Dispatch from Assiut: No Country for Poor Men

There was really no need to fly a plane full of journalists to a campaign event in a town in Upper Egypt. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win by a landslide. Upon arrival, there was little to see. The main event, a rally for the former army chief in the province of Assiut, boasted barely 300 people in a half-full hall, with metal detectors and security forces—plainclothes and in uniform—outside.

All of this begs the question: why?

In Cairo, we arrive at the cargo terminal, where pro-regime journalist Mahmoud Bakry greets us, a smiling, younger-looking version of his brother, Mustafa Bakry, former member of parliament and prominent editor, who garnered recent notoriety when he described a scenario in which Egyptians would raise a “revolution to kill the Americans in the streets.” He later withdrew the comment saying, “I am opposed to any violence, including any violence against US citizens.”

No one at the airport checks IDs. Attendees simply tell a man their names at the door who checks them off a list. The tickets have only numbers, no names. Inside the terminal, a man in a crumpled linen suit with thinning hair chats to a woman with a sleek coiffed do in skinny jeans and wedge platform heels. Many of the guests are dressed more like they are headed to a premiere than a political rally.

There are a few minor celebrities along for the ride. “As an artist at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood, we were losing art in Egypt, we were losing Egyptian identity,” says singer Ahmed Gohar.

After a while, the crowd is herded to a plane. An employee who had worked there for several years informs us it is 70 percent owned by the state oil company, and indeed, ‘Petrol Air Services’ is written on the hull. In Hosni Mubarak’s time, she says, the plane was used to fly around VIPs. They did not even have to pay for it, she adds, but since the revolution, there is a fee for use.

Upon arrival, after a bus ride into town, we are shepherded into a banquet hall on a boat called the Happy Dolphin, guarded by teenage conscripts in plainclothes wielding Kalashnikovs. Inside, muscled men rip apart the joints of a full slaughtered sheep. Minions rush about frantically with heaping plates of rice for important community figures. “More shrimp for the Omda, Mohamed!” Someone barks. Mohamed looks apologetically at me before cutting in front of me in line and shoveling fried shrimp onto a plate. A violin scrapes away at classic Egyptian tunes in the background.

After barely a half hour of wolfing the food, there are shouts of “yalla, the bus is here” and the place empties as quickly as it had filled.

None of this is the official campaign. “No, no,” says Dr. Essam el Nizami, whose name means ‘of the system.’ “Really there is no official campaign.”

The invitation to the event is signed by Mahmoud Bakry on behalf of the “People’s Campaign to Support the Field Marshal al-Sisi.”

Rifae Nasrallah, who founded the first people’s campaign in support of Sisi, Kamel Gameelak, (loosely translated as finish what you started) clarifies, “the official campaign has no presence in the street.” The outreach on the ground, he explains, is largely conducted by the people’s campaigns.

Run mostly by businessmen, some of them former members of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP), these groups are not subject to normal campaign finance rules—the spending limit for presidential campaigns in Egypt is 20 million pounds (about $2.8m), up from 10 million (about $1.4m) for the presidential race in 2012. While Mubarak himself was recently sentenced in a corruption case to another round of jail time, the networks he helped build seem alive and well.

The members of these campaigns see different roles for them after the election. Dr. Nizami’s group “Masr Baladi,” will eventually become a political party, he says, while Kamel Gameelak, according to Nasrallah, will continue to support Sisi after the elections, but it will not become a party, he says, nor will it have a political role.

At a meeting ten days ago with heads of parties, Sisi tellingly advised those assembled to unite in one or two parties, Nasrallah said.

The campaign leaders’ insist that funding for the event came from donations from many individuals, some in Cairo and some in Assiut. Nasrallah said that the plane cost 80 to 100 thousand Egyptian pounds (about $11,000-14,000) and was paid for by the official campaign. However, according to everyone in attendance, the whole affair is bankrolled by a businessman from the area named Salah Abu Dongel, a longtime member of the NDP. A local resident close to Abu Dongel, who declines to be identified, says he paid 20-30 million Egyptian pounds for the evening and many of his family members wear t-shirts bearing Sisi’s face with Abu Dongel’s name above it.

Ramadan Mohamed Mahmoud Abu Dongel, a farmer, sits at a coffee shop opposite the rally. Salah, the businessman, is his cousin. Ramadan says that his cousin paid for everything, that he had even called him and told him to attend.

Mohamed Abdel Rahman Abu Dongel, also a farmer, says that inside the rally they are all from the same Abu Dongel family.

Indeed, many of the invitees are relatives of the businessman. Some do not know why they are there aside from being instructed to attend.

Looking around the half-empty hall, it seems clear that the event, banquet, private plane and all, is neither about the voters, nor the journalists covering it, but about getting credit with the soon-to-be president, to be cashed in at a later date. Many of the Sisi posters in Cairo have the name of the person who funded them underneath the field marshal’s name.

Nevertheless, some attendees have other reasons for being here

Mahmoud Abdel Qadem, the general director of the Assiut education administration in the computers division, thinks Hamdeen Sabbahi, Sisi’s rival, focuses too much on the poor: “When Sabbahi’s on TV, all he says is ‘peasant peasant peasant,’ what’s his issue with peasants?”

One group in Assiut is particularly glad to see the last of the Muslim Brotherhood. Assiut is home to a high concentration of Christians and sectarian clashes have rocked the province over the last few years.

Madeeha Hamdi Azami, a Christian woman from Assiut, says that she and her husband had compelling reasons to attend the rally: “Before (under the Muslim Brotherhood) there was “intolerance…and harassment… We lived through the kidnapping of Christians. They wanted to put pressure on us.”

Her husband, Refat Louis, says one girl he knows got spat on for having her hair uncovered. “We were afraid to let our girls out,” he says. Both say the situation is better now, but some longer-standing problems remain. They say that under Mubarak as now there is no equality between Muslims and Christians in the work place.

The biggest problem though, is poverty.

Seventy year-old Leila Mahmoud Bayoumi sits playing with her two year-old grandchild. “The baby needs an operation. He has a problem in his brain, but we have no money for the operation. He’s two years old but he doesn’t walk,” she says as she fans his face with an Egyptian flag. “He should have been walking by one and a half.” She would know; Bayoumi has six children of her own.

“We are tired, no one is comfortable, we are tired of poverty. No president has ever asked us (what we want), we have no work. The name is Egypt but there’s nothing for the poor in it.” Then she turns from me to chant with the crowd, “Long live Egypt!”

“In the streets of Assiut, all are hungry,” she says, “My daughter got married when she was fourteen.” After a pause she adds, “If we had the power to go to any other country, we would go.”

A few streets away from the rally, I ask a man selling apples and peaches for whom he would vote. He declined to give his name but said, “My concern is eating and living, I’m not worried about things like voting. I don’t know who I’m going to vote for.”

Laura Dean is a Cairo-based journalist covering the recent presidential election in Egypt.

Image: Security forces stand guard outside a rally supporting General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidency, Assiut, Egypt. (Photo: Laura Dean)