Monday, April 9, 2012

'I'd Rather Vote for Faustus!' - On Omar Suleiman's Candidacy

It is outrageously hot outside. I was covered in sweat when I arrived at the newspaper office yesterday. All the editors were red in the face too. “Islamists and remnants of the former regime…rushed to register their candidacy for Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election,” began the lead article in the next day’s paper. But at the office, the discussion was not conducted in the dry house style.

The two big new names in the presidential election, scheduled for late May, are Omar Suleiman and Khairat el-Shater. Suleiman served as director of military intelligence under Mubarak for nearly twenty years. If Americans had heard his name before February 2011, when he gravely announced Mubarak’s resignation, it was likely attached to the title given to him by Democracy Now!: “The CIA’s man in Cairo and Egypt’s Torturer-in-Chief.” He was once seen as a possible successor to Mubarak, before the talk of Mubarak’s son Gamal began. In 2005, journalist and opposition leader Hisham Kassem remarked, “You can say today Omar Suleiman is the most prominent military figure with his influence and closeness to the president.” According to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, “he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.” Now, he’s running for president.

“I can’t sleep. I’m getting nightmares,” the Editor-in-Chief, said as I entered. She is convinced that Suleiman was assured victory by the SCAF, who might rig the election. For her, Suleiman’s sudden decision to run reeks of conspiracy. “The SCAF will do their utmost to see their man there. Would he put himself out there if he wasn’t 100% he’s winning? Which body would give him that assurance? Three days ago he writes a statement saying ‘I’m not running,’ and two days later, ‘I’m running.’ What on earth happened in two days?”

The Business Editor tried to make the best of it, trying to be heard over a the sound of a gas seller clanking his canisters outside. She looked back to the pre-revolution days, explaining that those opposed to Mubarak used to hope that at the very least, if there was no revolution, perhaps Suleiman would be better than Gamal Mubarak. The continuation of the regime, they used to say, was at least better than a dynasty. “These were the options,” she explained. “Not that we wanted any of them.”

“But did we have a revolution or didn’t we?” she almost shouted, realizing that Suleiman, if elected, would pardon Mubarak and all the most corrupt former leaders. “I’m very disappointed and very angry and I think if Omar Suleiman becomes the next president, I don’t know hat I would do. What do you do? I would rather vote for Faustus, for Mephistopheles, than this guy.” She’s afraid that Islamophobia will drive secular voters to bring back the former regime rather than risk a religious turn in the government. And she thinks that’s wrong, that there’s no way the Brotherhood would want to turn Egypt into a Saudi-style theocracy. 

She explained to me that Suleiman’s campaigners are trying to paint a revolution-friendly portrait of the former Mubarak-aide. They are, apparently, saying that Suleiman did “not approve of what was going on.”

The Business editor piped in: “He was what was going on!”

She took me to another room where I interviewed her for several hours. We talked about her family, her career, the history of the newspaper, the drift of Egyptian journalists towards activism since the revolution, and other bits of speculation on current news stories. I mentioned having seen stickers for Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, the ultraconservative Salafi candidate, in the office kitchen. She told me that several of the men working in the office, not on the editorial staff, support Abu Ismail, lest anyone think the newspaper only employs secular revolutionaries. “They give me a real sense of the pulse of Abu Ismail’s supporters,” she said. “They love that man.” Abu Ismail has been accused of lying about his mother’s U.S. citizenship, which would disqualify him from the race. She told me that his supporters at the newspaper office refuse to believe this. “They refuse to believe that me may have even remotely lied.”

At one point, another employee walked through the room, which bordered the financial office. The employee, a young man dripping sweat like everyone who entered that day, was smiling. She knew why. “Congratulations on Suleiman’s entrance into the race,” she said to him. He thanked her and entered the adjoining office.

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she told me, almost conspiratorially, “He supports Suleiman!”

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