In the Bikya book café in the posh suburb of Maadi, a debate on the forthcoming presidential runoffs brought together representatives of the two contenders, Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, as well as a third and no less significant player: the movement to boycott the elections, a significant section of which is calling on voters to go to the polls and void their votes. Over the last few weeks the same – heated – debate has been going on at home, among friends and at work as well as on talk shows.
The Shafik campaign representative, Amr Hussein, told the audience about his candidate’s history and experience and his ideas for Egypt; on the other side were two young medical students, Islam Mohei and Omar Mohamed, who though not representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood are voting for Morsi. Nour Ayman, an activist, argued for voiding your vote.
Predictably, strong criticism was directed at both sides. Mohei and Mohamed admitted they have been faced with a tough choice. They will vote for Morsi, they said, in the belief that they are choosing the revolution side. Both argued they are opting for change instead of choosing a member of the old regime. They spoke about the allegations against Shafik when he was the aviation minister, his remarks about the revolution in the early days, calling it an uprising, and about refusing the rule of military men.
As for Hussein, the accusations to the two supporters flew back, relating the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament over the last few months and citing their voracious appetite for power. While Hussein said that people voted for Shafik to retain order, stability and prosperity, the two Morsi supporters say they will vote for him because his record is clean, he will apply change and has the Nahda programme to implement.
As for the Mubtilun (Voiders) representative, Nour, his passion for his stance was clear. While he sees Shafik as the enemy, he blames the Muslim Brotherhood even more: “When the stab comes from the people who stood next to you during the Tahrir sit-in, then their political party, Freedom and Justice, attacks us and calls the people protesting in the streets drug addicts, then that is even worse. After saying the revolution in Tahrir Square was over, Morsi personally went to Tahrir after the first round of elections and he wants young revolutionaries to join Brotherhood protests again. I can’t forgive them for that, because principles can’t be broken.”
Nour has always been enthusiastic about people voting: “In 2010 we were urging people to get their voting cards to participate in the People’s Assembly elections and avoid fraud.” He says he can’t believe he is now urging people not to vote when this has been their one dream. “But I am against the electoral system and the candidates, and I believe what is based on wrong gives way to wrong. I object to these elections under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. No ballot box will lead to a revolutionary act.” Interestingly, Nour says that he happens to agree with Shafik when he says this is an uprising not a revolution. He admits that the young revolutionaries couldn’t think of viable options for the people, yet he also blames the political parties for pushing them aside.
Still, Hussein stressed what Shafiq promises in terms of security and prosperity for the people, while the two Morsi supporters insisted that his rise to power means the revolution will continue. For its part the audience seemed to proffer rather more comments than questions. Sherif Hassan, the engineer who moderated the session, says his point of view did not change after the debate, but argues that it was a good debate all things considered. While it did not add anything new to the information people already have about the candidates, it did help to explain the viewpoint of those who will boycott.
The revolution might not have changed the system, which seems evident to many, but the people have certainly changed. Audiences who now gather in small rooms trying to lobby for their ideas, even without enough evidence to assert their point of view, have passion – and that is the real achievement of the 25 January revolution. Before this uprising/military coup/people’s revolution, interest in politics was only for those who were really interested. After that date, interest in public affairs out of curiosity or care has become the norm. Many young people who would have been sipping their coffee or smoking their shisha discussing football, their love life, studies or plans for the future, are now doing some thinking about politics and the future of the country. Assessment of their techniques in protesting or forming alliances have all been put to the test. After a year and a half, it is interesting to see people sitting in one room, discussing their own ideas instead of judging the people with ideas. Handshakes and interesting chats took place between all the different parties after the small debate.