Dreams of a ferryboat man
Osama Kamal interviews one persistent candidate who has managed to lose in both elections for parliament
The political destinies of a man and a bird were entwined for weeks. In the recent elections for the Shura Council, the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, each candidate was given a visual symbol to help voters find them on the ballot papers. In candidate Sayed El-Shafei's case, the symbol was the hoopoe, or hudhud in Arabic.
Hudhud is also a cute nickname, and El-Shafei's friends and supporters took to calling him Sayed Hudhud, or Mr Hoopoe, for short. This may be the reason why El-Shafei, who had run for office twice before, did better in the Shura Council elections than he had the pervious time. The 600 votes he received were hardly enough to gain him a seat, but he is not complaining.
El-Shafei is a ferryboat pilot working for the Suez Canal Authority, ferrying passengers from Port Said to Port Fouad and back, a trip that takes only a few minutes each way. It is not an arduous job, nor does it require a lot of training: after only three months training, aspiring ferryboat captains can be the masters of their own boats on one of the world's busiest waterways. You steer your ferry across the canal, admire the open horizon, and dream on.
El-Shafei himself has many dreams, and no lack of skills. He studied in a polytechnic school, obtained a license as a wireless operator, has worked as a butcher, welder, dairy food producer, and moonlighted as a chicken salesman, among other things. For the past few years, he has been trying his hand at politics.
His first attempt came in 2005, when he ran for the People's Assembly, the lower house of Egypt's parliament. This attempt shocked those who knew him, as El-Shafei does not belong to a political party, is not an activist, and has no particular experience of public service.
His only known success has been in boxing, in which he won several local championships before retiring to work as a referee in 1995. With a glint of pride in his eyes, he mentions that he is qualified to referee international matches. This is the glamorous job he aspires to, but not as ardently as he aspires to elected office.
In the 2005 elections, El-Shafei only won 80 votes, not such a bad achievement when one considers that he only campaigned around the area he lives in, produced no campaign posters and held no public meetings.
In 2010, he ran again, this time winning 83 votes, a small improvement on his earlier record. He says he could have won more, had the elections not been rigged by the previous Mubarak regime. "The rigging was so blatant that I was prevented from entering the polling stations even though I was a candidate," El-Shafei recalls. "So I went to the market instead, bought some bread and called it a day early."
In the recent elections for the Shura Council, El-Shafei campaigned more vigorously. His first stop was a print shop in the Delta city of Mansoura. "I paid LE400 for 1,000 posters, but when I got them home I had no idea what to do with them."
Sitting in his home, now crowded with boxes, El-Shafei was wondering what to do next, but then he received some unexpected help. "Children began coming to my door to offer their help, dozens of them, and in no time at all my posters were up on every wall in the neighbourhood," he says.
The children who helped him were the sons of the day labourers who use his ferry every day to get to work. There were also homeless children who had drifted to Port Said because it is the last station on the train journey from Cairo.
El-Shafei paid the children for their work. He could only afford a modest amount, but his was not exactly a well-funded campaign. However, it was not a publicity stunt either, as El-Shafei's heart is really into it, and he talks incessantly about his belief in science as a way of reorganising society.
"Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by science, and now I believe it is the only way to surmount the difficulties ahead."
El-Shafei's programme involves the building of a tunnel linking the mainland with the Sinai, since there is only one tunnel at the moment, near Suez. He has prepared a complete feasibility study, he says, for the tunnel project, and when asked about his civil and maritime engineering experience he is not put off.
"God has given me knowledge of basic science, with the ability to find answers in a direct way."
One month before last year's revolution, the government of former prime minister Ahmed Nazif declared its intention to build a tunnel under the Suez Canal, he says. "The proposed tunnel was supposed to be 48 metres under water, 11 metres wide and 5.5 metres high. It was designed to run for 10km, including 30 under the Canal, and it was designed by a Spanish company."
From what he says, El-Shafei believes that his design is superior to that of the Spaniards, and it turns out that he also has plans for an overhaul of Port Said airport, the bridge over the Suez Canal, and various renewable energy projects.
Pressed on his ideological affiliations, El-Shafei stares into the middle distance and shrugs off such questions. Doctrinal matters don't hold much allure for him. Perhaps they are not practical enough to feature in his dreams.