When the editorial board of Ahram Online decided to send a reporter to cover the run-off vote for the singles seats in Alexandria which is set to start Monday, I hurriedly volunteered for the job
I had been fascinated by the central role Alexandria, the second largest city in the country with 10 million residents, had played in the Egyptian revolution alongside Cairo and Suez.
Most observers agree, for one, that the mass anger around the brutal murder by the police of 28-year-old Khaled Said in Alexandria in June 2010 contributed significantly to the storm that was brewing for years against the regime of Mubarak and inspired the thousands of young people who took to the streets on January 25.
During the uprising, Alexandrians fought bravely against the police and contributed more than 100 martyrs to the cause of freedom. And on the night the dictator fell on February 11, at least 5 million people from different religious traditions packed the main Boulevard along the Mediterranean to celebrate and inaugurate with the rest of Egypt a new era.
On the train to Alexandria, I had to look at the figures from the results of the first round vote in the city to determine which political forces are poised to set a new direction for the country from the "Bride of the Mediterranean", as this once cosmopolitan city had been known for decades.
Sifting through the numbers, I could not also help but conclude that forces that at best had a dubious relationship vis-a-vis the January 25 revolution were on the verge of cashing in on one of the greatest accomplishments of the revolution: the first democratic elections in the country's recent history.
At the end of round one of voting, and after 60 per cent of Alexandria's 3,024,283 voters had cast ballots, two Islamist parties were set to end in first and second place overall in the city.
The results were more than starkly decisive. The Islamists had scored a major victory in Alexandria.
Although the Brotherhood had long enjoyed a strong base in the city, and the Salafists could also claim the city as the birthplace of their own movement and brand of Islam, still, their victory here, as in other parts of the country, exceeded all expectations.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, which did not join the uprising against Mubarak until January 28 when it became clear that the regime was in tatters, had garnered hundreds of thousands of votes and the Salafist Nour party, whose leading ideologues actually opposed the uprising because they argued Muslims must never rebel against leaders, even evil ones, finished as runners-up.
A breakdown of the results of the vote for electoral lists that would determine two thirds of members of the people's assembly, and singles seats that would decide the remaining one third, showed without doubt that the Islamists have come up on top in Alexandria in the initial vote and would only confirm their victory in the run-offs.
In the contest for electoral lists that would determine two thirds of members Alexandria would send to a new parliament, the FJP finished first and the Salafist Nour finished second. In the contests for single seats, the FJP secured six and the Salafist five.
And given voting trends in the first round on 28-29 November, the FJP is likely to win most of the eight singles seats in play in Alexandria's four electoral districts during the 5-6 December run-off vote, and the Salafists will most likely pick up at least one more.
News from Alexandria had it that a fierce battle for the single's seat between the Brotherhood and the Salafists was raging in all of the city's four districts especially in the third electoral district of Moharam Bek, a high unemployment, de-industrialising and densely populated section of Alexandria, so I decided to pay the area a visit.
Four contestants - two FJP, one Nour and one former NDP operative - had finished on top in the first round of voting but none of them was able to edge past the 50 per cent necessary to secure a spot in the new parliament, and were fighting for two singles seats.
Al Nour Party: "On the path to light"
I got off the train at Mahtat Misr, the Alexandria train station closest to the Moharam Bek district, and started looking around for the headquarters of the FJP and Nour in the area.
Before I could even start asking locals for directions to find where the fierce campaign was taking place, the campaign itself wasted no time in finding me.
As I stood in the middle of the square racing to beat the engulfing sunset in order to secure some last daylight snapshots with my camera of the dozens of FJP and Nour banners that cluttered the lower skies in the square that was otherwise besieged by street vendors selling everything made in China, the Nour party descended on me from the heavens.
"Nour Party (the party of light in Arabic) thanks the residents of Moharam Bek for the votes of confidence they gave to us in the first round of elections," the speaker on top of a Salafist pick-up truck circling the square outside the train station was screaming. "Nour Party will take Egypt on the path to righteousness. Honourable citizens, do not hesitate to vote for Nour in the run-off elections on Monday!" the long-bearded man sitting next to the driver repeated.
I ran up to the truck as it moved slowly behind one of Alexandria's landmark tram cars that jam the narrow streets in this part of town, and asked the MC for directions to the headquarters of the party.
"Hop in, brother! I will take you there."
The man, who was in his mid-twenties and wearing a suit, cordially let me squeeze in the front seat, and told me that he had been working the microphone for four hours and would continue calling on all good citizens to vote for Nour for another four.
"Nour on the path to light. Nour does not make false promises like the other professional politicians. Nour on the path to light." The man, who told me his name was Ali, went on with his business for a few more minutes.
Nour's office was in a small four-room apartment on the second floor of a four story building.
The place was packed with campaign volunteers, some wearing the below-knee length Pakistani dress, a trademark of the Salafists in Egypt, and others dressed in professional suits, and most frantically working laptops to update the campaign advertising material for Sheikh Moussa El-Senousi, the Nour candidate who is facing an up-hill battle against formidable FJP candidates in the run-offs.
I was told at the door that Sheikh Senousi had just left the office on a short meet-the-voters walk so I was escorted to the main office to talk to the Sheikh in charge.
The man at the desk, who introduced himself as Hassan Ragab, the membership coordinator for Nour Party in Moharam Beb, was very busy tending to party business and last minute election details, so he politely asked me to wait.
Ragab was guiding a group of long bearded men who were packed into his small office on how to fill out membership applications to join Nour.
Then a man in his mid-forties, who I recognised as local former football star, walked into the office, and Ragab jubilantly introduced him to the applicants as the new sports coordinator for the party in the Moharam Bek district.
"We are excited to have you on board in the party. We have just organised a huge football tournament in the district of Abis in the governorate. Out of 38 villages in Abis, we managed to form teams in 34 of the villages and they competed for three months. We provided the winners with awesome prizes. By the way, Nour also did very well in Abis in the first round of the vote," he explained to the football star who seemed excited to play football for the Salafist party.
After 20 minutes or so, Ragab finally made a phone call to find out who could talk to me.
"We apologise, no one can talk to you tonight. All of our press people have engagements with TV programmes at the moment," he informed me.
"But, I have two simple questions regarding the outcome of the first round and the party's platform and I think you can answer them," I pleaded politely with the membership coordinator.
"We apologise but the media has been looking to portray the Salafists in a negative light, so we have to be careful who we talk to and what we say," Ragab told me.
He agreed to give me the phone number for someone he believed was authorised by the party to handle media questions.
So I thanked him and made my way out of the office with difficulty as more bearded men were still flocking in either to volunteer or join the party's journey onto "the path of light".
The Brotherhood: "Bread and music for the people"
Frustrated, I decided to have tea and smoke a shisha at the coffee shop around the corner.
While paying the bill, I thought I would ask the coffee shop worker who he voted for. "I support Nour party," the over-worked 50-year-old man said. I politely asked him why. "Those young men are righteous people;. they do not sin, and I think they will be good for the country," he told me.
I walked out into the tram street once again and I was ready to start looking for the headquarters of the Brotherhood's FJP.
Once again, before I even attempted to ask for directions, I spotted a huge truck stickered with FJP posters and mounted by several young people waving Egyptian flags strutting along the tram's rail and calling through loud speakers on residents to vote for the Brotherhood in the run-off elections.
I followed the truck and it led me to the headquarters of the FJP in the district, actually less than 50 metres from Nour's offices.
I did not even have to walk up to the FJP's office on the fourth floor because five young Brotherhood volunteers had already set up a virtual office on the pavement outside the building.
The FJP's makeshift-street office was composed of desks, computers and a massive sound system.
The organisers were helping would be voters determine their respective polling stations and handing out laminated Brotherhood stickers with pictures of the two FJP candidates contesting the remaining single seats on Monday: Mahmoud Attitya and Saber Abu Barakat.
The loud speakers were playing nationalist/religious songs performed by bands that are affiliated with the Brotherhood and recorded for the occasion of the elections.
"Tra la la la la: We are the young people of the Brotherhood, we hold our beloved Egypt above all considerations," as if to highlight the supremacy of the FJP's political message over the religious inclinations of the party.
"Tra la la la la: Muslim or Christian, we all share the love of country in our hearts," as if to stress that the Brotherhood do not plan on discriminating against Egypt's 12 million or so Coptic Christians.
And: "Tra la la la la: The people found out that our slogan 'Islam is the solution' will bring freedom, social justice and will put an end to oppression," as if to rally the core of Muslim members and supporters of the party once again around its moderate Islamic message.
So I took some time to pick the brains of Mostafa Mamdouh, the 23-year-old organiser who was running the mini street fair.
Will it be an Islamic state like Saudi Arabia?
"Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian, theocratic regime. They do not even allow women to drive. We believe in equal opportunity for all citizens.
"We, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, have a moderate Islamic programme and seek for Egypt to be a civilian society with Islamic undertones; we want to follow in the footsteps of the great experiences of our Muslim brothers in Turkey and Malaysia."
So what about the economy?
"We believe in a mixed economy, but the state must play a central role in creating jobs and protecting consumers."
"We want to work together with the others to clean the streets, bring back a sense of public safety, and deliver affordable bread to citizens at their doorsteps."
"We are proud that our party list in Cairo has sent the first Copt, Amin Iskandar, to the 2011 parliament."
So why the Brotherhood and not the Salafists?
"We have 80 years of political experience. We fought for the people and with the people and paid a heavy price in Mubarak's jails for that."
"The Salafists are extremists. They will have to moderate their message and adapt to the centrist nature of the Egyptian people or else they will be rebuked by the majority."
Mostafa, who had been a member of the Brotherhood for ten years since his young days in middle school, told me that his party will not and does not want to form a government by itself, and it would rather put together a national coalition cabinet.
"Yes we came up on top in this vote. But, make no mistake, no party can govern a society as socially and politically diverse as Egypt by itself."
Al Nour again: Salafists love all God's children
I thanked Mostafa and headed to the stationary shop to replenish on paper and pencils.
The 22-year-old worker at the store told me that he would never vote for the Salafists or the Brotherhood.
"I voted for the Revolution Continues electoral list. We won only one seat in Alexandria, but I would never allow the Islamists to tell us how to dress or who to talk to or not talk to."
It was 11 p.m. at that point and I decided to wait on calling the Salafist spokesperson until the morning, and started heading towards the Corniche to digest the night's experiences and conversations with Egypt's new rulers.
All I could think of was that I needed to look at some of the breakthrough freedom-graffiti that young Egyptian revolutionaries had carved on the walls along the Corniche in the days and months that followed the fall of Mubarak.
But before I could even take a few steps out of this still buzzing working class district, as I was making my way through a narrow alley that leads to the sea, there came at me one long convoy of the Nour party made up of cars led by a huge slogan-playing truck announcing, once again, the party's motto: Nour part on the path of light.
A middle-aged, long-bearded man, dressed in a white dress and surrounded by scores of Nour activists, was leading the convoy on foot, shaking hands and kissing people, who clearly knew exactly who he was, on the cheeks.
"Sheikh Moussa El-Senousi, Nour party candidate for the people's assembly," a garment shop owner, who had noticed that I was walking up and down the narrow street all night with a camera and figured out that I was some type of reporter, whispered to me.
Other shop owners had lined up to greet the Sheikh.
I walked up to the fifty-something man, whom I learned later was a plumber by trade, and asked him my two burning questions.
"We received a lot of votes in the first round due to the love of the people," he answered.
"The first thing I would do in parliament is to rule with justice," he added.
I knew at that point that the Salafists were feeling politically defensive because of media accusations that they want to sever hands, force women back into the home behind closed doors and take the country back into the Middle Ages.
The Sheikh and other Salafist candidates had concluded that they must assure voters that they have an economic and political programme that would improve poor people's lives, beyond talk of enforcing the veil and closing the country's borders to European tourists.
"They say we are not experienced in politics. Yes, we are not experienced in the Mubarak-type politics of corruption, lies and theft of the people's wealth. We bring you the politics of 'saying it as it is' and the politics of returning the people's wealth to the people. We will turn off all the taps of corruption," El-Senousi told the gathering crowd in an improvised campaign speech using a light microphone.
"We will not discriminate against anyone on the basis of religion. In fact, we want all God's sons - Muslims or Christians or even non-believers - to go to heaven. Islam is the religion of love and justice, not hate."
"A strong Egypt, with a strong economy, will lead the Arab and Muslim world again," El-Senousi finished his five-minute pep talk.
I spent a few minutes listening to the reaction of shop owners and workers who were eager to talk to me about El-Senousi's visit and the elections in general.
The people want the Islamists to deliver
The street for the most part voted either for Nour or the Brotherhood, with very few exceptions.
"We tried the Mubarak capitalists and secularists who ripped the country blind," one garment shop owner who voted for Nour said.
"I am a Brotherhood man. They will improve wages for workers, teachers and doctors; and our small businesses will flourish again," another garment shop owner said.
Meanwhile, a 14-year-old school student, who insisted I ask him what he thought about the elections, told me that he was a member of the Brotherhood's youth wing and that, had he been 18 years of age, he would have voted for them.
"They made me a righteous person. I stopped listening to songs that sexualise women and incite my primal instincts. I now only listen to nationalist songs. I am also memorising the Koran," the child labourer who went by the name of Mostafa said.
Finally, the shop owners and the workers pleaded with me to send reporters from our paper to do a story about the suffering of the little people on their tiny street, and I promised I would pass the message on to the editors.
I left the area and decided to sit for a few minutes in another coffee shop to relax with some more tea and shisha, and to ponder what the Brotherhood and the Salafists might do in parliament in the coming months to meet the huge expectations of millions of poor people, in Alexandria and elsewhere, of a better and more humane life under their rule, after 30 years of growing impoverishment and alienation during the Mubarak years.
But, once again, I could not escape from listening to more reactions from people to the vote and it seemed that all of Alexandria, not just me, was debating the question of the Islamists and the future.
A member of the liberal Wafd party was accusing his coffee shop man of being duped and lied to by the Brotherhood because he voted for the FJP.
"The FJP bribed people and broke voting regulations. You did not know what or who you were voting for!" the smartly-dressed liberal taunted the worker.
"I know exactly what I voted for. They fought Mubarak and they say they will improve our lives," the worker responded defiantly.
After the Wafd man left in disgust, my coffee shop worker turned to me and said with a smile: “Yes, I voted for the Brotherhood this time. But, they have four years to fulfil their promises. If they don't come through, we will dump them."