Egypt's industrial capital voices cautious optimism for future under next president

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 24 May 2012

Voters in Cairo's low-income industrial Helwan district voice optimism for Egypt's political future in the knowledge that - whoever's elected - they always have Tahrir Square

An Egyptian woman searches for her name on a registration list outside a polling station in Helwan (

It was once a sprawling resort town and a playground for Egypt's rich. Then Nasserism arrived and it was turned into one of Egypt’s main industrial zones. Now, the district of Helwan, after decades of government neglect, is one of the gloomiest parts of the country.

Helwan is a far cry from the nearby suburb of Maadi, which is known for its affluence. A popular spot for rich Egyptians and foreign expatriates, Maadi is a leafy suburb, with clean streets and beautiful dwellings. All that disappears, however, once one reaches Helwan, with its broken pavements, open sewage and piles of garbage.

Paint on the buildings is peeling, while a thick layer of smog from the mass of local factories hovers over the area. Indeed, since late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser turned the area into one of Egypt’s premier industrial zones, it has become home to numerous factories for cement, iron, steel and military production.

But with the arrival of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential elections, Helwan residents hope all this will change and the area will return to its former glory.

"We practically live in a garbage dump," says Alyaa Mohamed, a middle-aged woman waiting in line to vote outside Helwan’s Om El-Battal School. "But we’re hoping that things will change soon."

Since early morning, Helwan residents have been filtering into their designated polling stations to choose the country’s president for the first time. Turnout on Thursday – the last day of the two-day vote – appeared much lower than the day before, although the head of the polling station at the Khaled Ibn El-Waleed School says the station had already received 2,800 voters. Judge Ehab Fikry, who is overseeing the polling in an adjacent station, told Ahram Online that elections monitors had made a brief visit the first day, but on Thursday had been a no-show.

People waiting in line to vote chat quietly about the “martyrs” of last year’s Tahrir Square uprising, expressing gratitude for their sacrifice – a sacrifice that made today’s election possible.  

"Every revolution demands sacrifice," says Amira El-Sayed, an elderly woman waiting outside the Rostom School. "We’re tired of corruption; we want to live decent lives from now on," she exclaims, as the women around her nod their heads vigorously in agreement.

Many Helwan residents are tightlipped about who they plan to vote for, although Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi's name comes up frequently. Hala Mahmoud, in line outside the Quds School, supports the Brotherhood candidate because, she says, "people want to live their lives without being surrounded by sin."

She is quick to add, however, that she is not happy with Islamist parties’ performance in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament.

Factory worker Hussein Saddnawy, for his part, says that, even though socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi is known for championing workers’ rights, he nevertheless prefers Morsi because “he’s a devout Muslim.”

"Sababhi is religious, but not enough," he adds. "That's why I chose Morsi. We've had liberal presidents before. Let's try someone religious this time."

Like many workers in the area, Saddnawy entertains numerous grievances. His income is meagre, he has no health insurance, and the retirement package his company offers is far from sufficient.

"They give you LE700 for each year of labour you’ve given them,” he said. “Is that fair?"

Mohamed El-Hosseiny, meanwhile, works in a factory that manufactures furniture. He, too, is unhappy with his working conditions and hopes his situation will improve under Egypt’s next president.

"The most important thing for us is social justice," El-Hosseiny said. "I bought Morsi's book on the Islamist Nahda [Renaissance] Project, and believe he will achieve the changes we need."

El-Hosseiny's colleague, Bassem Mahfouz, agrees. He says that workers often struggle for years without ever receiving adequate compensation for their work.

"I've worked at the same factory for five years and still only earn LE 500 a month. Who can live on that?” Mahfouz, a father of five, asked.

Nadia Hosny, a housewife in line outside the Om El-Abtal School, declined to reveal to Ahram Online who she would vote for. She did say, however, that she wanted a president capable of restoring domestic security and stability following 16 months of post-revolution turbulence.

"We now see frequent burglaries, carjackings and kidnappings," she complains. "We want to feel safe in our streets again."

Over in Helwan’s Marwan Market, meanwhile, traders crowd the street hawking their wares, offering everything from fresh produce to pins and needles.

Omar Minnawy, a 55-year-old shoe seller, proudly waves his ink-stained finger – indicating that he has cast a ballot – loudly declaring that he had never voted in an election before.  

"I’m so happy, so optimistic," he says. "I have faith in God that things will be better soon."

A cucumber seller a few stalls away, for his part, says he wants Islamist candidate Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh to win the presidential race, because he believes in Abul-Fotouh’s moderate approach to Islam.

"He has reached out to everyone,” says Mohamed El-Sayed. “I believe he means well and has Egypt’s best interest at heart."

At the Helwan Train Station, Sherif El-Bakri sits selling telephone cards to commuters. He says Sabbahi is his first choice, but believes Morsi will win the election.

"I think Morsi will get 90 per cent of the votes," El-Bakri says. “But Hamdeen is better because he comes from a poor background like us.”

At the nearby Mahata Market, Ahmed Seraya, who sells aluminium kitchenware, says he hopes the new president – whoever he is – will provide him with a decent location to peddle his merchandise.

"Many of these markets that sprung up after the revolution are illegal, so police are constantly bothering me," he says. "All I want is a good, clean place to sell my products. I believe that whoever will come [as Egypt’s next president] will bring good things."

Several other young Helwan residents, such as 19-year-old Wael Hossam, do not share Seraya's optimism.

"All these candidates come with their electoral programmes and promise us change, but nothing will change. Egypt will always remain the same," Hossam says. "I have five brothers and I only earn LE20 a day. If the revolution was going to bring any change, it would have happened already."

Despite reservations on the part of many Helwan residents about Egypt's political future, most are confident that the country will soon see better times. What’s more, the people of Helwan know they now have a secret weapon – Tahrir Square – that can be deployed against any possible transgressions by Egypt’s next leader.

"Let the new president beware: we will always have the Tahrir option," says Hossam. "If they lie, steal, abuse us in any way, we won’t hesitate to return to the square."

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