proverbial knuckle-buster.
With 60 candidates on the ballot paper the choice of symbols is confusing for an electorate that is barely literate. The rate of illiteracy is higher among women, especially middle-aged and older women in shantytowns and poorer constituencies. Perhaps that explains the longer queues for women during the voting. It takes longer for an illiterate woman to recognise the symbol she seeks. "I cannot remember who is on the sheaf of the ballot paper," an elderly, illiterate and obviously hard up and distressed woman complained to the Weekly. "My son told me to go for the Scales, but then what do I do with that other sheaf with lots of weird symbols. I think I can do with a cup of coffee now, so I'll go for whoever has the coffee cup symbol, I thought at the time," she shrugged.
What the party emblems suggest is that parties and independent candidates alike need an emblem, if only as a ballerina needs a male dancer in a Balanchine pas de deux, as an ornament rather than a political statement or a symbol of ideological orientation. It has always been a thrilling experience to deal with symbols of mythology past and present. And, the Townhouse Gallery's "The Politics of Representation" which runs through January, appeals to the unspoken political language of object-making, and mythology-obsessed political conceptualisation. (see Listings p.17)