He is conservative when speaking to the elderly, pious when addressing the Salafis, secular when addressing the Coptic Christians and a reformer when addressing the revolutionaries. His name is Abo El-Fotoh and he is running for president of Egypt.
Unfortunately for Fotoh, this inconsistent rhetoric hasn’t gone unnoticed. His willingness to promise whatever he wants to whoever is asking, seems to be making him and his ‘principles’ seem all too arbitrary. However, I won’t bother quoting any polls to show exactly where he is in the standings or any such nonsense, as a different paper seems to put out a different poll showing a different leader everyday – such is the capricious nature of the opinion poll.
His frontrunner status must have been credible before, given that the first ever televised presidential debate in Egypt warranted the presence of only Amr Moussa and Fotoh. But whereas before, there were two ‘frontrunners’, now there are five. His self-contradictory statements and views have begun to erode at his electorate base, but just how badly?
I had been told Fotoh was to hold a rally in the El-Gazira Sporting Club, an open space about 500 square meters in Zamalek, Cairo, so I trundled along to see exactly how it was going to pan out. I had received a rather vague description of what to expect – “I think he’s going to be talking to some of his supporters or something like that”. No sooner had I crossed the bridge into Zamalek did I hear (or rather, feel) the thumping of drums. Traffic was at a standstill. The supporters were making their way along the main street towards their destination, stopping every once in a while to form a circle to sing their candidate’s songs or simply chant his name. It was a sea of orange – Fotoh’s colour – as around a thousand people marched onto the dusty expanse of the El-Gazira Club grounds.
Inside it was nothing less than a logistical master class. The final head count of supporters numbered in the tens of thousands. There were thousands of seats laid in perfect rows, all neatly covered in white cloth, with enough spacing between for people to meander through. At one side there were portaloos set up for the inevitable call of nature and on the other, a drinks stand. Speakers were set up to ensure no one within a mile of the grounds would miss a single grunt from the stage. At the back was a merchandise stall selling your typical, overpriced, presidential knickknacks all emblazoned with Fotoh’s smiling face. The man wasn’t short of money, that was for sure.
The main stage stood large and there were cameras relaying the images onto screens further at the back for those too late to get a seat or a proper view of the stage. There were around a hundred people working on the site, all volunteers, many just out of university. The diversity in the crowd was surprising, with the old sitting side by side with the young, male and female strangers sitting side by side. Women wearing the niqab sat with women wearing the hijab, sat with women wearing low cut tops. There was an intense atmosphere of expectation and no one seemed to care about anything other than seeing their man.
I did my best to find some English speaking supporters but all of them seemed too distracted for any in-depth interviewing, instead regurgitating prefabricated nonsense sound bites in the hope that it would make me leave them in peace. I obliged them and instead focused more on finding some supporters who were not so set on Fotoh. It was a fanciful idea and I am sorry to say it was a goal I was unable to achieve.
The rest of the rally went as expected, with Fotoh arriving around an hour late with his entourage of about 30 men and women to the booms of fireworks overhead, prompting yet more cheers from the crowd. He circled the stage, waving, arms wide and with the occasional fist pump, as though they had already won the elections. A journalist for the Independent turns to me amid the throng of ecstatic cheering,
“Its just one big wankathon isn’t it?”
Its true, this really did feel like he was preaching only to the converted. I got the feeling he could have just gone up to the microphone and hummed the Star Wars theme tune and they still would have showered him with love. To my right an old woman seemed to have managed to sneak into the press section and grinned at me,
“Beautiful man, beautiful man” as she pointed to Fotoh, her face aglow with pride. She then squealed with delight and performed a most curious dance.
I made my way home.