Alexandria no longer easy gain for political Islam, argues novelist-researcher Alaa Khaled

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 27 Sep 2015

“Things are changing; it is not immediately visible but there is a new spirit, or maybe a re-found old spirit,” said Alexandrian novelist-researcher Alaa Khaled

Egyptian women walk past a banner and poster in Arabic that both read, "Nour Party," during the 2011 parliamentary elections in Alexandria (Photo: AP)

Speaking to Ahram Online from one of Alexandria’s oldest and most famous tearooms, Alaa Khaled, who is an authority on the history and dynamics of Egypt’s most prominent port city, said that the Alexandrians who will vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections are very different from those who voted in the 2010 and 2011 elections.

Why? He answered, because they have been through "two revolutions" that challenged many givens — or rather so many things that were perceived as facts, including the predominant influence of political Islam in a city that is often referred to as a wellspring of cosmopolitanism and modernity.

“I think that in the next elections the Islamists — I don’t really wish to get into the debate over the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists at this point — will not gain the many seats that some would expect,” Khaled said.

He added that while some quarters — especially in the many shanty-towns that during the last three decades mushroomed around the heart of the city — would vote for the Islamists, the centre is unlikely to.

Prior to the January 2011 revolution, Khaled argued, the centre, which is about the middle class and intellectuals, had withdrawn almost completely from public space. But with the January revolution things changed, as everyone who wished to join the revolution came to the centre.

With 30 June, this role of the centre was confirmed, argued the Alexandrian novelist-researcher.

While Khaled is willing to acknowledge that the centre might have started a new political withdrawal, he insists that it is still very much preoccupied with debating questions around identity and the future — questions both prompted by and fed the two consecutive collective mass movements in January 2011 and June 2013.

According to Khaled, a revolution works on matters hidden in the collective consciousness of the people, and when it comes to Alexandria this consciousness is about engagement with and not hiding behind the Mediterranean.

This, he argued, has been the story of the city through consecutive centuries.

Without getting consumed in the burgeoning debate over cosmopolitanism and conservatism in Alexandria, Khaled is convinced that the city has always been founded on diversity and openness.

Today, as he takes younger men and women to walk through the city and rediscover its many layers, from the Greek tearooms to the Ottoman windows on some homes, to Italian restaurants, Khaled finds a city that has gone through a lot and was never held hostage to one idea.

“There were always many currents — as political as cultural,” he argues.

The hegemony of political Islam was never a well-rooted reality as such, he adds. It was rather a reflection of the receding role of the centre and a declining association with the Mediterranean in favour of waves coming from the Arab Gulf countries through other cities.

“This started in the late 1970s, and was certainly the pattern of the 1980s and 1990s when Alexandria was in a way suffocated,” he argued.

Today, he added, Alexandrians are not divorced from their religious faith, but they are regaining their many ways of celebrating religion away from the harsh grasp of political Islam that he finds out of step with the diversity that grounds the harbour city.

“I think that when society — in Alexandria as across the nation — dropped the harsh wall of fear, it also dropped its fear of making its own choices about many things, including the way to enjoy and celebrate religion. And this is precisely why political Islam is loosing ground,” Khaled insisted.

Alexandria, Khaled expects, will see a predominantly civil vote that is compatible with its unfailing passion for diversity.

In the reading of Khaled, reflected in his widely read book Alexandrian Faces, the harbour city is the subconscious of the nation.

“It might not be the brain, but it is certainly the soul. I guess this is why Naguib Mahfouz chose to set his novel Miramar in Alexandria, which reflects on conflicting views on the fate of the entire country,” he said.

As such, he added, the Alexandria political vote could be much more significant, and ought to be more closely watched, than just that of a large and prominent governorate.

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