Walking around Cairo on the eve of the presidential election – the first free one, as media are calling it – and the sense of hope, anxiety and waiting is palpable. The city is of course crammed full of election posters, as it always is at these times. There’s been a lot of talk that Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafik must have a lot of money behind them because of this or that poster in a prime position, but to be honest the images of all the main candidates are everywhere, so that one minute you see one, the next you see another. The slogans are all catchy. Moussa peers down with gravitas on Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandiseen, exhorting the people that Egypt “is up to the challenge”, but Shafik peers out from ground level warning you with a paternal look, with hints of scorn or menace, or both, that he’s all about “actions, not words”.
Some areas are more one way than the other. Manyal, being BrotherhoodLand, is full of Mohammed Mursi posters; the area around the presidential palace that Mubarak skulked around in with Christiane Amanpour in the days before the White House told the military to tell him to take a hike, those streets are full of Shafik posters. The divide is generally clear: Shafik and Moussa are figures who shared in power during the Mubarak era, Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Futuh, Mursi and Hamdeen Sabahi are the revolution’s candidates who say they represent a true break with the past. I prefer to see it this way: Shafik and Moussa are the candidates that military council SCAF, the Interior Ministry, the White House and Riyadh will all heave a sigh of relief over; the others will cause them anxiety. Or, it’s Abu al-Futuh, Mursi and Sabahi who would try to challenge the military-security establishment, the other two will not (one will make useless efforts, the other won’t even try). Others of course focus on the secular-Islamist issue as the priority.
What struck me walking around Tahrir and the vital organs of the state in the vicinity – the Interior Ministry, the state security HQ, parliament and some ministries, the Mugamma administrative building (the US embassy, Mursi’s campaign HQ in a Freedom and Justice Party building opposite the Interior…) is how the “revolutionary” forces have left their imprint there and carved it out as their space. This might seem obvious after a year of turmoil with Tahrir as its epicentre, but it’s striking to see it after being out of the country for a bit. Sabahi posters were really evident, reflecting the appeal he has to the secular forces who took part in the uprising against Mubarak – appeal that critics say is for middle class intellectuals and leftists who do not have the base and the machine to make him a serious challenger who can get through to the second round (if no one, as is widely expected, gets over 50 percent in the first round).
The anti-SCAF and Interior graffiti is everywhere. The military-security powers have blocked off numerous streets to protect themselves from the revolutionary street. Part of a long wall of street art on the corner of the old American University building was painted over by security forces this week, but youth painters were out repainting it on Tuesday with anti-regime images and messages: a composite face of Mubarak/Tantawy, alongside Moussa and Shafik in similar style, suggesting no difference between them all. One image showed Hitler declaring “teach me your evil, Tantawy”. A man sat on a chair next to the image. But when I pulled out my camera he told me in irritation to keep him out of it – a reminder of the fear that still stalks the country.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is using an office directly in the face of the Interior as its campaign HQ: a pretty brazen act and a decision just taken in recent days (rather than the Manyal offices). The area is packed with central security forces as well as army tanks. Journalists wander around asking them where the office of their old enemy is, and it’s just over the road. Party faithful were milling around but the campaign organisers were upstairs and unwilling to discuss the state of affairs. But they all seemed confident, as were FJP journalists over in Manyal at the party newspaper. Indeed, they were quite blatant that it didn’t matter if Abu al-Futuh got through to the second round rather than Mursi, as long as it was an Islamist they could all unite around.
Chatting to a taxi driver while heading back home, state radio read off a series of announcements regarding the election: there was a sense of admonition in these missives – the election will be fair, the election will witness mass participation, the election will affirm that the Egyptian people enjoy freedom, democracy and dignity. It was the rhetoric of the Mubarak era. After a day of exemplary violence, thuggery and death during 1995 parliamentary elections, Information Minister Safwat Sharif memorably pronounced the day a “festival of democracy”. The driver swore profusely against the military council, he said he was worried about some kind of result being cooked up, but predicted there would be violence if Shafik won in the end. “The problem is that we already had a revolution against them, what more can we do??” he said. Like most other people I spoke to randomly, he said 1. he preferred Sabahi 2. he was thinking his vote would better spent on Abu al-Futuh, but 3. he suspected Mursi would make it through.
Ultimately no one really has a clue though. The polls released have all been suspect: limited groups of people, held at early stages and bearing possible military-security messages to the public on the inevitability of a Moussa or Shafik success. And we don’t even know what powers the winner will have, which makes a bit of a mockery of the programmes they’ve put forward and argued over. But there’s no question this is exciting; people sense this is a historic moment not just for Egypt but the region.