Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate at Tahrir square after the presidential election results were announced, in Cairo, Egypt on April 2, 2018. Picture by Fayed El-Geziry/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Egypt’s recent presidential election saw unprecedented levels of hashd (mass mobilisation) in support of President Abd el Fattah el Sisi’s re-election. Ethnographic snapshots of micro-level responses, however, show not only the complex rivalries at play beneath the grand narratives of the state – but also individual and local acts of agency reaffirming Egypt’s longstanding tradition of subversive political humour.
For anyone arriving in Cairo airport in the run up to Egypt’s March 2018 Presidential election, the first overwhelming impression would have been the sheer exhilaration of the huge illuminated billboards that had gone up along the route into the city. Alongside large portraits of the benign, gently smiling ‘candidate’ they proclaimed messages such as “You are the Hope”, “The Story of Egypt” and “We began together, and together we march on”.
I remarked to my cab driver that the flavour of the electoral campaign of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s nomination for his second term in office was clearly distinctive. He replied with a laugh:
“You haven’t seen anything yet! The entire city is festooned with Sisi billboards and banners. One of my mates tried to keep count of the banners in support of his lone opponent – he found a total of just six. And you won’t see them anywhere prominent, they’re all tucked away in quiet corners such as by the Pyramids.”
Days into my visit, as the final countdown rapidly approached for the three days (26th – 28th March) scheduled for polling, I saw banners being hung from wooden poles, or hung from frontages, along the streets – all bearing the same scripted messages of support as the larger official billboards. Cairo’s choked urban landscape can be overwhelming at the best of times – but now the sheer scale of this new visual assault made it seem almost as if a sorcerer has, in a moment of berserk frenzy, waved a wand to choke every inch of breathing space with yet another banner.
Alongside the visual assault came a new oral assault to add to the existing cacophony of Cairo’s roads. This took the shape of pickup trucks contracted to drive around the city carrying huge sound systems blaring out nationalist songs. These throbbed to the populist beats ubiquitous in shaabi (working class, connoting ‘common’) street wedding parties – as well as, more recently, in the trendy leilet el-henna (literally traditional ‘henna evenings’, but in reality involving something more like a Western ‘hen night’) held before weddings amongst the more privileged classes.
The rickety trucks circulated around different routes with each neighbourhood of the city, driving through the congested traffic with an air of authority. Each carried as many as six huge loudspeakers, as the lads in sunshades and reversed baseball caps who had been assigned to operate the sound system waved flags, pausing only to wiggle their lower torsos each time the vehicle hit a traffic light as they basked in the din they were making as well as their self-conscious cool masculinity.
The overwhelming display of banners and music rapidly became something of a talking point among Egyptians, whose quick political wit dubbed the electoral campaign as il-ors il- gumhurri (the “Presidential Wedding Party”), or less flatteringly (though no less effusively) as Sisi’s leilet el-henna. These observations came together in a growing commentary about how ‘the road to Ettihadiyya’ (the Egyptian White House), a foregone conclusion in terms of its inevitable end result, had come to take on a life of its own characterised as infused with farha (celebration, joy). The optimistic focus associated with this reading of the political landscape was intended to animate the spirit of the nation in the collective endeavour of musharka (pulling together) towards the ballot box.
The fortuitous timing also fitted in with the country’s annual sequence of spring festivals, long considered to uphold the family cohesiveness of Egypt as a nation: Mother’s Day (21st March), and Shamm Il Nessim (9th April – the spring festival), the time-honoured Pharonic spring feast when families rich and poor enjoy the traditional open air picnic – especially welcome, given the ever-escalating cost of living – consisting of fiseekh (a special kind of cured fish), boiled eggs and raw spring onions (symbolic of the cycle of death, rebirth and new life).
Pop-up army kiosks sprouted along pavements, selling fruit, vegetables and frozen poultry at below market prices
Along with these moves to infuse a sense of farha into the campaign came other efforts directed at showing the goodwill of the military, as a national institution that everybody knows in effect runs the country, towards citizens. Pop-up army kiosks (akshak el-geish) sprouted along pavements, selling fruit, vegetables and frozen poultry at below market prices. Food baskets were distributed to Governorates, who were ordered to hand them out as aid for disenfranchised social groups, providing reassurance that they were an integral part of forthcoming plans. With a similar aura of magnanimity, the city’s many military clubs (normally for the exclusive recreational use of those in uniform of one sort or another) opened their doors to the public for family excursions, with special rebates offered for wedding and engagement parties as a special dispensation in support of el intikhabat (the election).
Through all this both state-owned and private media platforms (print, broadcast, online) combined to promote a steady, uniform theme of hukumit el-sot el-wahid (rule/government through and of ‘one voice’). Programmes championing the 2018 election dedicated their entire air time to applauding an idealised vision of the patriotic citizen, the expression of whose voice in the ballot box constituted a wagib watani (‘duty to the nation’). In between talk-show interviews with widows of soldiers fallen in Sinai’s latest terrorist attacks, and discussions with experts enthusing over Egypt’s spectacular economic revival over the past four years, came short visual fillers punching home how the stability and progress achieved in the Egypt of today is a far cry from the chaos and dislocation of the 2011 revolution, and its complex, shifting and unpredictable movements for reform.
In most journalistic or scholarly accounts, descriptions of moments such as these, and their place within the macro-politics of hashd (mass mobilisation), tend to represent something of an end point. Even those more analytical accounts which explore high-level political-economic themes, such as neo-liberalisation and/or the role of the military, nearly always seem to gloss over, or even evade discussing, the lived space of micro-politics, and the myriad ways in which local practices of participation are woven into the grander narratives – whether underpinning or contesting them.
The latter, however, also needs to be understood – as, even more pointedly, does the politics of micro-level coexistence with the state. And this needs to be done not in the way of the media’s across the board take-it-for-granted assumption of a self-explanatory ‘consensus of evaluation and validation’; nor in some analysts’ preferred framework of ‘static complicity’; but rather by documenting and analysing patterns of individual and local discourse, and the political economy that sustains forms of participation. Through these patterns the aspiration of ‘just wanting things to return to normal’ can be seen to emerge, forged through practices with nuanced meanings which call into question the necessary separation between individual citizens’ lives and those of their local communities on the one hand, and the broader political landscape of their government and its supporters on the other.
I have previously described the collection and analysis of ‘ethnographic snapshots’ as one effective method for capturing local and/or individual practices which shed light on micro-political issues. During this trip, my first snapshot arrived when an acquaintance who lives in the low-income, high-density Sayyida Aisha area of Old Cairo (famous for its roundabout signposting the shrine of a revered female saint) described the scene in his traditional neighbourhood as the election banners started appearing in the square:
“As a rule, big pubic events of this kind attract a large crowd of people wanting to help out. We’re well-known in Sayyida for our mettle as wilad hitta (literally ‘sons of the neighbourhood’, implying brave, chivalrous, public spirited). This time the election banners came from locals directly involved in government work, who were the only ones who could afford them: we are not, after all, a super-rich neighbourhood. But it wasn’t long before competition broke out - between different traditional quarters, and different government departments – as to which district, street and roundabout could put together the most impressive display. Everybody piled in to help make their neighbourhood’s display the best. Things easily got heated in the excitement, as scuffles broke over which display angle showed El Rais (the President) at his best, especially since the thick oil-skin cloth is awkward to hang. I spotted an old man in rags getting so carried away by the hubbub that he knelt down on the pavement and started kissing the banner. Mind you, another bystander was quick to joke, “If the people love the Government so much, then why is everybody complaining that el dunya nar (literally ‘the world’s aflame’, a metaphor for the skyrocketing costs of food, fuel and other basic necessities)?”
From similar snapshots taken in my own neighbourhood of Heliopolis, I came to discover that our more upmarket area’s election displays came from a variety of local tradesmen and family-controlled businesses. It became a matter of local gossip as to how the more prosperous neighbourhood businesses were being approached by the representatives of the state and ‘invited’ to put up a banner in support of the drive to invigorate the farha atmosphere of the election. It was made clear that any business failing to accept this particular invitation could expect to face what one local shopkeeper summed up as ‘troubles not worth the headache’ including more frequent visits from tax officials, anonymous complaints made to the police station about business irregularities, or hefty fines for transgressing previously ignored regulations of one kind or another.
‘Accepting the invitation’ entailed putting in a request to the local government division responsible for the organisational side of the campaign, with an enclosed monetary contribution to cover the costs of the materials used in the banner’s production. The highly centralised, rigorously controlled production process for the different banners, and the use of the same formulaic slogans on each, was explained to me as a measure to avoid supporters ‘getting their words mixed up’ - and at the same time reinforcing the homogenous and uniform style of the visual and creative landscape of all military organisations, and the ‘standards’ they require their contributors to ‘fall in line’ with.
The ‘contribution’ for a simple banner was a minimum of two thousand Egyptian pounds (a significant sum in today’s Cairo, equivalent to several months’ pay for an average salaried professional), while the corresponding amount for more ornate, generous looking specimens could easily run into many multiples of this. Once the banner had been delivered, and it was time to display it in a suitably prominent public position, its sponsor soon discovered that there were also other hidden expenses that came into unexpected view, including the daily hire charges for the wooden poles and heavy ropes involved in putting the banner up for public display, as well as the labour required for this. These rates had themselves rocketed in the face of surging market demand and the ever-escalating cost of living. These unexpected daily running costs proved, in the event, to be the main driver behind the suddenness with which almost all the banners were quickly taken down immediately after the polling booths had closed.
These rasmi (official) invitations instigated by state institutions revealed the high degree of surveillance and control exercised by the state in order to identify key economic and commercial targets as important resources for its campaign. However, the campaign soon led other, less successful enterprises and business people, to crowd in uninvited through the ‘back door’ in an attempt to join the parade, and compete not only with their more prosperous neighbours, but also with each other, for kudos, both official and public.
This desire for ‘being seen’ by the state – and the public - to be participating and collaborating in the drive to infuse the election with a public spirit of farha had the effect of turning the visual manifestations of the Sisi campaign into a virtual ‘Yellow Pages’ type publicity vehicle for not only the more prominent, successful official ‘front door’ participants, but also for the entire ‘back door’ gamut of local enterprises and services, right down to beautician salons, small clothing emporia, mobile services and accessories kiosks. Despite the financial losses that have plagued such small-businesses since the chaos of the 2011 revolution, and the tightening of economic conditions since then, these enterprises were keen to make a public claim that they were on an equal footing to the ‘front door’ enterprises that enjoy leverage and are held in official regard.
Those getting their banners up first often did not stop at just a single display
Those getting their banners up first often did not stop at just a single display – in some cases the same small business (such as the free-lance business contractors) would sponsor as many as 20 or 30 branded banners, to the point where it could easily appear that the sponsor was themselves a candidate in the election. Those who arrived too late to appropriate territorial slots feared being left out in the cold, and therefore found alternative modes of participation such as dispatching small vans with a single loudspeaker to tail the official sound system trucks, publicising their own small-businesses through home-made posters blazoned with hand-written slogans such as “Survival of the fittest” and “Egypt is happy”.
Nearly all the campaign ‘contributors’, front door and back door entrants alike, were assiduous in recording their banners or music vans for continuing ‘marketing material’ purposes: cameras, videos and smartphones were in evidence everywhere these visual manifestations of support for the drive for campaign farha appeared. And if the drummed-up spirit of farha was most widely captured as a celebration of el-ors el-gumhurri (the Presidential wedding party), then the choice of metaphor proved to be ironically apt in at least two respects.
Shaabi wedding parties in Egypt are known for their night-long boisterous hubbub. The wedding parties of more affluent Egyptians have also, of late, shown a tendency to centre around fixed-point tableaux providing carefully staged photo opportunities of the event’s iconic moments. Much as these frozen images are subsequently displayed as public statements of the resources of cash that come with status and power, they do not necessarily square with the experiences of the guests on the ground, whose take on the events might differ sharply, with critical gossip and backbiting left to simmer in social gatherings and, more lastingly, on social media.
Government agencies were as much involved in this as were private businesses. Thus Tahani, a junior staff member in a civil service office job, described to me one day the problems she was having with her line-manager, who happened to be married to a high-ranking military person, allegedly working directly in the Office of the President.
“It is all politeeka (slang for dodgy/dirty business)! Her ego has sky-rocketed because of this much spoken of connection. But now she is virtually hijacking the election as a tool to strengthen her own position in the Ministry.”
Tahani went on to describe how her superior had given Sisi t-shirts to the 30 or so cleaners, security guards and other ancillary staff to wear on their daily bus trips to and from work, the official building of the Ministry having been relocated an hour and a half’s drive from Cairo as part of the Sisi government’s grand scheme to relocate civil service offices out of the congested city. She then set up elaborate rehearsals of the staff getting on, off, and waving from the buses, so that these scenes could be photographed and video’d from the best possible angles.
The expectation was that the resulting visuals would be expected to serve as a backdrop during visits by high Government officials and other VIPs to the whitewashed foyer of the Ministry’s new building. She also made it clear, again with politeeka threats, that on polling days all members of staff returning to work would be inspected for the pink phosphoric finger (confirmation of having voted), and woe betide any who lacked this distinguishing mark, most especially younger staff recruited under the recent government employment regulations which dictate that all recent recruits are to be on short-term contracts, with an indefinite probation period that can be terminated without notice.
Although all the incidents described above carry an air of familiarity to many Egyptians, who expect the rules of co-habitation with any authoritarian ideology to involve a mixture of compromise and collaboration in their efforts to accommodate the forces in power, the competition for space and recognition intensified to the point that one local ruefully commented to me:
“El suq ghaba wi kitab maftuh (the market’s become a jungle, and the book is open i.e. everyone knows what’s going on within it). It’s becoming a fight of everyone against everyone else, to the point where long accepted bonds of family, friendship and community are appearing shredded. Some of the people paying out complain loudly that they’re victims of some kind of injustice - but then you discover they themselves are also perpetrators of acts exploiting others just as much. What were previously always clear, black and white boundaries are becoming fuzzy, so that the certainty that comes from being able to make sound judgement is lost. There are now only grey zones, and it’s more difficult to read people. The subject of human complexity is the talk of the town, and relationship problems are what’s on everyone’s mind.”
Throughout all these developments, there were nevertheless some signs, at least, of Egypt’s long-standing tradition of subversive political humour continuing to reassert itself in the face of the state’s relentless grand narrative of its ‘no margin for error’ hashd of the patriotic citizenry in support of the Candidate. Through the long years of Mubarak’s rule, and those of Sadat and Nasser before him, one could always find oneself, in urban on-the-ground spaces, coming face to face with acts of individual agency finding humour and scepticism trapped in the concrete realities of the daily struggles of ordinary Egyptians.
Long seen as coping mechanisms, these tactics seek to help find the balance needed between on the one hand maintaining a critical distance from official narratives, and on the other bringing a sense of perspective to developments in one’s own surroundings on the other. Thus the sponsors of all the banners and music trucks, regardless of their official or unofficial standing, or of their commercial success and reputation, soon became known in local parlance as mitbilatiyya (‘drum beaters’ who are hired to perform at weddings and other celebrations, paying lip service in praise of whoever’s paying them). The term soon passed into common, unthinking usage in much the same way as, in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, all the various pro-Mubarak factions (however intense their infighting) were collectively disparaged as feloul (‘remnants’).
And on a more personal note, pausing one day in a street café in my neighbourhood for a cold drink, I spot the familiar face of Khamis, an elderly and reticent silversmith, who has in the habit of turning up for a game of backgammon. Getting his table ready, arranging in careful steps his hubble-bubble and game board, Khamis breaks his habitual silence to loudly recall an anecdote that had been making the rounds earlier in his working day:
“Did you hear the one about this old woman, who was bribed with LE 100 to wriggle her belly and shout slogans at the polling station? She cried out (mimicking a shrieking female voice) Sisi – Sisi – Sisi! and then (beating his thighs with mirth) …. dropped dead!”
Laughter breaks out as we are left visualising the scene at the polling station, encircled for added security by police and army forces, and how the incident will have broken the spell of the official script. A voice further back quips, “And does that entitle her to ma’ash el-wagib (the special pension given only to the families of soldiers and policemen who have given their lives in the line of duty)?”. “Oh no!” comes the rapid reply from elsewhere in the café, “hasn’t he just told you? Di maatit! (Literally “She just dropped dead” i.e. as opposed to heroically sacrificing her life in the service of the nation)”. This is met with still louder laughter at the ill-fated mitbilatiyya who has lost out on her promised ‘bounty’ of 100 LE.
As the laughter subsides, Khamis changes register, mimicking official rhetoric asserting that Egypt is living the democratic dream, and how these dark days of austerity and daily struggles are what will build the nation’s future. He ends with a flourish as his tone rises to one of exaggerated anxiety: “I’m really worried about Sisi losing the election – then what will become of us all?” The café collapses in laughter at this absurd possibility, as trays of fresh tea arrive.
On the last day of polling a YouTube video went viral (which makes uncomfortable viewing, and for ethical reasons is therefore not hyperlinked here) confirming that Khamis’ story was not in fact apocryphal, but had actually happened. I heard about the video from my Sayidda Aisha acquaintance, who tells me that his children are absorbed in playing their new game of ‘Election’, which involves mimicking the video clip’s dance movements, and then tumbling to the floor in a ‘dead’ heap. He says that this has been going on so relentlessly that his wife is “desperate for YouTube to come up with a fresh video!” I reflect on how it seems that it is not only the grand narratives of the state that are being memorialised for posterity in social media, but also their more subversive, humorous counterparts – and whether, within all this, something of Egypt’s essential humanity is not at risk of being somehow lost.