Monday, June 25, 2012

The Presidential Election

It having been so long since I posted, I thought that the day of the Presidential Election results would be a good time, and provide a good topic (in case I’m accused from the start of being confused, this was written yesterday – the actual day of the results!). I don’t profess to know more than you could have found out from the BBC, or any other half-decent news organisation – but I do have the advantage of having followed things quite closely here, which my readers may not have. If you have, then you may find this account a little simplistic; I may even be accused of ignorance in some facts. But please give me your indulgence: this is not a painstakingly researched, intellectual account of events over the past couple of months, but simply the perspective of a vague foreigner with less than perfect Arabic.

On to the topic of today’s post: the election. For a little background, it took place, as in the French system, in two rounds, though here they have been divided by a month. Though by the time you get this, you will probably have heard the final result, I am going to go through events chronologically, as I experienced them, so allow yourselves to imagine that we are in late May. There are quite a few candidates, but most of them aren’t important and won’t get anywhere, and anyway, I don’t know their names. These are the important ones:

Mohamed Mohamed Morsi (this is not a mistake – I refer you back to an earlier post in which I explained the Egyptian system of names), the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. He was the Brotherhood’s second choice, the first having been banned, is not well-known outside of the Presidential race, and is quite uncharismatic.

Abu el-Fotouh used to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but sat someway further towards the political centre than the leadership, was rather vocal in his opposition, and was finally expelled from the organisation when he announced he would run for President as an independent (this was in defiance of a Brotherhood decision not to field a candidate for the Presidency. Apparently, they changed their mind). In contrast to Morsi, he is very charismatic, and had a large following among the Islamist-ly inclined who weren’t affiliated to the Brotherhood. Curiously (being a relatively liberal Islamist) he also had quite a following among the Salafists, after their own candidate was also banned (more on that below). He was considered to be one of two main ‘candidates of the revolution’ – those who had been involved in the revolution itself, and were largely supported by the revolutionaries.

Another candidate in the relative centre-ground was Amro Moussa, the former Foreign Minister and head of the Arab League - he lost some support for being a former-Mubarakite (though I believe that he wasn’t too popular with Mubarak by the end).

The second ‘candidate of the revolution’ was Hamdeen Sabahi a charismatic Nasserite who is particularly popular among the youth (and bearing in mind Egypt's demographics, 'the youth' is quite a lot of people). His policies looked somewhat horrific for the economy – at their most basic, he wanted to legislate for wages to rise and prices to fall, as well as nationalising various industries and introducing new subsidies here and there (the subsidies are already a problem: The Economist noted on 19 May that if Egypt were to abolish its fuel subsidy, its 10% budget deficit would be wiped out – though I’m not sure whether they included in their calculations what happens to the economy when a large proportion of the population can no longer put petrol in their tanks, or gas in their oven).

Finally, among the main candidates, there is Ahmed Shafiq, the ‘stability candidate’. He was Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, a former Air Force general, and is thought (unsurprisingly) to be the favoured candidate of Egypt’s ‘deep state’. He is particularly popular among Christians (who persecuted by official Egypt already, fear Islamist power), the upper-middle class (who did rather well out of the former regime), and many of those who weren’t really bothered by the revolution in the first place, and feel that things have just got worse since.

If you’re wondering why I have gone into such detail on a raft of candidates most of whom didn’t even make into the second round, it is in the hope of providing some background to the tensions that followed for the second. As you probably know, only Morsi and Shafiq made it into the second round, with about 47% of the first round vote between them. Abu el-Fotouh and Moussa, who came fourth and fifth respectively, were widely thought to have a very high chance of making it through to the second round, but ultimately occupied too close a position among the field of candidates, and split the moderate vote.

Sabahi came third, but won Alex, and about 20% of the total vote. He was very quick to claim foul play, and on the night of the first round result I stumbled into three different protests by his supporters whilst walking around Alex. Other candidates also cried foul, but unlike in the parliamentary elections (in which I heard several first hand accounts of dodgy practices) there didn’t appear to be a great deal of evidence, and the electoral commission dismissed the complaints out of hand. (This is not to say that they were without basis, just that I don’t know, and am sceptical. I probably would have ordered an investigation, had I been the commission – not to do so looked suspicious in itself.) There were two key disappointing outcomes to the first round. The first was the protesting the result. I felt that, especially coming from those who had launched the revolution in order to bring about democracy, to protest the result of a democratic election (as opposed to the policies of a democratically elected leader) because one doesn’t support the winners is hypocritical. However, the second was the result, which left an unpleasant choice for many people (particularly those who had risked their lives to bring about the possibility of an election in the first place). On the one hand, a vote for Morsi was a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood – he is very much a creature of the organisation, and it is feasible that he wouldn’t ultimately be taking some of the decisions supposedly taken by the President. On the other hand, a vote for Shafiq would have been a vote for the old regime, for the army, and specifically for a man with blood on his hands. If he had won (which rather gives the game away that he didn’t), the army and the ‘deep state’ would have viewed the revolution as a brief hiatus in their natural rule – and I wouldn’t have been surprised for there not to have been a free election when the next is due. Of course, the same may be true with Morsi in the Presidential Palace – especially if the army decides that the Brotherhood is no threat to its power.

Between the second round and the result, another unpleasant twist in the drama occurred. The voting took place over two days. At the end ofthe second day the military announced that Parliament was to be dissolved (this was the result of a case in the Supreme Court which challenged the results in a third of the seats, because they were meant to be reserved for independents and were won by party candidates – it was expected that there would be by-elections in those seats, but the military appears to have taken the opportunity the judgement provided), that the constitutional assembly was dissolved, that they were assuming all legislative power, and the power to appoint a new constitutional assembly. In essence, this was a coup (though against what, it’s hard to see – they don’t appear to have done anything illegal, given the powers that they assumed after the revolution), and severely circumscribes the power of the new President. This in itself put people on edge; the tension was further exacerbated by the election results (due last Thursday) being delayed. Initially, it was announced that this was so that the Electoral Commission could address irregularities; then the army said it was to prevent civil unrest. The change of explanation prompted a gut feeling that the delay was in order to rig the vote, and the protests (which were already quite large) grew. I fear that this is essentially the end of the road for the revolution; though with Morsi as President, there will be some remaining pressure on the military to concede its powers back to the Parliament or the President – or to launch a full-fat coup.

The feeling in Cairo today was exceedingly tense. When I went out at ten this morning, things were relatively normal, though the traffic was light. When I returned to the centre of town at two, the traffic was exceedingly heavy, which (though Cairo is usually quite congested) seemed abnormal. And then, by 3pm, there were almost no cars on the street at all until the result was finally announced (after an interminable speech by the monotonous head of the Electoral Commission) when the streets exploded in relief and celebration. Morsi had won by 13 million to 12 million. Those who aren’t celebrating remain indoors. They include the staff of my hostel, who are miserable – but they would have been miserable with either result, and possibly see this as marginally preferable to the other outcome. Those I have spoken to either spoilt their ballot or did not vote in the second round. The younger of my friends in Alex were also deeply unhappy about the choice they were presented with. The older, by and large, voted for Shafiq. Both groups will be disappointed and nervous following the result.

Update: 25 June

Things today are much more relaxed, and pretty much back to normal. The prevailing sense seems to be relief. We shall see how long that lasts…

The "ida'afa"

I initially wrote this post as an email circular on 27 April. I'm not sure why I posted it then. But here it is, for your delectation. Health warning: it contains a fair amount of Arabic grammar.


The news in brief, since my last post. Significantly, my Korean housemate has returned, almost entirely recovered (apart from lingering pains in the neck, and a foot that doesn’t always do what it’s told). Furthermore, as a result of the accident, he will likely stay longer than he had previously been intending to, to make up for lost time. On the downside, his parents (who were quite happy for him to come immediately following the revolution) are now entirely opposed to his being in such a dangerous country, and have withdrawn his funding.

I have abandoned my study of a’mir (colloquial Arabic) on the grounds that to study the grammar and vocabulary of fus’ha (formal) and a’mir together was too confusing to be helpful. And for other reasons – more on that below. Against that, however, I have finished my first textbook. This may not mean much to you, so I give the additional information that it is about 400 pages long, and that students at Leeds University (chosen as an example only because I met one of them who told me) take 18 months to do the same. But then, they are studying other things too, as well as having a social life, so are probably more well-rounded and have more friends…

Final piece of quick news is my new teacher. My previous teacher left (most inconsiderately!) to have a baby – but before, she made an arrangement with the manager that I was to be given the ‘best teacher in the school’ (I thought that this was just her trying to make me feeling fine about her leaving, but others have independently verified this fact). My new teacher is, indeed, incredible. My previous teacher was very good, but her skills pale in comparison to my new one. Though she can speak English, I only discovered this after several lessons, when we reached a total impasse in explaining a new grammatical concept, and she had to resort to a couple of words of it. As a result of being forced, for two and a half hours a day, to speak and listen to Arabic only, my capacity has come on in leaps and bounds. There are only two problems: 1) it is fus’ha, which no one on the street speaks (though laughter is a common response – fus’ha often appears in films to mark out a comic character with a geekish nature…); 2) even if they did, my teacher speaks to me very slowly so that I can understand her – most people aren’t so considerate.

Given the length of my ‘news in brief’, the remainder of this post will be brief, and consist (sort of) of a short lesson in Arabic grammar. This will, I suspect, be completely useless to you in your general lives.

There is a strange piece of formal Arabic grammar related to case endings. Basically, nouns and verbs will end with a different sounds (though they’re not spelt differently) depending on whether they’re the subject or object, or come after a preposition, or a host of other factors. This applies to all nouns and verbs (though sometimes it seems only to happen in one’s head – I presume this little trickery will become clearer later), including names. Hence much childish fun was had talking about George-oo Bush-aa, or Tony-oo Blair-aa (or, for that matter, Peter-oo Welby-aa). There seem to be a variety of problems, however, with this whole arrangement. One of these would be that whereas foreign names (of people or places) have this ‘oo-aa’ rhythm, Arabic names have an ‘oo-oo’, or possibly ‘oo-ee’, for a reason that will follow (I’m not entirely clear on when it is what – I tend to guess – and why Arabic names are different. It seems that a lot of the time, Arabic grammar rules come about largely because some authoritative text wrote in the way that the grammar prescribes, and it was the hard job of some unfortunate soul to come up with a reason why…). But a difficulty was hit upon in my teacher trying to explain to me the reason for this structure in names, which is derived from the way that Arabic names follow a set form. Part of the whole problem is that names come into a structure calledidhafa (or, something of the something), as Arabic names follow the structure your-name father’s-name grandfather’s-name family-name (so to take the example of a chap called John, whose father was Michael, and whose grandfather was Charles, he would be John Michael Charles Family-name), which fits into the form name of father of grandfather of family. The family name, to add to the difficulties, is the name of some distinguished ancestor – which led to the plaintive cry from my teacher, when trying to use my name for her example, “but who was Welby?!”. Of course, my middle names didn’t help either – it was quite an effort to convince her that my father was not Douglas. The point of all this is that in an idhafa, the case ending on the second (or final) word is always ‘ee’. Except that it seems from all I’ve just written that this doesn’t seem to quite work for names. And thus I bring this little narrative round in a circle, no further enlightened than I was at the start – and having confused my audience in the process, I fear. Maybe it would be better if we just forgot this whole thing and moved on…

I promised earlier that I would write more about dropping a’mir. There isn’t a great deal more to it than what was stated above – learning botha’mir and fus’ha together is very confusing. It was, however, exacerbated by my teacher having been very apathetic for about three weeks before the decision (as it turned out, she had a good reason – an arranged engagement, with a man she hardly knew, who turned out not to be all that she hoped for. She broke off the engagement, and now seems much happier again). This was not, however, the reason that I gave to the school. It was quite a complicated process: first I went to the administration girls. “I’d like to stop studying a’mir and focus on fus’ha.” Ah, this might be a problem – I’d need to do a placement test to work out where I’d fit in the fus’ha textbook. “No, I’d like to continue studying from the same textbook” (it is essentially a fus’ha textbook in any case, with half a page of a’mir in every ten). This is also difficult, it seems – they call the Director of Students. Oh no, she says, quite impossible – my textbook is for a combination, not for fus’ha by itself. I argue my case a bit further, and am told I need to see the manager. I explain my position to her. “Good idea! Fus’ha and a’mir is too confusing to study together!” I felt slightly aggrieved that she hadn’t told me this in the first place, but I got what I wanted, so I make no complaints…