Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The curious case of Abu Ismail

Posters of presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail have been appearing everywhere, but is all publicity good publicity, asks Dena Rashed

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With his big smile, white beard and motto of "we will live with dignity," posters bearing the face of presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail seem to be everywhere you turn. On houses, bridges, government buildings and even schools, his grin follows you. Egyptians have become accustomed to the habit of plastering posters of candidates onto walls, yet it has been getting out of control lately, with the last parliamentary elections making many cities look even more chaotic than usual. It took months to remove the remnants of the posters last time round, a job that has now become even harder thanks to the posters of Abu Ismail.

The past week has witnessed a flow of jokes and edited photos of Abu Ismail's posters. In one joke, "Apple released a new app called iSom3a (the nickname for Abu Ismail) so you can know the nearest poster to you", and in another a great opportunity was advertised: a flat that doesn't overlook any Abu Ismail posters. The most widespread joke ran as follows: "you want to go to a specific address? Walk straight past the posters of Abu Ismail until you get to the intersection. Ignore the first and second posters, and turn right at the third."

With the growing number of posters on taxis and microbuses, came another joke: "Breaking News: Egypt asks the European Union to start exporting cars carrying a poster of Abu Ismail." In many of the edited photographs now circulating, you can see a poster of Abu Ismail in the White House, on a bag of potato chips, and even on the Statue of Liberty.

On the walls of the National Centre for Population in Dokki, Abu Ismail posters are plastered all over the granite building. Security guards Atef Abdel-Maesoud and Adly Abdel-Azim say they did not see the people who put them there. "They usually come late at night around 3:00 am. Otherwise we would have stopped them," Abdel-Azim said, adding that there are people who pay compliments to their favourite candidates by printing and posting their posters.

Abdel-Maesoud said that he did not believe that people paid much attention to the posters. "People know who they want as president, so they are not fazed by this kind of publicity." The two men didn't disclose their favoured candidates, but agreed that Abu Ismail was backed by the less well educated.

Talking to the Weekly in a bookstore, Mohamed Said, 29, said that there were too many posters, and there was also too much criticism. "Sometimes you feel the city streets are made more of posters than they are of walls," he said, adding that he has not yet decided who he will vote for. "I can't find a candidate I can trust," he said.

As for Ishaq Wanas Boutros, a Christian, despite Abu Ismail's assurances to his fellow citizens, he remains worried by the campaign. "Even with such a huge number of posters, there are questions about whether or not he will win. Either way, women with any ambition should worry about his opinions, and I wonder where the money for the campaign comes from."

Hany Hafez, the head of Abu Ismail's campaign, told the Weekly that he had also been surprised by the number of posters in the streets. "The posters you see on the streets were not commissioned by the campaign. Volunteers have been putting them up by themselves," he said. Hafez's interpretation is that Abu Ismail appeals to popular feelings, with people spontaneously putting his picture on their cars, for example. The official campaign has not even started to produce posters in any number. "We have only printed 50,000 so far," he said. "We haven't even started yet."

The campaign has spent very little money thus far, and it will soon be opening a bank account for donations, he added. "As for our meetings in the governorates, volunteers prepare and pay for them themselves."

Abu Ismail himself, backed by the Salafists in the campaign, has an interesting background. A law graduate from Cairo University, he then studied Islamic thought and became a preacher, also following in his father's footsteps. His views on certain topics have landed him with criticism from moderates and liberals, and he has been very vocal in his views on women.

Abu Ismail's main message is about the need to apply Islamic Sharia Law, "gradually" he says in his many interviews. He said in a television talk show that women could study, but not necessarily work, if they were married with children and their children had not yet grown up. Wearing the veil is a religious duty for women, Abu Ismail has said. Asked whether he wants to impose the veil on non-veiled women on one talk show, he said that women should either wear the veil or change their creed.

However, Abu Ismail's official electoral programme is rather different, and here he suggests that the government should provide wives or mothers with education in order to help them raise their children and that it should provide them with a monthly income and pension. There is no mention of women's work in his programme.

That said, Abu Ismail prefers to discuss his ideas on television, and these have included proposals for planting the desert in Sinai and setting up educational TV stations for students. On housing, Abu Ismail has suggested establishing a charity that would make building materials directly available to builders, according to him causing a 60 per cent decrease in the cost of building houses.

He has suggested abolishing prisons and creating rehabilitation centres instead. Islamic Sharia Law does not need to be applied to Copts, he says. On the arts, Abu Ismail has only said that Islam endorses virtues and forbids sins. On tourism, he claims that his ideas could see an eight-fold increase in current revenues, and he has argued for allowing foreign investors to invest more in tourism and to establish more theme parks and host more conferences and festivals.

Since Abu Ismail has long been a preacher, many of his earlier sermons are available online. In one, he says that people should avoid using nutmeg since it could contain a drug-like substance.

Rahma Gamil, 24, though veiled herself is concerned about Abu Ismail's views on culture. "His views aren't very clear on artistic issues, and he always uses phrases like, 'would you want that for your sister,'" she said.

However, Hafez brushes off such concerns, saying that "it cannot be expected that any candidate can be 100 per cent accurate about everything he says in his campaign speeches. There will always be some uncertain information." People are using trivial matters to criticise Abu Ismail, he said.

Ahmed Raafat, a technician, said that Abu Ismail was popular in urban areas, but that he was not necessarily popular in country districts. "This kind of publicity doesn't generate equal amounts of support," he said.

At present, the presidential race is divided between Abu Ismail, Abdel-Moneim Abu El-Fottouh (a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood), Ahmed Shafik (a former prime minister under former president Mubarak and former minister of aviation), Amr Moussa (former minister of foreign affairs under Mubarak and a former secretary-general of the Arab League), Mohamed Selim al-Awa (an Islamic scholar) and Hamdein Sabahy (candidate for the Karama Party, a Nasserist group). It is uncertain whether other candidates will join the race.

According to Hafez, Abu Ismail has had good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood for 30 years. "He took his organisational skills from them, and he is more lenient towards the fundamentals of religion than the Salafist point of view." For Mohamed Karim, 26, Abu Ismail's edge lies in understanding how to gather ordinary people around him. "He knows how to speak for himself, and he is a good preacher, with a strong background," Karim said.

Hafez said that Abu Ismail had been receiving criticism because "he follows Islamic discourse in a straightforward way, and he has always taken up a clear stance on the most important issues. He has always said that he will forbid what is forbidden in Islam and allow what is allowed." Hafez, 39, is originally an engineer specialising in automation production lines, and he was also involved in Abu Ismail's 1995 and 2005 campaigns.

While the campaign has been highly professional and has studied foreign presidential campaigns, it has not used foreign expertise. "If we did that, it could create serious problems, since foreigners do not understand the Egyptian people," Hafez said. When the campaign wants to target a particular village for example, it does not use members of a single leading family. Instead, it studies the local situation and invites members of all leading families to participate.

While this system might not work for some other candidates, Hafez says, "we want 15 million votes for Abu Ismail, and our system promises to achieve this goal. We are expecting to win inshallah."

"The person who has benefited our campaign the most is Abu Ismail himself, because he witnessed his own late father's parliamentary campaign for four rounds," Hafez said. The campaign has been working since last October, and next Friday it is expected that Abu Ismail will officially become a candidate after submitting the necessary documents to the presidential elections registration committee. "Our campaign will officially begin when the ban on campaigns is lifted" from 10 March to 29 April, he said. His campaign announced yesterday that they have collected the signatures of more than 140, 000 citizens and that of and 58 MPs in support of Abu Ismail. Conditions for nomination requires the signatures of 30, 000 citizens or 30 MPs.

Although Hafez admits that posters of Abu Ismail are increasingly being plastered everywhere, he says it is wrong to glue them onto buildings and schools, something which could backfire on the campaign. "For this reason, some of us are repainting walls that have been damaged by the posters, and we will post videos asking supporters not to put up more posters."

As for the jokes and edited photographs of Abu Ismail, Hafez says they amuse him too, especially the one showing the man behind former vice-president Omar Soliman holding a poster of Abu Ismail. When Soliman stepped down on 11 February, 2011, the man standing behind him became so intriguing to people that they began to speculate about his identity, making the current re-editing of the image an automatic hit with the public.

For Hafez, the edited photographs are all good publicity. Some are not flattering, but "even Obama was subjected to negative campaigns." The campaign has been trying hard to draw analogies between Obama and Abu Ismail, underlining the fact that both worked as lawyers. Since Abu Ismail has been criticised for not having held any political position before, his campaign has also tried to emphasise Obama's comparative lack of political experience when he was elected, despite the fact that the American Preisdent has been politically active before being elected Senator for the State of Illinois in 2005.

One song on YouTube features a young man criticising Abu Ismail by changing the words of a famous song by the group AC-DC, "Highway to Hell," into "Highway to Abu Ismail". In it, he sings "forget the beer and drink anise; no bikinis or spaghetti straps for women." While the song is supposed to be a criticism of Abu Ismail, Hafez insists it is great publicity. "We have even used it on our Website. The song criticises him for wanting to forbid alcohol, so in fact the song serves us well since alcohol-drinkers are a small minority."

From an advertising point of view, Tarek Ali, founder of Studio Zanad, which specialises in graphics for commercials, says that Abu Ismail's posters can't be considered part of a proper campaign. "A fully-fledged campaign would include not just posters, but also banners, commercials and media air time. So far, these posters are the cheapest form of advertising. An A4 flyer costs five piastres, so supporters don't find it expensive to print posters for him."

Ali said that putting up so many posters could be a smart move since people could be swayed by others' opinions. "When an ad is released, some people don't want to say they don't like it for fear that they are going against the mainstream. Even for non-supporters, the posters are putting pressure on them, forcing them to vote for other candidates." When it comes to the use of social media, Ali believes that the edited versions of Abu Ismail's posters will not affect his supporters. "Such campaigns won't affect those who have already made up their minds. We have seen how candidates win for very unexpected reasons," he said.

According to Ahmed Sayed Ahmed, an engineer, people sometimes look to religion to answers for problems for which they can find no earthly solution, and Abu Ismail has become the "spiritual leader for some of the underprivileged."

"I see the comments of his followers, those who have access to social networks, and they have turned him into a sort of Khomeini. They have even developed a term, hazemoon, derived from his first name, Hazem, meaning determined." Ahmed is intrigued by Abu Ismail's campaign, but thinks that it is only managing to push those with more moderate opinions towards other candidates.

While Ahmed is not enthusiastic about Abu Ismail, he thinks that things must be allowed to draw to their conclusion. "With all the campaigning and the upcoming elections, we are just witnessing the beginning of the movie. There will be more surprises to come. We are witnessing history in the making, and it is tough-going."

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