Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Traffic Jam for Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail



I’m now sitting in my apartment in Dokki, the neighborhood where Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail was born, as the sound of crowds shouting his name, cars honking in support, cars honking in anger over the hold up, and the pop and fizz of fireworks waft in through the window. As we were coming home in a taxi, a traffic jam in front of a gas station (there’s a gas shortage right now) continued well past its usual end. As we turned off the bridge from the Nile and traveled down a major road, we found large crowds of men standing crushed together on the beds of small trucks, each with a megaphone.

Tonight a court ruled that Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail is still in the running for the presidency of Egypt. He was almost kicked out when speculation that his mother held American citizenship, which would disqualify him from running, led to an investigation by the New York Times that proving she was living in California. His supporters were/are convinced that the whole thing is a conspiracy.

Abu Ismail is doing very well in the polls, even if they are unreliable, and his face is everywhere. Posters with his big, boyish smile and bulbous grey beard are posted everywhere. Last Friday, his supporters filled Tahrir square. An Egyptian friend, secular and upper class, works for a wire agency and walked into the rally. “I got there and I wondered if this was really my country,” she told me. 

The men came in waves, smiling, shouting, knocking on the hoods of cars and waving T-shirts with Abu Ismail’s stenciled face. One man climbed up on the shoulders of another, straddled over a motorcycle, and the two careened through the thick of men coming down the sidewalk. Although many had big, pious beards, not all of them did, and although many wore long flowing robes, others wore suits, t-shirts, and every other style of dress. I saw no women.

Cars started honking in the same rhythm that people usually use to shout, “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!” One man happened to be driving through the traffic with his wife, fully veiled in the niqab, and a young daughter sitting on his lap and pretending to steer. He had covered the back window of the small family car with a big picture of Abu Ismail. He rested one hand on the wheel and stuck the other out the window to hold up a peace sign, which has strangely become a common hand gesture for Abu Ismail’s supporters. I asked my cab driver if he liked Abu Ismail. “Yes,” he said, “he should be president of Egypt!”

Abu Ismail is very conservative, though he has not clarified many of his positions. I saw him speak at Tahrir once, and he is very charismatic. Many worry that he will crusade to make Egypt look more like Saudi Arabia. On television, he has told supporters to boycott Pepsi, on the theory that the company’s name is an acronym for “Pay Every Penny Saving Israel.”

Another man on the street started shouting into the cars, “Don’t be afraid!” He was passing us on the left, where most of the supporters were rallying. Suddenly, on our right, we passed three police lorries, filled completely with cops. You can only see into the lorries through small windows, covered with latticed metal. I could make out three or four men in each window, their fingers laced through the lattice, smiling and shouting out in support for Abu Ismail. Police would have never publicly shouted in support of a controversial, anti-regime, Islamist political figure before the revolution.

Another man, wearing a long robe, his mustache shaved in the traditionalist style, pointed at us, three Americans in a cab, and shouted “You are people of the book!”  This is often the phrase offered by conservative Egyptians after they ask my religion and I don’t answer, ‘Muslim.’ My mother was in the backseat, visiting from the U.S., and she did not understand him. She commented, “Oh how exciting this is!” and took a picture of ten men crowded on top of a tiny truck bed. 

We arrived at home and I read on Twitter, “Sounds like Hazem Abu Ismail is living out his rock star fantasies.” Liberals and Socialists and Leftists and Muslim Brothers and the military council are worried about his popularity. Despite his mass appeal, he is like Ron Paul, compelling for his outsider status, but too provocative for too many powerful people for me to be able to picture his victory. But since when have I been able to make predictions about Egypt?

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