The melting pot
Political cocktail to please or the birth of a new political project? Amira Howeidy
explores the political diversity of the Abul-Fotouh campaign
Rabab El-Mahdi, 37, is no stranger to politics. Hailing from a Marxist family, she first engaged in political activism at the age of 19, eventually becoming a political science professor at the American University in Cairo because she thought it would help her activism. A reputable scholar, El-Mahdi is in demand. Last autumn she accepted a teaching offer as a visiting scholar at Yale University but because the revolution was still at its peak felt obliged to return home after one semester. Before going to Yale El-Mahdi was already embroiled in the presidential campaign of Abdel-Meneim Abul-Fotouh. By the end of the summer the outspoken leftist with long curly hair was Abul-Fotouh's political adviser. She's the only woman to hold a senior position in any of the current presidential campaigns, and probably the only named political adviser.
Given Egypt's polarised political spectrum, the prospect of a leftist woman volunteering to work with an ex-Brotherhood figure is remarkable. Yet years before the revolution Abul-Fotouh, a vocal reformist, enjoyed respect even from his adversaries, while El-Mahdi's own political activism and views challenged the Islamist-secularist divide. When a friend initiated a meeting between them early last summer, El-Mahdi asked Abul-Fotouh two questions, about women and Copts. She says he gave all the "right answers". And because she's a "political junkie" the next thing she did was offer to help volunteers working on his campaign.
"It wasn't Abul-Fotouh himself but the people with him. From my first meeting with them I could tell we were on the same wave length."
El-Mahdi's "biggest project" is to engineer a move away from the secularist versus Islamist divide that reached its peak during last March's referendum on constitutional amendments, and towards structuring economic change in terms of equality and human dignity rather than maintaining the status quo. In other words, she wants to shift the debate away from what matters to the elite to what impacts on the vast majority of Egyptians, ie economic justice and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
She felt Abul-Fotouh's campaign would be an "excellent venue" to do this because he offered a viable alternative. He doesn't come across as "elitist or foreign", is at ease within the cultural framework and traditions of Egypt and is willing to step out of the "unreal dichotomy" of Islam versus secularism to talk about things that "matter".
"The campaign was promising because of the people around Abul-Fotouh, young ex-Muslim Brothers who left the organisation not because they have a problem with Islam or Islamism but because they're much more revolutionary than the Brotherhood."
After seven months of working together, she says there's "something about the energy" that she can't explain.
"Many times I start a sentence and they finish it for me."
They're the "essence of what the left is, show clear compassion for the poor, the weak and those who are being exploited."
El-Mahdi marvels at their "compass" and how they got it "right", not in terms of "charity or developmental bullshit but in terms of rights". And they're not something that has been "exported", they're the "breed of this country, where they live and with the kind of educational background they have. They're your typical young, middle class and lower middle class Egyptian".
In the wake of the revolution, a rebirth of politics that is reshaping the political landscape, it seems ironic that a passionate Marxist would invest so much energy not with her leftist comrades but with a group of ex-Muslim Brotherhood members in order to pursue her political project.
"The left has the ideas and the passion, but because of many factors and circumstances related to their choices, they isolated themselves. But they weren't, like the Brotherhood, persecuted and there's a big difference between the two."
The Egyptian left's other problem -- which applies to all the political streams -- she says, is that they couldn't develop their own thought and culture and indulged in theories instead.
Young ex-Brotherhood members who combine Islamic heritage, thought and history with experience in organisational activism and leftist compassion "can create a real left, capable of achieving real change in Egypt."
One of El-Mahdi's more important imprints on the campaign will be apparent in Abul-Fotouh's yet-to-be released programme which, until late January when this interview was made, was based on three pillars: reforming the political system through participatory, not liberal, democracy, social justice and national liberation. They are the nucleus of her "political project".
On a theoretical level it may seem politically sensible, but come voting time it is what Egypt wants.
"I don't know if Abul-Fotouh is going to win, but I think this is what Egypt needs. And even if it doesn't, it certainly needs pluralism and new combinations that go beyond the dogmatic divisions of pre-25 January times."
"The importance of this campaign is that it's a political project. Part of it, though not all of it, is the presidential campaign. This means that if Abul-Fotouh wins the project will be implemented. But if he doesn't, we'll build on the base of supporters that voted for this project and continue working in the political arena."
From the beginning of the 25 January Revolution Mohamed Othman, 31, felt compelled to "resolve" once and for all his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood which he had joined at the age of 15. He was still active as a member of the Brotherhood's student's section, a branch of the organisation's political bureau. A pharmacist by profession, Othman was also assistant secretary-general of the Pharmacists Syndicate 6 October City branch. Given his young age his plate may have seemed full to overflowing but his "convictions" towards the Brotherhood were waning.
"I had disagreements with their perception of change and of street movement, not to mention the many internal problems they were facing."
His biggest frustration in recent years was over the leadership's "undemocratic" decision-making mechanism. Othman recalls that in 2010, a few months ahead of the parliamentary elections, the students' section to which he belonged submitted a paper to some of the group's leaders pointing out the obvious: since the elections would be rigged the Brotherhood must explore different mechanisms for change, including collecting signatures for Mohamed El-Baradei and contesting the elections in half of all seats as part of a broad national coalition. Once the fraudulent poll was over they would then take to the streets, besieging election centres announcing the results with the objective of cancelling the vote and holding new elections. But Othman and his colleagues -- now political celebrities Islam Lotfi and Mohamed El-Qassas -- with whom he wrote the paper were shocked when Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a member of the MB's Guidance Bureau, insisted the group would go ahead with its plans to field just 170 candidates.
"My question was why? Why do what would be comfortable for the Mubarak regime when we could embarrass them? What more can they do to us? They rig elections and they detain us."
The proposal was rejected.
When Mubarak was toppled last February Othman had two choices: accept the status quo, give up his convictions and enjoy political gains that would accrue to the MB's Freedom and Justice Party, or work outside the Brotherhood. He chose the latter, joining in MB youth group discussions about forming a centrist, mainstream political party. At that time Amr Moussa and Mohamed El-Baradei were the only presidential hopefuls. When fellow Brotherhood member Mohamed Heikal asked why Egyptians should have to choose between Moussa's charisma and El-Baradei's conscience when Abul-Fotouh combined both, everybody agreed and the political party project was put on hold. After a period of reluctance and intense consultations, Abul-Fotouh agreed to stand.
In June Othman and others were interrogated in the Brotherhood. He was "accused" of seeking to establish a political party and supporting Abul-Fotouh. He was expelled on 29 July. By then he was already fully occupied with the Abul-Fotouh campaign, heading its political committee. The campaign was starting work in an area it didn't know that much about.
"Abul-Fotouh represents moderate centrist Islam. A good man, Egyptians like him because his discourse is conciliatory and he has a long history of political struggle, but we didn't have an economic vision. Which direction should we tread? Right or left? We weren't sure and that's because the economic project was non-existent in the Brotherhood."
Rabab El-Mahdi's arrival as political adviser "fixed" their political compass.
Othman's job is to coordinate Abul-Fotouh's political statements and, when needed, adjust his media performances. He also coordinates between a dedicated group tasked with working on Abul-Fotouh's programme.
The past eight months have been intense, he says, an experience that has affected his thought processes and how he takes political decisions. In pre-revolution times the height of Othman's political action was to release a carefully worded statement at university.
Today he is able to see just how far the campaign has come. Five months ago, when Abul-Fotouh's name was mentioned, the typical response Othman got was "Who, the Brotherhood guy?" Recently, in a meeting with people who didn't know he was a volunteer on the campaign, six of them said they'd vote for Abul-Fotouh and three for Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. "It's becoming a bit scary," he says.
Asked what political label he now applies to himself, Othman laughed.
"It's a difficult a question. I used to think I was on the left of the Brotherhood when I was a member. Now I don't want to label myself. The project that this campaign represents is what represents me and I don't have a name for it."
Abul-Fotouh's campaign is a group effort but its structure and management, practically speaking, is the work of 40-year-old Mohamed El-Shahawi, country manager of a multinational technology company. Originally a medical doctor, he sought a career in sales and marketing and is now doing a DBA (doctorate of business administration). His thesis -- titled Political Management in Egypt After the 25 January Revolution -- is on hold because of the campaign, which he is juggling as a volunteer with his day job.
Like his counterparts in the other presidential campaigns, El-Shahawi is sailing in uncharted waters. He says it takes good management combined with his experience in the Muslim Brotherhood, where he spent half his life before they expelled him for joining Abul-Fotouh's campaign last year.
"Let me show you."
He opens his laptop and begins a brief to-the-point presentation of the campaign, which he's been running for the last 10 months. The first image that appears is a black and white photo of Abul-Fotouh surrounded by lots of people talking to him in a street.
"This is how I see Abul-Fotouh."
He clicks a few buttons and an egg shaped surrounding two smaller shapes appears on the screen.
"I want you to see what we were and what we've become."
He points at the smallest egg.
"We were something embryonic, only 10 people. Then we developed the executive bureau and the campaign's higher secretariat. Now we're here."
He points at the second egg, crowd sourcing. It's the stage at which the campaign invites supporters to mobilise for Abul-Fotouh without having to visit the headquarters.
"They can log on our website, download a flyer or go to our 'How to support the campaign' link where they can donate money, organise a public rally or sponsor a conference. There are countless ways to support the campaign."
The next stage will be "general supporters", allowing people at home who support Abul-Fotouh to spread the word when he's going to appear on TV, or simply hand out flyers to visitors.
Today, says El-Shahawi, the campaign has 5,000 volunteers on its database. There are working groups in 20 governorates, including 16 campaign headquarters.
"We're a relatively big campaign. We are determined to build publicity and canvass for Abul-Fotouh on the ground via volunteers."
In the next two minutes he explains the "matrix" structure of the campaign, now content produced by the higher secretariat ("the brains of the campaign"), filters to the executive bureau, then the specialised committees and finally reaches those working on the ground. The campaign has a call centre too.
"I'm not as busy now as I was earlier on in the campaign. My focus is on supporting Abul-Fotouh as a candidate, the strategic decisions of the campaign relating to coalitions, political economy, supervising funding and increasing the campaigns resources."
El-Shahawi says he read books on political marketing, researched other experiences and received many tips from campaign managers in countries that have a history of democratic elections.
"But nothing has been as inspiring as the revolution," he says.
He was in Tahrir on the 25th along with other Brotherhood members. The next 18 days that he spent in the square are carved in his memory. It was during that time that his obsession with finding a leader for Egypt began.
Many journalists who know Ali El-Bahnasawi, 30, raised an eyebrow, if not two, when they heard he had joined Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh's campaign as media adviser. Just how did this successful business journalist who published stories in English and spoke it with a noticeable American accent emerge as the dark-suited guy advising a presidential candidate how he should handle the media?
Having quit his job at IBA, publisher of the English language monthlies Egypt Today and Business Today, in 2010 to work as a media operations manager in the state run International Media Centre which handles foreign press requests in Egypt, El-Bahnasawi found the 2010 elections and the March 2011 referendum dominating his work. It increased his interest in politics and in elections.
When his neighbour told him that his friend in the Abul-Fotouh campaign was looking for a media adviser he was interested but knew little about the candidate beyond his affiliation with the Brotherhood. A few days later he watched him on a popular TV talk show and decided to Google him. It was then that he discovered Abul-Fotouh's political history dated back to the 1970s when, as a university student, he basically quarrelled one-on-one with president Anwar El-Sadat and called his aides "hypocrites". El-Bahnasawi was "astonished". When he finally met Abul-Fotouh at his house he "saw a humble person who asked questions and listened intently".
In June he was offered the job and he took it. He advises Abul-Fotouh on TV appearances and press interviews, determining which "are good for the campaign". With his team, he supervises the campaign's social media activity on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, producing promotional material and publicity in line with "naïve" laws regulating the presidential elections and which permit campaigning for only a month before the elections. He also acts as press secretary.
A "moralist more than a liberal, but a liberal nonetheless", El-Bahnasawi is inspired by American marketing techniques.
"They're the best," he says, though he has also read up on political campaigning in Britain and how media advisers work. Although he believes in Abul-Fotouh and what he stands for, El-Bahnasawi is in the campaign to get hands-on experience for a career that he seems cut to pursue. His book How to Run a Successful Election Campaign was released last November and hailed by some reviews as the first guide to campaigning in Egypt.