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Wadah Khanfar Headshot

Egypt Speaks About Itself

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Muhammad is 27 years old; he works in the tourist and hotelier sectors in Cairo. He met me at the airport on behalf of the hotel where I had reserved my stay. As we waited for my luggage, I asked him about the situation in the country. He began to speak about the controversy regarding the Egyptian presidential elections scheduled for May. I asked him about his preferred candidate and without any hesitancy he replied, Hazem Abu Ismail.

Hazem Abu Ismail, or Shaykh Hazem, as his supporters like to call him, is one of four Islamist candidates. He is, by far, the strictest adherent to the salafist tradition and is well known for his candid salafist views. He believes that Egypt needs an Islamic order that is unswerving and uncompromising. The Electoral Commission recently disqualified him from competing following a dispute about the nationality of his mother.

I was taken aback that Hazem Abu Ismail was the first choice candidate for the presidency for someone like Muhammad, who had spent the last seven years in the tourist business. When I asked him about the reasons for his choice, he replied, we are tired with corrupt politicians who don't fear God; we want someone who would rule according to the Islamic shari'ah.

Muhammad was not the only one whom I met that considered Hazem Abu Ismail as their first choice for the office of president. Emad is in his 30's and a father of three. He previously worked for a travel agency. Because of the decline in business after the revolution, the agency closed down and he was forced to work as a taxi driver. Emad accompanied me on my first visit to the famous Egyptian pyramids. Yes, my first visit to the pyramids! All my previous visits to Egypt during Mubarak's rule were short. Hostility toward Al Jazeera did not allow for its workers to engage in sightseeing and recreation. Emad also regards Hazem Abu Ismail as the best candidate because he is clear and forthright in his views and was not part of the Mubarak regime.

Rajab, the tour guide, and his brother, Abdus Samad, own two horses which they hire to tourists for rides around the pyramids. Although they did not specify the name of their preferred candidate, they agreed that he should be a devout Muslim who adheres to the shari'ah. Such a leader, he believes, would be able to end corruption and establish justice.

A long argument ensued between themselves and Emad about the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. It didn't end until Rajab remembered that he was a tour guide. He, therefore, ended the political discussion and began to speak about the various sites and ancient artifacts.

He shifted the discussion from the names of the candidates who would govern Egypt in future to the names of the ancient Egyptian leaders who built the pyramids 4,500 years ago. They were the three eternalized pharaohs: Khufu, the owner of the largest pyramid, his son Khafre, owner of the second largest pyramid, and his grandson, Menkaure, owner of the smallest.

Rajab speaks about the erection of the pyramids with pride; one that is deeply-rooted in Egypt's history. He is amazed by the strength of the pharaohs. But, when I reminded him that the pyramids were built on the shoulders of slaves, thousands of whom perished under the yoke of hard work, he tried to defend the pharaohs, saying that the workers who built the pyramids were exalted by their work. Moreover, those who died were, in his view, honored with burials in special cemeteries near the pyramids.

The historical Rajab is not like the contemporary Rajab. His admiration for the power of the ancient rulers of Egypt, their wealth and prowess, is not a factor in his choice for the future ruler of Egypt. He wants an honest and scrupulous ruler, one who would not oppress or steal.

Egyptians have preserved throughout the ages an element of cheerfulness and wit that has enabled them to cope with the trauma of political repression in recent decades. It is now present in the on-going political debate about the presidency. What is certainly delightful about this national conversation is that it is both clear and frank. Besides, it is marked by a great measure of awareness and interest in what is happening. In a word, the Egyptian people have regained their voice. They have begun to express their views and choices in the great debate that runs through the entire length and breadth of the country, extending well beyond the issue of the presidency to consider aspects of their political, social and economic life. It is a healthy and important conversation that is geared toward building a national consensus on the higher inclusive values suitable for forging a social contract that guarantees political stability. Some aspects of this conversation have been animated. This is natural in a transitional process, especially after decades of tyranny and dictatorship.

The echoes of the internal Egyptian debate are portrayed in the foreign media as chaos and a deviation from the objectives of the revolution -- to create a liberal democracy. The growth in the popularity of some Islamist candidates has added to this fear for the future of Egypt; that it would be overtaken by religious extremism, a coded reference to the Islamic bogeyman. And, that it would usurp the rights of minorities, curtail the rights of women and increase hostility toward the West.

The truth is, a wide cross-section of Egyptians don't agree with this analysis. The Islamic identity of the future president has no relationship with the drift toward religious extremism. It is, on the contrary, a compelling departure from the methods of the previous regime and its political and financial elite. Indeed, Egyptians long for a president who would be clear in his positions and specific in his discourse; one who avoids vague expressions and empty slogans in his discourse.

The Islamist candidates for the presidency, whatever their backgrounds, have reaffirmed time and again that they will not steer society towards sectarianism and isolationism. They assert positions that emphasize the rights of the Coptic Christians and women, and a preference for a free market economy. They have not raised in their campaigns slogans that are hostile toward the West. They realize that the greatest challenge that they would encounter are internal.

Hence their attention is firmly focused on the revival of the struggling economy. In the same vein, they seek to forge stable working relations between the various sectors of society, especially the Military Council, which now seeks to preserve its political economic privileges on a scale much larger than what was agreed with the political forces.

The most important guarantee for the political transformation of Egypt is its people. The Egyptian national conversation has created a maturity and a sense of responsible popular awareness. Therefore, it would be virtually impossible for the next Egyptian president to be a tyrant, whatever his affinity. The Egyptian street with all its political forces and social networks would be on the lookout for any drift toward tyranny. What I gathered from my discussions with Muhammad, Emad, Rajab and others indicates in no uncertain terms that the choice of the pharaonic past is not an acceptable option for the Egyptian people.