Good grief, time flies and I am late for everything. I feel strangely liberated by the sense that I have the perfect out — I was not there, I did not see or hear anything, the world can keep going to hell without my comments. But then guilt settles in, the reporter’s fear of not being near the action. And what action! They are already moving toward the round of sixteen at Roland-Garros and I am not at court side — how can I live it down? The titanic meeting that is shaping up between the great Majorcan and the immensely gifted Serb, with at least half a dozen spoilers, lean and hungry young champions eager for the chance to break through and be one of the two on that last and final meeting of the tournament! Well, I will catch up and assess the lay of the clay, soon as I get there.
Right now, though, the contest is not on clay but in the ballot boxes of Egypt. They look rather like those transparent plastic storage bins you buy at Home Depot. Compared to the electronic gizmos I have used the last few times I voted back home, I find them rather appealing. They are there, right up front. You can in your mind take a guess at how many paper ballots are filling up the bin as the day and night progresses. Who knows what hacking and cheating goes on behind the electronic wizardly of modern electoral technology? Back in the days of Kelly and Daley, the voting machinery — c’est le mot, as they might say in France — was much simpler. There were ward bosses with names like Hinky Dink Kenna who told the neighbors what to do. And if they did not do it, he did it for them. The system worked. After all, it got us where we are, prosperous and powerful and with a bright young man named Rahm Emanuel at the helm of the Second City, that somber city of big shoulders.
But now is not the time for literature. Or is it? There is a mighty West African novel called Allah Doesn’t Owe You and what its author means, through the voice of the narrator who says and repeats this regional aphorism, is that you better take charge of your fate, boy, because no one else will. Or more exactly, someone else will, and he will not have your best interests in mind. Which, come to think, both Bellow and Sandburg would have no trouble agreeing with.
So here is the problem: who is taking care of whose interests in this country, politically speaking? There are two camps in this election, but only one has got anyone resembling Hinky Dink working his campaign. By the time the voting is over and done with, which it will be by the time you read this dispatch, they will have it sewed up, they being the party of what kids here tell me is the old regime, the system put in place by Hosni Mubarak several decades ago.
Mubarak — ah, you can look it up. They put him in the slammer three years ago and they had some difficulty figuring out what to indict him for so finally they got him on a corruption rap and sentenced him just the other day, three years. With the new man in power being, according to what they tell me here, a part of the old machine, it’s a cinch he will be out soon, if his old heart holds up. He is no longer a young man.
What sent him packing was the January 25 movement. This was a sit-in led by young people. It got us all excited and convinced spring at last was breaking out all over this part of the world, no doubt the late blossoming fruit of the crusade for democracy launched by G. W. Bush. Republicans are big on crusades, as per Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade for Europe. Ronald Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy.
However, Egyptians have been making revolutions for some time now. The Free Officers, led by a young colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser, started the ball rolling in the early 1950s. Nasser was the first Egyptian to govern Egypt since ancient times, so he was perceived both as an anti-colonial liberator and the founder of a properly Egyptian type of government. He remains very popular. His governmental style was authoritarian.
The difficulty seems to be that young men become older men and by then they are used to power and do not want to make room for the rising generation. That is why the young people who caught the world’s attention at Tahrir Square say they are not having anything to do with this election. They have a candidate — or rather there is a candidate who says he speaks for them — for their January 25 aspirations. This is Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist sort of fellow who favors a secular republic and wants the army out of politics. The candidate of the old regime is ex-Marshal, ex-chief of the general staff, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. The vote, as you will know by the time you read this, will be so lopsided as to be embarrassing. Moreover, because the January 25 lot, Young Egypt, feels unrepresented — even though Sabahi shares their aspirations — they are staying home, so the retired soldier is going to be elected on the basis of a low turnout, 40-45 percent of eligible voters.
Well, we get low turnouts often. I gather from those able to read the papers here that the Europeans just voted for their all-Europe parliament in Strasbourg. The turnout reported was pretty low, too. People voted for parties saying enough of this Eurofolly. Actually the Europe Union is run by non-elected commissioners in Brussels appointed by their national governments. Wisely, the Eurobrass made sure this parliament in Strasbourg has no power.
Additional to Old Regime and Young Egypt, there is a third constituency in this country, the Islamists. Called the Muslim Brotherhood, they have been around a long while. Nasser, then his successor Anwar Sadat, and after him Mubarak, all tried to co-opt them, work with them, cut deals with them, and finally they all ended up smashing them — Nasser even sent one of their top men to the gallows, and it seems it was some of theirs, it has not been officially proven, who killed Sadat and, years later, tried to kill Mubarak.
But bygones sometimes are bygones and pages must be turned. After Mubarak threw the towel in there was considerable confusion. The powers that were decided to sort it out at the ballot box and what happened was that one of the top Brothers, Mohamed Morsi, won an election, July 2013. There was a moderate fellow more or less designated by the soldiers who came in second and Sabahi came in third, on the strength of Young Egypt votes. They needed a runoff to give Morsi 50 percent plus one, more or less, not the most overwhelming mandate you might say. Sort of like Bush-Gore.
Mr. Bush knew he did not have an overwhelming mandate and he played it cool, no big change-everything projects. That was before we came under attack. Then all bets were off, and we embarked on the biggest project of them all, make the world democratic. An old American dream, though a nightmare to John Adams. However, this is neither here nor there. As president, Morsi overplayed his hand. He put through a theocratic constitution and the idea was to make Egypt an Islamic Republic. Observe that most nations of Arab Islam are Islamic republics, according to their constitutions, but the devil’s in the details, as the Germans say. Our good friends the Saudi Arabs are big on theocratic regimes, as are the Iranians. Notwithstanding, the Saudis and the Iranians distrust each other. Actually, maybe it figures.
Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to make a vast Arab Nation. This other lot want to make a vast Muslim Nation. Young Egypt wants to let Egypt be Egypt, and the people in Egypt, be whatever you can be, so long as you understand this cuts both ways.
Morsi did not. Overplaying his hand, he got into trouble. He could not control the jihad boys on the wild frontier, notably in the Sinai, and this was bad because one thing the country did not need was for the Israel Defense Force to defend its people from attacks coming from Egyptian territory. You get elected president of Egypt and have the Israelis in righteous hot pursuit against bandits and killers on your border, you will be unelected in no time.
As it happens, Morsi was unelected despite what reportedly were sincere efforts to rein in the gun men, up to and including cooperating with Israeli security. This did not prevent him from calling Israelis awful names and continuing the unchanging rhetoric of the Brothers threatening them with the worst fate conceivable. But in the short term, you have to control your own borders.
Evidently he could not control his more enthusiastic followers. As the Brothers took control of one branch of government after another, the military men who had run things from Nasser to Mubarak thought this did not look like their idea of cooperation between mosque and barracks. With Young Egypt angry that all their efforts had led to nothing better than a government of one-book men, protests and demonstrations began again and before the Morsi lot was able to calm things down — maybe they could not by their nature — the army, led by Marshal al-Sissi, made its move. This was a year ago.
Thus this election. After Sissi arrested Morsi, all hell broke loose and it appeared for a while the country would go into civil war. The Brothers went to the mattresses, but they were unable to get any territory from which to make a stand. The spiral of violence went from terror to counter-terror, mass arrests of the Brotherhood leadership. They decided to have another election and try to turn the page. Sissi resigned from the army and said he would run. The Brothers would not be allowed to run — they were declared a terrorist organization. Young Egypt lost sight of many of its young leaders — to this day hundreds, if not thousands still are not accounted for, according to their friends and families.
To many Egyptians, what this amounts to is that turning the page means starting back at square one. Others say that is fine — order is what we need to figure out what we need. And who knows — maybe Abdel Sissi will surprise us. His appeal seems to be based on security, order, calm, but sometimes a man like that, entrusted with responsibilities, sees the old system must adapt to the new. The old system, and the Brothers, belong to an old Egypt and will not go away. But there is the new Egypt too now, and it will not go away either.
This is where I came in. A few of us Americans are driving around the countryside in the north of this big, arid, warm, ancient land, looking for schools because, not unlike us, they turn the schools into polling places. This is great, because it gives me a chance to assess education, a matter of great interest. The classrooms look just like ours, with old wooden desks marked up by the pencils of generations of kids. Basketball hoops in the court yards, albeit often bent.
Egyptians are sticklers for procedure. The Home Depot boxes have seals on them, and the seals have a number known to the presiding magistrate — magistrates, or judges, in this country have certain civic duties such as presiding balloting — and the several members of the local polling committee, including municipal or village officials and representatives of civil society. I think civil society is rather like our NGOs but it includes representatives of political parties as well.
I enjoy the schools where the polling was taking place. Reading, writing, sports — 21st century kids need them all, and sometimes I wonder why instead of Home Depot bins we do not send them (who else could have sent them?) teachers. Lots of teachers. Tennis coaches. Maybe it is the heat.
The soldiers providing security are young, fit, in crisp battle uniforms. The policemen have on their white outfits or are in plainclothes, recognizable from the guns of their hip holsters (Berettas is my guess, anyway they do not look like the Colts or Glocks you see on blue American hips) and an aura of authority, that is how you recognize they are policemen. They are polite, but the army men, very young men for the most part, are more polite and have pocket labels that read Egy Army (in English) instead of their names, and some had balaclavas. These precautions make sense when you consider that the Brothers can have informers and they are known to hunt down the soldiers’ and cops’ families and kill them.
What you have, if you ask me, is a divided nation. The Brothers are on one side and the law and order boys are on the other. This is a tough call, I am sure, for us Americans who are big on diversity and giving every man a vote. I stay as mum as possible. Not mine to express a view, my highly opinionated TAS notwithstanding. Finally a magistrate presiding at one of the polling places got me going, though. I could not turn him down. These magistrates strike me as a fine, dedicated corps. They remind me of the judges in Italy who led the fight against the mafia when the rest of the state apparatus was too afraid. They wear suits and ties, keep the flow moving, sticking to procedure but sometimes bending the rules a little, such as letting an old man lame and half-blind vote with an assist from his son. There are illiterate voters who, after they sign in with a finger print, go to the judge to ask him how to vote for this or that candidate. He does not want to tell them, but what is he to do? He tells them. They are neighbors, he is not doing anything Hinky Dink Kenna would not do. When a woman comes in with a veil covering her face — many do — a lady poll worker discreetly eyeballs her as she pulls it up in a corner, so they know she is who she says.
Same here, these guys are targeted by the Islamist gunmen, but they stick to their job. Their job is not to question the political wisdom of the way these things are done, opposition in jail and all that sort of thing, but to show their neighbors and countrymen that things have to be done fair and square and according to a set of rules you agree to. They are patriotic, nonpartisan.
When will you Americans give us credit for doing the right thing? the judge asks me. Eh? And why are you so interested in the way we do things, anyway? He is an attractive man, must be 50 or so, lines on his brow, mustache, a good nose, expressive eyes. Late in the evening, he is tired but steady, his suit and tie still on.
Tell you the truth, judge, maybe we are interested in what happens here not because of what it means to you but because of what it means for us.
On that basis, he said, I think Egypt and America can be friends. He offered tea and cigarettes.
I could have made a sentimental rejoinder — I admit I thought of one — but I held back. Tea okay, I said, but cigarettes, I think they are illegal in my country and I better not develop a habit.