Political loyalties are shifting in the heartland of Alexandria
Security forces stand outside a polling station in Alexandria (File/AFP)
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Trucks laden with freight containers, gas cylinders and lumber shuttle from Alexandria’s western port to the rest of the province and back along a single, squeezed route, through a town walled in by a cement factory, a petroleum refinery, an oil and gas company and a salt refinery. The town, Wadi Al-Qamar (Moon Valley), will soon host Hamdeen Sabahi, Nasserist presidential candidate and the only rival to Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the establishment’s man and the favourite.
Wadi Al-Qamar and the rest of the city’s industrial heartland will be crucial for Sabahi’s presidential bid. Sabahi’s overwhelming victory in Alexandria province, long considered to be an Islamist stronghold, was considered one of the biggest surprises in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. Though he came third overall, Sabahi won a decisive victory in Alexandria, winning by a margin of more than 10 percent.
Ahead of Sabahi’s Friday visit, the town of roughly 50,000 is still wiping the sleep from its eyes after midday prayers. A boy with a cheeky grin slouches coolly against the wall of a shaded kiosk. He bellows at the incongruous figure walking in off the main road: "If you get us proper jobs, we’ll vote for whomever you want." He quickly realises he isn’t speaking to a campaigner and jokingly explains that for the town, elections boil down to who can provide work.
Coated in thick layers of dust, the jerry-built homes and dilapidated roads tell of the town’s poverty. Buildings peak at three-storeys.
By one o’clock, Sabahi campaigners from across Alexandria are turning up, wearing white t-shirts with their candidate’s characteristic beaming face in blue. Children skid in on their bicycles, eager for posters and stickers.
A couple of older men at the café next door put down their shisha pipes and walk towards the growing throng. Soon flailing arms and raised voices invite more onlookers. One grizzled man is particularly agitated. Who are these people, he shouts, to come and use the hall without the townsfolk’s consent. Let it be, a taller, moustached man says, guests must be treated with respect.
The fuss soon dies down and the campaigners continue to organise themselves, ready to welcome their candidate with banners and verve. Football-like Sabahi chants pepper the air, as the men return to their shishas. The two characters turn out to be brothers, Gamal and Ramadan Saad. Gamal, the agitated one, explains that the hall adjacent to the mosque is typically used for funeral services.
It’s not about the candidate, the 58-year-old Gamal claims. It’s the principle. The town has other fish to fry. The cement factory across from the café is a major source of pollution, he says. Residents have been calling for its removal.
Inferior infrastructure endangers residents. High unemployment could be avoided. The factories encircling the town are bussing in workers from other Delta governorates, while rampant privatisation has seen many local workers pensioned off. Gamal was one of them. He now barely makes enough to support his six children as a part-time winch operator at the local harbour company.
"We’re burnt," he says with a look of wry amusement.
Sabahi campaigners are still organising themselves on the opposite pavement. They appear to be mostly occupied with themselves.
Ramadan, 62, nods towards the campaigners, "It’s all the same. Nothing changes." Gamal is more passionate. He used to believe in Sabahi, his choice in 2012. He’s since lost faith. "He didn’t do anything with the National Salvation Front. He isn’t the fighter I thought he was."
The campaign bus finally arrives, and the campaigners, who have been waiting for hours, break formation and rush towards it, accompanied by the town’s children. Sabahi and his entourage pull up soon after and are swarmed. Then the man himself comes out of the car wearing his trademark smile, seemingly unperturbed by the crush.
People pour into the small meeting room behind the candidate. It’s a tight squeeze inside and chairs are soon pushed aside or used as foot stools. A man from the stage yells at the campaigners and the children who have climbed onto and encircled the platform: "Please keep away, he’s not going anywhere. Give Hamdeen a chance to sit with the town’s leaders." In the midst of the pandemonium, through the shouts and whistles, Sabahi begins to speak, thanking Alexandrians for their support in the first round of the 2012 presidential election.
"We want to open factories, initiate big projects and maintain a clean environment," Sabahi says. He promises to employ the youth and put an end to job cuts and forced early retirement.
"The state was sold by a corrupt bunch," the Nasserist candidate declares, promising to return privatised companies to the state and protect worker’s rights.
"Hamdeen, Hamdeen!" his campaigners reply.
He calls for social justice as the only comprehensive measure in the fight to remedy countrywide indigence. He will fight for the revolution’s three main demands — dignity, freedom and social justice — and for a redistribution of the country’s wealth.
His campaigners chant "Bread, freedom and social justice" in return.
The residents of Wadi Al-Qamar have the first right to work in the local factories, he says.
"Enough corruption," he shouts over the din of his campaigners. His voice is distorted by dialled up echo effects. "No more privatisation after today. I am running for you and those like you. We want our rights. Enough."
His message is terse and hastily delivered. He’s soon swallowed up again by the crowd as he and his bodyguards make a mad dash towards his car. The head of the local popular committee, Mohamed Daba, says the committee will be hosting an El-Sisi campaign later in the week, for the sake of impartiality.
The campaigners are greeted by a small group of El-Sisi supporters waving flags and images of the field marshal. Soon the white and blue shirts of the campaigners have disappeared into the stream of heavy traffic along the main road. They’re heading for central Alexandria.
Sunday afternoon looks a lot like Friday afternoon in Wadi Al-Qamar. There's little to indicate the work week has begun. Off the busy main road, hoary old men sit drinking coffee and smoking shishas, watching the stream of trucks pass. School-age children kick about.
Gamal returns from his shift after midday ready for a chat. The café he frequents is playing "Bless Your Hands" on a loop. The recycled tune, which now lionises the military and El-Sisi, emerged last year around the time of the military overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi amid mass protests against his rule. . The military man’s campaign is expected to make an appearance Sunday afternoon. Posters have gone up and the children are now wearing lanyards with laminated images of the retired field marshal.
"People here are exhausted," Gamal begins. "Noxious smoke constantly spews out of the cement factory’s smokestacks and dust is constantly kicked up, fouling the air we breathe."
It’s a concern he and many others repeatedly return to. The walls of the cement factory still bear 2012 campaign posters for Morsi and the Brotherhood’s former political allies, the Nour Party. They were known to have a strong presence in this part of the province, more reason why Sabahi’s round one victory surprised so many.
They were organised, he says, and they worked, through charitable initiatives, with the poor. "But they didn’t understand the demands of the people. They were corrupt and took advantage of the fact that people will deal with the devil to better their children’s wellbeing."
When the Rabaa Square forced dispersal is mentioned, Gamal has difficulty organising his thoughts. His fluid speech sputters. The occupants of the Rabaa camp were armed insurgents and bribed supporters, he says. Security forces did the right thing.
But what of the hundreds of innocent victims? He pauses, then agrees that many were innocent youth. "I’m the first to say I hate the police and judiciary. And under him," he says pointing to an El-Sisi poster, "the police will be dirtier than ever."
His logic appears knotty and confused. But he knows who his preferred candidate is.
He bitterly admits to voting for Morsi in 2012, when his preferred candidate, Sabahi, was knocked out. This time he won’t support Sabahi and his "empty promises."
"El-Sisi is asking for patience. He isn’t painting a rosy picture. He’s telling us that we all must work hard and exhaust ourselves."
But of what Sabahi’s worker-friendly message?
"Sabahi is playing us for fools. Do you think we can easily turn our backs on these foreign investors? What re-nationalising? During Nasser’s time, the world was smaller. There wasn’t as much foreign investment here. Sabahi wants to humiliate us."
Besides, he argues, the state won't stand begind Sabahi. It will be like it was under Morsi, he reasons. But El-Sisi will have the state's backing and with it can bring about security and stability.
"This will bring back investment and production. Sabahi won’t bring stability."
"We all must go down and vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’," he says, as though it were a plebiscite on El-Sisi.
A poster of the field marshal falls nearby. A man stops to pick it up, hesitates and then leaves it. "Better not," he says with a cynical laugh, "They’ll throw me in prison if I’m seen to be putting it up or removing it."
It’s a poignant moment. Gamal pulls on his pipe and shrugs. "They’re all degenerates," he remarks, presumably referring to the political class.
"You see, we’ve never had our rights. Not under Sadat, Mubarak or anyone," Gamal laments.
Gamal stands up, preparing for a small stroll before the rally. He’s keen to point out the deleterious effects of the surrounding factories. He points to the cement factory’s smokestacks, which loom overhead. As though on cue, the chimneys belch out a rust-coloured cloud of smoke. Below, stagnant sewage water pools moat-like around pavements.
Coming to a street corner, Gamal stops and points to a mint-green apartment building. "That’s our family home," he says before glancing across the narrow street, "We argued endlessly with our neighbours during the 2012 election; they didn’t like our Sabahi poster and we didn’t like their Morsi poster."
A wavy-haired teenager wearing tight jeans, pink wristbands and a slim t-shirt walks up to Gamal. He is Gamal’s youngest, Mohamed. He’s on his way home to change before the rally. He stops briefly to talk politics, identifying himself as a Nasserist, a secularist and former Dostour Party member. He used to support Mohamed ElBaradei but lost faith in the opposition leader when he walked away from his government post last year. He believes its El-Sisi’s time. He can’t vote though. He’s only 17.
It’s nearing five o’clock and the rally has yet to begin. Speakers continue to play "Bless Your Hands" on a loop while children jump up and down with their El-Sisi posters. A man stands at the door with a felt Egyptian-flag-striped top hat, handing out miniature flags.
Gamal sits down for another shisha and looks on. “Are you sure the El-Sisi campaigners are coming today?” he asks round. No one is sure.
Gamal’s brother Ramadan strides over with a sneer. “Look at these people: one day they’re running up to Sabahi, saying ‘My president, my president’ and the next they’re calling for El-Sisi.”
Eventually a couple of sleek saloon cars pull in off the main road. The children cheer loudly, chanting 'Sisi, Sisi." But there is no campaign bus, no flood of campaigners. Gamal shrugs and walks across. Ramadan takes out his camera and follows.
Inside, the women largely sit on one side, while the men sit on the other. The children are organised along the back rows. They wave their flags and chant on command. There is no pandemonium today.
The town’s elders sit in their galabiyas near the raised platform. The same popular committee heads introduce three El-Sisi campaigners from Alexandria: a doctor, an engineer and a retired general. Daba, the head of the local popular committee, begins: “We have brought you all together to discuss Wadi Al-Qamar’s main issues, so that when Field Marshal El-Sisi becomes president, God willing, he can solve them.”
The committee members take their turns enumerating the town’s chief issues and sounding their full support for the strong, macho leader that is El-Sisi. Mohamed, who’s joined his father, turns and whispers his disdain for this show of sycophancy and hero worship. ‘They’re blowing El-Sisi’s character out of proportion," he says.
Gehad Zakaria, engineer, promises his listeners that El-Sisi is the man Egypt needs now, adding that if the military man fails to deliver results he will be the first to stand up against him.
The doctor chimes in, "Early on in the revolution, you asked for a strong, macho leader. Here he is. El-Sisi has come to lead you."
"No one comes to talk to you, to feel with you. Morsi didn’t. But we feel you. We understand you," Zakaria says.
His lips curl into a smile as the children chant "Sisi, Sisi!"
A town elder shouts that Wadi Al-Qamar is behind El-Sisi. Men begin to queue around the stage, eager to share their problems with Zakaria and the other two men. Some of the townsmen are overcome with tears as they recount their employment troubles.
Zakaria nods and smiles. He is the consummate preacher, preaching hope. "We all must work together" and "El-Sisi needs your help" are his stock replies.
There is less passion and more smug certainty from the doctor, engineer and largely silent general. The chants lack colourful, revolutionary themes of Sabahi’s campaigners, but Gamal is clearly moved. "God willing our problems will all be fixed. If he doesn’t work for us, we will be the first to rise against him."
Outside, Mohamed smiles, pleased with what he’s heard. "I still respect Sabahi, but it’s not his time now. El-Sisi has the backing of the state. We need stability now. We need to start working together."
But like his father, his attitude towards the military man and the future is ambivalent. His reasoning is scattered, driven perhaps by distrust and desperation. They both loathe the police’s brutal tactics but call for a military man to bring about security and stability. They acknowledge the brutality of Rabaa but hope El-Sisi can unite the country.
If before their political choices were spurred by hope for change, they now seem to be spurred by a loss of faith and a desperate desire for speedy economic recovery. And they’re not the only Wadi Al-Qamar residents who feel this way.
By Yassin Gaber