Revolutionary Suez: Giving Islamists a Chance
By: Serene Assir
Published Friday, December 16, 2011
Voters in Suez, home to the first spark that lit up Egypt’s revolution, say they want to give Islamists a chance to rule. But they vow to rise up again should the new rulers abuse their power.
Suez - Sayid Hilal works in a ceramics factory owned by Mohammed Abul Enein, a widely despised Egyptian businessman linked to the Mubarak regime. Given high youth unemployment levels in Suez, Hilal’s hometown, he considers himself lucky to have a job.
“The economic situation of the people may still be poor in Suez, months on from the fall of Mubarak, but I am very proud of my people’s struggle,” Hilal said. “Most of all, I am proud of the martyrs of the revolution, who died so that we could live.”
Hilal’s two-month-old son is named after his brother-in-law Mustafa Ragab, one of the first men killed at the hands of the Egyptian security forces during the Egyptian revolution.
“When we went to recover Ragab’s body from the morgue, the police officer tried to convince us he had died of suffocation. I could see the bullet wound in his body. Such is the level of oppression and lies that we lived through,” Hilal said. “But life has changed forever now. We will never face that oppression again. I will celebrate my brother-in-law’s memory, and that of all the martyrs, forever.”
Hilal’s wife kissed their wide-eyed baby boy, while trying to teach him how to hold up two of his tiny fingers to make a victory sign. Meanwhile, Hilal explained he was happy to have participated in the country’s first free parliamentary election.
Candidates are vying for six seats in Suez in this second round of parliamentary elections taking place on Wednesday and Thursday. Four of them are reserved for the party lists and two for individual candidates.
Hilal voted for the Salafi al-Nour Party, because he believed that “Islam is inherently the most just system of rule. If our rulers actually implement Islam as it should be, then we have nothing to fear.”
Hilal added that during previous parliamentary elections, he had been sent off to vote for Abul Enein, owner of the factory he worked at.
“I only took part then because I was afraid I’d lose a day’s wages,” Hilal said. “This time round, I was free to choose whomever I wanted to choose. This was thanks to the martyrs and to the revolution.”
Mass turnout in the land of popular resistance
If participation in the second round of the parliamentary election averaged 60 per cent across Egypt, in Suez it surpassed 75 per cent, according to the Freedom and Justice Party.
“This is proof of the support of the people of Suez for the electoral process,” said the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party candidate Ahmed Mahmoud. “We believe participation in Suez will be the highest of any Egyptian governorate. We’re very pleased. It shows that we have entered a new phase of Egyptian history, in which democracy and participation are the keys to our future.”
On the streets, electoral campaign posters dotted walls, shopfronts, and facades. Photographs of Islamist candidates from the Freedom and Justice and al-Nour parties were interspersed with images of independent campaigners.
“But everyone here is going to vote for the Islamist parties,” said Hilal. “We have all waited a long time to give Islamist rule a chance. The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood have been active in society for a long time. They may not have ruled before, but they are organized and have close links to the people.”
Suez’s technicolor walls were also decorated with scores of poster images of martyrs killed during the January 25 revolution, including the face of Hilal’s brother-in-law Ragab. The fall of one of the first martyrs in the struggle to oust Mubarak in Suez had special significance in itself, “because Suez has long been the land of the popular resistance,” said 83-year-old Captain Ghazali, Suez street poet, popular hero, and former guerrilla fighter in the 1967 to 1970 War of Attrition against Israel.
Ghazali sat in a tiny bookshop in the heart of Suez packed with poetry collections, pictures of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and handwritten poetry that acted as a testament of living history.
“Who are we to criticize people for their choices?” he said. “Progressives can take as much of a stand as they wish against Islamist politics. But the people of Suez are fighters. I’ve encouraged people around me to take part, because I believe people have the right to enjoy democracy, whatever result it brings us.”
Aged 83, Ghazali remembered the 1967 Israeli attack on Egypt clearly, as well as the years that followed. He said Suez’s strategic location on one of the world’s most important waterways, alongside its geographical proximity to Israel meant that people in Suez have to read.
“We have to know what’s going on, because international events affect our lives,” he explained. “This means that our level of political engagement is relatively higher than most people’s.”
As a result, Ghazali had no fear of what may come when the parliamentary election comes to a close in January 2012. “If the Islamists do what the Egyptians want, we’ll let them rule. If not, don’t worry, we’ll get rid of them too,” Ghazali said.
“In Suez, we’ve risen time and again. In Egypt, as we saw this year, we have no fear from power. We are patient, but when we need to rise, we act fast.”
Taking bread, freedom, and social justice seriously
While Ghazali and Hilal both celebrated a new era of Egyptian political life, as testified in their eyes by the experience of the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, they were uncertain that the Islamist parties would be able to make the people’s lives better.
“We’re giving them a chance, but Suez’s economic problems are deep,” said Hilal. In a town where 86 per cent of the labor force is originally from other governorates, Suez’s youth have long felt excluded and unjustly marginalized.
Just 10 kilometers away from downtown Suez lies the start of Sokhna Street, also known as the “highway to India,” and home to more than 180 national and international companies. Many trade in petrol, gas, and cement, and as such turn over millions of Egyptian pounds each year. The proximity of such wealth represents a stark contrast with the economic woes suffered by the majority of Suez’s inhabitants.
Freedom and Justice Party candidate Mahmoud pledged his party, which is set to do best country-wide, will prioritize ensuring freedom and social justice, key among the revolution’s demands. “There are many ways this can be done,” he said. “For one, there is no need for 1.5 million central security forces. That force exists only to protect power. We should disband that force.”
Whether or not the Islamist parties will be able to fulfill their pledges remains disputed, given limits on parliamentary powers in Egypt. This is particularly the case now, under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is the only power with the authority to form a government.
On this point, people in Suez are clearly in favor of the military council handing over power to a civilian regime quickly. “We are behind the army, but not behind the SCAF, which is controlled by Mubarak’s men,” said Hilal. “We just want justice to be done. We want to live dignified lives. I just want to make sure that we never again have to live under a president who lives in a palace, while I am unable to even secure a roof for my family.” And should such injustice ever reappear, “everyone here in Suez is ready to die to defend our rights.”