Alexandria sheds its 'Islamist' label

Saturday 26 May 2012

Alexandria, known as being a hotbed of Islamism on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, backed a leftist for president: Ahram Online saw it happen

presidential elections in Alexandria
A national flag waves as Egyptians line up outside a polling station to cast their votes during the first day of the presidential elections in Alexandria, Egypt (Photo: AP)

I left Cairo after the first day of Egypt's historic presidential election, fleeing from the feloul, the heat, long queues and Brotherhood grocery bags, hoping to find asylum in the coastal city of Alexandria, and what a relief it was.

The fresh sea breeze, the sweeping victory of Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the faces of the January 25 Revolution, and the well-organised election, all made my day.

Alexandria, Egypt's second city with a population of 10 million, backed Sabbahi (34 per cent), followed by moderate Islamist and ex- Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh (22 per cent), and Mubarak’s former foreign minister Amr Moussa (16.5 per cent).

Roaming the streets on the second day of voting, it was quiet and empty; the usually congested corniche was moving easily, partly because it had been declared a public holiday.  

I spent the day hopping from one polling station to another, and noticed turnout was low. The navy, which was supervising the election, was impressively well organised and strict. Officers were quick to stop campaigning violations, even stopping people discussing their favourite candidates, or attempting to take photos inside polling stations.

In front of Safeya Zaghloul School in the middle class neighbourhood of Bahari, Walaa, a woman voter dressed in the three colours of the Egyptian flag, was happily taking photos along with a friend. The army officer in charge quickly urged her to leave, saying, "I allowed you one photo, that's it, you have to leave now." She left smiling and whispering to me that she voted for Sabbahi.

After coming from Cairo, where most people I interviewed voted Shafiq, it was such a pleasant surprise to see Sabbahi getting so much support.

The family of Khaled Saeed, whose brutal killing in the city at the hands of the police helped trigger the revolution and made him one of its icons, voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Khaled's mother told Ahram Online that "Sabbahi can restore the rights of the revolution's martyred and injured, and he is neither feloul nor from the Brotherhood."

Even though I heard his name frequently during the day, I still expected him to finish third or fourth, not first in a city known as an Islamist stronghold.

There was a war of fatwas (Islamic legal rulings) in Alexandria in the days leading up to the poll. Sheikh Ahmed El-Mahalawy of the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in Alexandria's Tahrir Square, where most of the protests and sit ins in the city take place, declared that voting for the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was the duty of every Muslim. Whilst well-known Salafist Sheikh Yaser El-Borhamy expressed his support for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

However, Alexandrians did not follow the advice of their Islamist leaders.

"What did the Islamists do after we voted them into parliament? Nothing. Poverty and unemployment is still rising," said Mohammed Karim, 40, a pharmacy assistant in the densely populated downtown area.

Karim's words were echoed by many voters who had lost trust in the Islamists after they failed keep their promises to improve living standards.

Alexandria is a revolutionary city: the majority voted no in the March 2011 constitutional referendum, rejected Mubarak regime remnants in the parliamentary election, and backed a Nasserist for president. Moreover, the city played a pivotal role in the January 25 Revolution, alongside Cairo and Suez. The city witnessed some of the fiercest clashes and over 100 people were killed.

Alexandria is also the city of revolutionary icon Khaled Said, who was beaten to death in broad daylight by police in June 2010. In addition, the city's Two Saints Church that was bombed on New Year's Eve 2010, killing more than 20 people, was one of the final straws that broke the Mubarak regime's back..

Why Sabbahi

Judge Nashwa, who preferred not to mention her family name, told Ahram Online that Sabbahi was "the number one choice of women and youth voters."

Many observers noted that more women than men voted in the election.

Samia Hassan, a waitress aged 35, said she voted for Sabbahi because his programme addressed the poor, while housewife Nadia Gomaa said she voted for him because "he looks like us, he is poor like us and he is cute."

Being the poor's favourite worked in Sabbahi's favour, but it still was a big surprise to analysts, judges and journalists.

I attended the vote counting in the working class district of Ras El-Teen. My heart almost stopped when the presiding judge counted almost 3500 votes for Sabbahi alone, whilst the remaining 1000 votes were split between Abul-Fotouh, Amr Moussa and a few for Ahmed Shafiq. Representatives of the other candidates watched the count open mouthed.

I found similar results coming from all over the coastal city. Sabbahi swept the election in Alexandria.

I spent the night moving from one counting station to another and all backed the Nasserist. The judges were surprised yet everyone seemed happy with the result. One judge joked that “women voted for him because he said he would appoint a female vice president, you women are very easily bought.”

As I made my way back to the hotel, the streets that had been empty by day were now packed with people coming out of cinemas and restaurants in the downtown Al-Raml district.

I overheard one guy says that "if Shafiq wins, it will be as if the past year and a half never happened."

Early in the morning, I met a group of activists who had been up all night monitoring the ballot count. They were proud of their city's revolutionary results:  "Even though I boycotted the polls, I am so proud of the people's choice. I am very happy that the label "the Salafist and Brotherhood city" no longer applies to Alexandria," said Mahyenour El-Masri of the Revolutionary Socialists.

Ziad Salem shared the happiness and added that he had planned to boycott the election but then decided to vote for Sabbahi when he realised he had a chance of going through to the second round.  

"Sabbahi's winning gives me hope because for many he represents socialism," Salem said.

The group kept reading the results on their smart phones, lamenting the results that put Shafiq and Morsi ahead and joked about one of two destinies awaiting them—"jail or veil."

I left Alexandria full of energy and with the hope that maybe the election battle was lost but the revolution continued.


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