Saturday, March 3, 2012

Slow News Day

Last week, my editor at the Daily News Egypt said she is heading to the U.S. for three weeks to attend a conference. “I was not sure if I should leave at this critical time,” she told me, referring to the revolutionary year in general, “But then I realized that if there was any time to leave, this would be it.”

The pace and rhythm of news in Egypt has undoubtedly slowed and grown sparse. Americans were reading nervously about the trial of NGO workers accused of breaking Egyptian law, but to the majority of Egyptians that is a footnote to the political events. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is promising that presidential elections in late May will produce a new leader in June. Perhaps my year here will really conclude with a major chapter of Egyptian history, though with the twists and turns of the year that have forced me to give up predicting, that is unlikely.

The presidential race means that the news out of Egypt will soon be more about individuals (the candidates) than about groups (the SCAF, the Brotherhood, the activists). Individuals can commit far more embarrassing foibles than groups, and though I do not predict anything approaching the American presidential race for high jinx and farce, there is already a bit.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi candidate who talks a lot about banning bikinis and alcohol, is proving to be the local Ron Paul/Herman Cain/Rick Perry, with skeletons in the closet that, like the newsletters years ago under Paul’s name, lead to a chuckle and then a sense of deep feeling of the ominous. Consider this video, from 2010, in which Abu Ismail tries to convince his television audience that the brand name Pepsi is actually an acronym for Pay Every Penny Saving Israel. Then he admits, “My little son knows more about the boycott than me. When we go shopping he says to me: ‘Buy this, don’t buy that.’” So, at least you know Abu Ismail is a family man.

I saw Abu Ismail speak at Tahrir several months ago. He is very charismatic. He is also sort of kooky:

At Tahrir, protests have quieted down to nearly a whisper and cab drivers no longer nervously refuse to take you there. Coming back from Jordan with a fresh set of eyes, I noticed only a few sad tents in the square and vendors selling Tahrir-ica. An Egyptian friend told me that these tents are occupied not by revolutionaries but by baltageya, thugs, hired by the state usually to provoke protesters, but here, to imitate them so that passers by will look at Tahrir with disgust and think, “Why don’t they just go home?” 

She told me that last week a mock student protest was meant to do the same thing. I asked her how she knew they were "thugs" and not real students, and she said, "Well, if they were really students and they want to protest about education then they could have at least gone to class."

This sounds conspiratorial, but far stranger stories have been believed (and sometimes proved) this year.

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