Shubra: power, money and free pilgrimages

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 25 Nov 2010

The Cairo district of Shubra is one of Egypt's most densely populated areas. The constants running in the districts three constituencies are as heterogeneous as its residents


Candidates vying to represent Shubra in the upcoming parliamentary elections include Taher Abu Zaid, the legendary El-Ahly club football star, Youssef Botrous Ghali, the minister of finance, and Ramy Lakah, the French-Egyptian millionaire and former MP who fled the country after his debts piled up in 2000.
Shubra is a highly contentested area because it lies in the middle of Cairo; its social makeup is unique because the high concentration of Coptic Christians living in the district, and residents are considered to be more politically aware than most, explains Amr El-Choubaki of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Socially diverse, and one of Egypt's most densely populated areas, Shubra has inspired novelists, poets, and filmmakers.
While its residents lovingly call the entire district embraced by the Nile, Shubra, the area is actually divided into four constituencies: Shubra and Mehmasha, El-Sahel, Rod El-Farag and Sharabia.
Taher Abu Zaid, the former football star, once dubbed the “Maradonna of the Nile,” is running for the professional seat in El-Sahel for the first time.
A member of the Wafd Party, Abou Zaid was raised in Shubra. He held a press conference on September 23 and brought along a number of media personalities and football stars, including retired football super star, Magdy Tolba, to support him in his campaign.
Opponents accuse Abu Zeid of having long lost touch with the area, and liken his sudden entry onto the district’s political scene to a “parachute drop” into alien territory.
“But how can he be a parachutist when he was born here, raised here, went to school here and found stardom here?” Tolba asked the cheering crowd, many of whom were fans of El-Ahly club where Abu Zaid spent most of his career.
Abu Zaid told the crowd that he had been thinking about running for parliament for over a decade but waited until he gained more life experience. He promises to upgrade the district's healthcare services and to triple the number of pilgrimage and umra (lesser pilgrimage) subsidies provided to its residents.
“The values upon which I was brought up on in Shubra enabled me to face up to my life’s challenges,” the football star told the crowd, “Now it is time to give back to the community.”
El Sahel district, hosts 160,000 residents but has traditionally seen a low voter turnout with only about 10,000 heading to the polling stations in past elections. This year 39 contenders are competing over El Sahel’s two seats.
Using football lingo, Abu Zaid’s campaigners urged the crowd to vote this time round. "The ball is in your court,” they told the crowd.
Abu Zaid’s campaign slogan is “Honesty is the solution,” a play on the Muslim Brotherhood’s famous “Islam is the solution” slogan.
At the office of Dr. Hazem Farouk Nasser, Abu Zaid's MB opponent, the atmosphere is much more subdued. Nasser, a surgeon who lives and works in Shubra, is the district's incumbent MP and hopes to be re-elected.
It has been reported that Nasser had a confrontation with the authorities over the use of religious slogans, which are banned by the High Electoral Commission, a charge that Nasser vehemently denies.
“I did not do anything illegal, but they are just trying to make my life hell,” says Nasser. “Ever since I announced that I will run they have been spying on my office, my home, my work. I have four or five plainclothes policemen following me wherever I go. I feel like a criminal, not a candidate.”
Nasser notes that on the eve of the Al-Adha feast, and while trying to walk through the streets of Shubra as part of his electoral campaign, he found himself surrounded by riot police.
“Today I tried to get permits for a number of my supporters to act on my behalf inside the polling stations, but I found that state security had got to the electoral office before me and ordered them to deny me these permits," claims Nasser.
El-Mahd El-Ali is another Shubra constituency, where the incumbent, Finance Minister Ghali is running for another term. Ghali, a Coptic Christian, kicked off his unofficial campaign two weeks ago by handing out 43 pilgrimage subsidies to the area's residents.
“I’ve been trying to make the pilgrimage to Mecca for years and couldn’t,” says Mohamed Ahmed, a 67-year-old grocer and Shubra resident. “Now with Minister Ghali here I can finally go.”
The constituency is jam-packed with banners adorned with Ghali’s pictures. The slogans they brandish play on the minister’s surname, which means “precious” in Arabic.
Ghareeb Rizk, the owner of an auto bodyshop was one of the people who paid for Ghali’s banners.
“They cost some money but it’s worth it,” says Rizk. “He has helped so many people. In Shubra we adore him.”
Lamy Sabet, a furniture shop owner, points to the area's El Tera Garden. The park was a former garage that was transformed by Ghali into a public park and opened six months ago.
“I’ve been here for decades and this place was a dump,” recalls Sabet, “I used to see them going in and out with their equipment as they built this garden and look at it now.”
Many of the banners featuring Ghali also carry pictures of Mohamed Sosta, the NDP incumbent running for the constituency’s workers seat for the second time. Ghali and Sosta are collaborating in their campaigns and this week walked together through the streets of the constituency, preceded by a local folk troupe, and accompanied by a few hundred supporters.
“It was Ghali who encouraged Sosta to run because he was so popular. He knew that together they would be a force to be reckoned with,” says one of Sosta’s campaign organizers who asked to remain anonymous.

Sosta’s real name is Ghareeb Saad Ismael. He became known as 'Sosta’, because he worked in a shop that specialized in auto shock absorbers (called Sosta, in Arabic auto-mechanic idiom) in Saudi Arabia, where he worked on-and-off for 35 years, he explains to Ahram online.
Diaa Abdel-Hady, an independent candidate for the professional seat, is running against Ghali while Ali El-Touny, an independent candidate for the workers seat, is running against Sosta.
The battle is also intensifying in the Shubra and Mehmasha constituency, with 25 candidates vying for two seats. The once notorious business tycoon Rami Lakah, running for the Wafd Party, is competing for the professional seat. Lakah’s campaign slogan “The Shubra intifada,” lines the district's streets on huge posters that feature a large picture of him.
Lakah's campaign faced several setbacks after he ordered the slaughtering of 50 sheep during Al-Adha (Greater Bayram) holiday, which led his opponents to accuse him of going over the campaign spending limit of LE200,000 imposed by the High Electoral Committee for first time candidates.
“He’s not from here and he thinks he can buy us with money,” says Omar Roshdi, a grocer in the district, “We don’t know him and we don’t trust him.”
Not everyone felt the same way, though.
“He’s a millionaire, which means that he won’t need to steal from us because he has a lot of money already,” says Amina Ali, a mother of two.


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