x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Morsi says he wins, but scepticism gets most of Cairo's vote

Interviewed on voting day, a sampling of Egyptians show little enthusiasm for the choices they've been given.

'So we get to change one pilot for another? Is this a country or an airplane?" That joke, circulated in Cairo after the first round of presidential elections in May, referred to the air force backgrounds of former president Hosni Mubarak and his potential successor Ahmed Shafiq, who contested the weekend's run-off election. It also reflected the popular sentiment that everything in Egyptian politics seems up in the air.

The first round had winnowed the field down from 12 candidates to two: Mr Shafiq, who is seen as the army loyalist, and Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate. Mr Morsi barely waited until the polls had closed on Sunday before he declared victory in the run-off, but that judgement will almost certainly be contested and the Shafiq camp has already accused the Brotherhood of "hijacking" the election.

When people in Cairo were asked which candidate they liked, they rarely answered with conviction. "Neither one or the other," said a women at a Helwan polling station. Mr Morsi's poster was prominently displayed, but Shafiq supporters were also present.

A Christian woman, with her husband and young daughter, told me: "We want someone to take charge for the good of our country." A fully veiled woman chimed in: "We love Egypt," and she touched the Christian woman's arm.

"What's the difference?" asked a taxi driver, echoing many who fear further restrictions of civil freedoms no matter who is elected.

With about two million inhabitants, Helwan lies at the end of a Cairo metro line, 29 kilometres south of downtown. The population was around 250,000 in 1987 when Mubarak inaugurated the metro, Africa's first and the jewel in the crown of his many infrastructures projects. Helwan is now the heart of Egypt's cement industry, which is going strong despite the 2008 global turndown and last year's uprising, partly owing to a surge in unlicensed construction nationwide.

At Helwan's Hods School polling station, a man in a suit said he supported Mr Morsi and wanted to be sure no one solicited votes for Mr Shafiq. A nearby colleague said: "Egypt will be very nice", meaning after the election. "No," he corrected himself, "it will be better."

That school "belongs to Morsi", a taxi driver told me later. "You won't find any Shafiq supporters here." Asked which candidate he preferred, the driver said: "One is a catastrophe, the other is rubbish", but he didn't say who was which.

Although Egyptians are typically happy to talk to strangers, many voters were reluctant, perhaps because of the recently televised "public service" announcement warning people to beware of "foreign spies". Morsi supporters seemed more reticent, although one Helwan resident told me: "This country needs a man of God."

At a polling station at a girls' high school, an older police lieutenant motioned me to one side. "Poor people," he muttered looking at the line of voters, who were mostly women and mostly veiled. He shook his head and reminisced about the Mubarak years: "They weren't all bad," he said. "Only the last 10 … because of his wife." Many Egyptian men maintain that Suzanne Mubarak derailed her husband's career.

Outside the Helwan metro station, vendors manned busy, illegal stalls selling fruit and cut-rate clothing. These improvised souks have grown ubiquitous since the police presence lessened in February of last year. According to recent estimates, Egypt's informal sector employs 42 per cent of the workforce, mostly undereducated youth.

On the train back towards downtown, only one man in the hot, crowded car was reading a newspaper. Nearing the dense and derelict quarter of Dar Es Salam, the air thickened with the reek of burnt rubbish. I walked to the main street; pitted, sun-drenched and at intervals piled with mounds of rubbish so high that cars had to go around them.

A man at a cafe said he supported Mr Shafiq. I asked others around him if they agreed. "You won't get a word out of me," one said. The young man running a tiny falafel shop nearby volunteered that he was voting for Mr Morsi and asked where I was from. "America," I told him. "I swear to God," he said, "I want to get married and take my wife to America."

Further down the metro line at a polling station in Sayyeda Zeinab, a woman complained that someone had tried to influence her vote and a man was upset that someone had taken his picture. Wearing crisp white uniforms, the policemen in charge soothed them with the forbearance that Egyptians often display towards people who have lost their cool.

Overall, the mood at the polling stations I visited was quiet and reserved. The turnout seemed lower than in round one, and women still appeared to outnumber men.

"God appoints who is fit to rule" was an often repeated phrase among voters, who turned out despite misgivings about the candidates. But the louder voice in this election may belong to those who withheld their vote - whether disenchanted, angry, busy with things more urgent or simply exhausted by what passes for life in Egypt's ever more bewildered capital.


Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt