Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mubarak's Men for President



A family of four entered the metro car and slowly squeezed through the thick of people until they formed a semi-circle around me. The father had a bushy grey mustache and a tired grey suit, and kept an eye on his wife, son, and daughter. All of them were smiling and wore a button for the presidential campaign of Ahmed Shafiq. The father's button was the size of a cufflink. The son's was big and white against his blue shirt, with a picture of Shafiq, arms crossed and a calm expression. 

Shafiq was an air force commander before Mubarak appointed him Minister of Civil Aviation in 2002. On January 29th, 2011, as the regime was starting to give in to the protesters’ demands, Shafiq was promoted to Prime Minister as a last-ditch effort to put new but pliable leaders in front of the country.

On March 2nd last year, Shafiq appeared on a popular talk show opposite novelist Alaa Al Aswany, who attacked him for ignoring the hundreds of activists killed during the uprisings. Each took turns ratcheting up the pressure, until finally Shafiq lost his cool. "-"Don't put on that patriotism act," he shouted. "I'm more of a patriot than you are. I fought in the war and I killed and got killed, and I did everything." He resigned the next day.

Then, he announced his candidacy in November. Last week, a law banning former regime officials from the race led the election commission to cancel his campaign. He appealed the decision to a higher court, which found in his favor, and now he is back in.

The family surrounded me on the way from the escalator to the exit above ground. “Will you take a picture with us?” the son said, smiling and elbowing his sister to take the camera, “and give us a comment in support of Ahmed Shafiq?”

I had a momentary vision of my face under the headline: “American Spy found promoting Mubarak regime official” I tried desperately to stay polite, but the turnstile would slow me down, so I had to ease out with words rather than run. “Tell me about him,” I said. “Why should I support him?”

The father seemed surprised, and he twitched his mustache. “You’ve seen the airport?” he asked. I nodded. “He built it. It’s beautiful. That’s enough for us: He should be president.” I smiled and nodded and we all shared a warm moment, and then I waved and left before they had a chance to raise a camera.

I have met many pro-revolution Egyptians, as well as many foreign correspondents, who are mystified by the very clear signs that Mubarak-era officials might be successful in a general election. These officials are mainly running on the 2008 John McCain line, simultaneously two contradictory messages: “I’ve been in the government, so I know how to get things done” and “I’m different from everyone else in the government who messed up.” This didn’t work for McCain, but there are no candidates with the undeniable charm and charisma that got Obama elected, either.

The most charismatic, by many accounts, is Amr Moussa. He is leading some of the polls, even if they are to be taken with a grain of salt. Moussa was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1990’s, and from 2001-2011 served as Secretary-General of the Arab League.  As Mubarak grew older and sicker, pessimistic activists felt that Moussa would be the best-case successor, immensely preferable to Mubarak’s son Gamal, but still corrupt and old-guard. Moussa laid low throughout the revolution, and now he is in the race, like Shafiq, standing on the platform of plausible deniability: I was in the regime, but I was the good one.

But with many Egyptians, Moussa and Shafiq (and Omar Suleiman) don’t even need plausible deniability. There are the Egyptians who think the revolution has only made daily life worse and would be happy for the stability provided by someone who knows the inner workings of the state. The revolution focused on Mubarak as an individual, and as a result nearly everyone else, save for a handful of people at the very top, have gotten away unscathed.

On top of that, there are Egyptians who simply didn’t support the revolution. When I first arrived here last September, I found that one of my closest friends from my last stint in Egypt, in 2009, could not be less happy with what had happened in his country. We sat at a cafĂ© and he showed me Facebook groups he had joined with names like “I am Sorry, Mr. President” and “Martyrs and Victims of the Police During January 25th.” He showed me YouTube videos of January 28th, 2011, when the regime sent camels and horses to Tahrir to attack protesters. He claimed that the casualty figures were inflated and some of the more violent moments were staged.

I spent the next several months thinking of him as an outlier. After all, his family had been connected to the regime, and he counted Reagan and Kissinger as personal heroes. This was hardly typical.


But recently, I have found myself in more and more chance encounters with people who want Mubarak’s appointees to lead Egypt. They look at how bad things have gotten since the revolution: the rise in crime, the absence of police, the plummeting economy, the stalled state of tourism, the inept military leadership, the sporadic violence, the plodding parliament, the possibility of radical Islamist rule, the gas shortages, and the daily zigzag of bewildering news. Instead of blaming Mubarak’s regime for hollowing out the state so that it cracked with the slightest tap, they blame the revolution and would be happy to trade it in. 


Photo: Graffiti marking Ahmed Shafiq as "Feloul" or a "Remnant" of the former regime. 

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