Meet Khaled Ali: President Against Odds

Supporters of Khaled Ali gather during a conference to express their support. Poster translates: "Yes! Khaled Ali for president of Egypt. Yes! Yes! Khaled Ali." (Photo: Mohamed Elmeshad)

By: Lina Attalah

Published Friday, March 2, 2012

In one of the marches through Cairo’s bustling downtown streets, the energetic Khaled Ali emerged amidst the protesting crowd with one of his piercing chants. “A kilo of lentils costs nine pounds. A meter of land in Madinaty costs half a pound.” The crowd repeats and the chant resonates.

Madinaty is one of the private real estate development projects on the outskirts of Cairo, who’s dubious land acquisition is contested in Egyptian courts today. With his chant, Ali reminds people of the lingering face of Egypt’s social injustice.

This week, 40 year-old Ali, a lawyer with a track record of defending the poor and challenging the former ruling regime through the houses of the law, announced his intention to run for president. Elections are slated for May 23 and 24.

Ali is not known to the majority of Egyptians. And for the few who know him, his decision to run is often met with surprise. His profile doesn’t beat those of star contestants in the presidential race, such as Amre Moussa, once Hosni Mubarak’s foreign minister and then head of the Arab League, Ahmad Shafiq, a closer associate of Mubarak and the last prime minister he appointed before he was ousted, or Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail, an Islamist scholar and lawyer, or Abdel Moneim Abouel Fottouh, a Muslim Brotherhood defector, or Selim al-Awa, an Islamic thinker, deemed controversial at times.

But for his campaigners and the ones conceiving his candidacy, Ali is injected in the race as “more than just a person, but an idea.”

So says Sally Sami, a young human rights activist. She is at the forefront of Ali’s presidential campaign. Moving around the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate on Monday with sprawling enthusiasm as Ali was announcing his candidacy, Sami has a jovial face throughout the evening. It has been a while since she wore that face.

“I felt that at some point last year, we lost that momentum and that revolutionary discourse around which people took to the streets on January 25,” she says, tracing the emotional history of the revolutionaries in the second half of 2011.

“I felt that our language has become increasingly defeatist, albeit revolutionary. At the beginning, we would go to the street knowing that we can die, we can be beaten up, or we can be arrested. But we had hope. But after Mohamed Mahmoud, it seemed to me that we’re only taking to the streets to die. For a moment, it seemed we would just rather die and destroy those who destroyed us, that our battle is in front of bullets alone and not over ideas.”

Last November, at least 45 people died as police and protesters clashed in Mohamed Mahmoud street, once a lively crossing between the campuses of the American University in Cairo, leading to Tahrir Square. After a few days of fighting, the battle calmed. And then, rose again, days later, in the parallel street of Sheikh Rihan. And then again battles occurred, in the parallel street of Mansour. Every time, more young men and women fell on the front lines of the rowdy street battles. They were immortalized by the revolutionaries, whose wrath only accumulates. But for many of them, martyrdom should not become the revolution’s fetish. “Enough death,” many of them have realized.

With this mindset, Ali’s presidential campaign is becoming a process of rebirth, one which many revolutionaries are engaging in a quest to reinvigorate their fervor.

“The [presidential] election is a tool for us. We can either embrace it and impose a revolutionary logic to it, or ignore it and lose,” Sami says. And even though the race has some figures considered progressive by revolutionaries, such as Abouel Fottouh, Sami says they come from the past and carry a baggage. “Khaled Ali is about the future.”

Many of Ali’s supporters see him as the man to fill the gap of Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear watchdog who arrived in Cairo in 2009 with an undefined yet hopeful call for change. “There is no return, Baradei,” rightly chanted his welcoming supporters at the airport two years ago. But after withdrawing from the presidential race last January, many revolutionaries were left to wonder who to cast their ballots for.

“The people want a president from Tahrir,” chant Ali’s supporters resolutely on Monday evening.

“I can’t deny I was scared [of running for president] at the beginning,” Ali says, addressing them. “I am a candidate from one of Egypt’s villages,” he adds before quickly being interrupted by the crowd.

The crowd then chants, “A humble farmer, a president from Tahrir.”

“Yet I decided to pursue the race as a young man, inclined to support the poor, against military rule and with the rights of our martyrs. I am not afraid, so long as I have the support of all those who dream of freedom, justice, and dignity,” he says. This could easily sound like a populist address, but one that has the depth of Ali’s staunch legal battles defending the poor.

But while he says he is not afraid, many remain cynical of his candidacy. “The democratic and revolutionary movement has hit an impasse after ElBaradei’s withdrawal and it’s an important and active movement,” says Samer Soliman, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, adding, “I am not sure Khaled [Ali] will play this role. The presidential candidate has a certain profile that needs to be kept in mind, such as going through an electoral race like that of the parliamentary elections.”

For Soliman, much like actual supporters of Ali, the latter’s success resides in his ability to “line up revolutionary blocs around him to transcend the protest nature of the revolutionary movement.”

“We will have to wait and see. You never know, we might be surprised,” Soliman reckons at the end, remembering Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula, who failed in three presidential races before he won in 2002.

And besides engaging the revolutionary movement with a political battle as opposed to a street battle, many see in Ali’s candidacy a shift away from identity politics. Much like the parliamentary elections race, the secular-Islamist dichotomy is predominant in the presidential elections race.

Ali’s program, instead, deploys this kind of language: “Organizing the authority of social justice in the Egyptian revolution” and “redrawing the relation between the private, public, and cooperative sectors of the economy.”

While many, even in the revolutionary bloc, remain cynical of Ali’s candidacy, his own supporters are reaping hope by the day. “I see more possibilities for Khaled [Ali] every day. It is about a process of reviving the revolution: Believing you’re in control of your own destiny.”

Lina Attalah is the managing editor of Egypt Independent

Egypt, president, elections, revolution, Tahrir Square, Egyptian Journalist Syndicate

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