Shubra al-Kheima is at the end of the line. From the lofty vista of its metro station, it is as if a giant broom had swept away the unwanted detritus of terrible tower blocks and factory towers belching out fumes into Qalyubiya (the governorate on whose edge Shubra al-Kheima sits) in a ramshackle, forgotten heap.
At the metro exit, a teenager and a middle-aged man sit on the floor 10 m apart in a contest of sympathy for missing limbs. They give way to a footbridge entirely taken over by street vendors doing battle with the roar of the Cairo-Alexandria highway behind them.
On Sunday night, the Workers Foundation Club played host to the Conference Party, which is rallying for presidential candidate Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Identical giant images of his face are everywhere, but some have been inverted, so that it looks like two Sisis are smiling at each other knowingly.
Having deposited ourselves in the assembly hall, we are then ejected so that a bomb squad can search the building. Outside, we are set upon by a cheerful man carrying an enormous poster of Sisi above his head, who describes the happy life he lead in Libya for 10 years as a migrant worker until events there forced him to return to Egypt. He once assisted a woman who went into labor on a microbus, he tells us, and was sure that things would get better when Sisi is elected president.
He recommends that I wear my underwear inside out in order to attract a husband. I want to ask him if Sisi’s being elected might help with that, too.
A journalist friend, Adam, calls from the gates: they aren’t letting him in. An officious, mustachioed man at the gate had decreed that the official press accreditation from Egypt’s Foreign Press Center bearing Adam’s image was not enough, and that Adam must produce his passport. And so begins a nostalgic trip down memory lane into former President Hosni Mubarak’s security state.
Prior to 2011, the Interior Ministry and its various strongman tentacles were on a permanent mission to control independent journalists’ activities, and generally make their lives as close to living hell as possible without straying into the territory of true illegality, and thereby giving the journalist cause for a valid and watertight legal complaint.
This generally took the form of low level obfuscation, more often than not involving an enthusiastic minion answering to a languid, cigarette-smoking senior officer whose sole raison d’être seemed to be to mumble into mobile phones. The result is that journalists did a lot of standing in the street while events moved on without them — not under arrest, free to go, but not really. Think of it as cop filibustering.
After 2011 — when the Egyptian people momentarily said no, and the Interior Ministry was momentarily cowed — the policemen either faded away for a bit or outsourced to patriotic honorable citizens who took it upon themselves to police the media. For a brief glorious moment, journalists could work without hearing that dreaded line, “Could you step over here and talk to the officer for one minute, please.”
My gallant friend and journalist colleague Sarah takes it upon herself to do battle with them. The organizers of the event grant permission for Adam to cover the event. The security officers says no. Sarah calls the head of the Foreign Press Center, who speaks to one of the cops, a smirking young man in tight jeans, for what seems like years.
The security man does not budge: Adam must produce his passport. Adam produces two pieces of ID bearing his image. One of the organizers who had involved himself in proceedings sees Adam’s visa card as he looks through his things and asks to see that, because at this point reason has committed suicide.
“I don’t have a problem with you, you understand?” the man in the tight jeans tells Adam.
“Yes, you do. You do have a problem with me,” Adam replies, prompting the young man to briefly un-smirk and Sarah to close her eyes in desperation at all that groundwork undone.
Eventually, Adam produces a copy of his passport on his mobile phone. The cop looks at it and then nods his head with the slightest of gestures, and just like that, it’s all finished. No apology or explanation, because there never is.
Inside the hall it’s 1,000 decibels of joy. Ululating women and their children troop in and sit at the back, while at the front men dance and clap to election anthem “Boshret Kheir” (Good Omen), a pop song sung by a citizen of the United Arab Emirates who urges Egyptians to go out and vote. In front of me two young women discuss the merits of marrying an older man. They conclude that an older suitor is not in principle wrong, as long as he is not “past it.”
Proceedings begin with a Quran recitation given with real gusto by one of the Conference Party guys, in an almost gospel singer style. Then it’s the national anthem, for which we all stand. Then we sit down, and stand up again for a minute of silence for the martyrs of the two revolutions.
“Egypt will never die!” a Conference Party speaker declares during a description of conspiracies against Egypt, after which the power promptly goes out. The audience cheers and whistles in the darkness.
Five minutes later the power is back.
“It was the evil eye that did that,” the conference moderator says with a wink.
The next speaker excoriates the Zionists and the United States of America at great length, as well as the traitors and religion merchants, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood, to whom Sisi had stood up.
Om Ahmed was a special guest at the event. She had been slapped outside a courtroom by “one of those terrorists,” i.e. a Muslim Brotherhood member. The speaker informs us that Sisi had personally summoned her so that he could kiss the top of her head, in a gesture of respect and admiration. The speaker then follows suit himself and comes off the podium to kiss Om Ahmed’s much sought after top-of-her-head.
An elaborate introduction precedes the next speaker, apparently a knight, a real man, a hero of the October War, a member of the Armed Forces. A retired pilot, he tells the audience that there is good and bad in every group, in what seems like an unlikely prelude to a call for forgiveness of Brotherhood members and national unity. But then:
“I was formerly in the National Democratic Party. If the National Democratic Party was wrong, it won’t return, but some of its people were good,” the pilot says. The NDP was the Mubarak-led ruling party for years, and its headquarters were set ablaze early on during the January 25 uprising.
Om Ahmed and the top of her head make an appearance to deliver a brief diatribe against a random selection of characters, including Sheikha Moza of Qatar, Barack Obama and Israel.
The star of the night is vocal regime stalwart and perennial survivor Mostafa Bakry, a journalist who was an early passenger on the Sisi train. He published a book about Sisi four days ago that has had four re-runs, he tells us.
He then launches into a lengthy lecture about the Brotherhood’s plot to hand over parts of Sinai to Gazan refugees, care of Hamas, and destroy the Interior Ministry’s power by establishing a religious militia which would also quash political dissent. He illustrates this by reference to events which maybe sound very vaguely familiar, but which Sarah and I can’t really remember happening.
It was Sisi, Bakry tells his avid listeners, that had stood in the path of this dystopian nightmare. Imagine if the army hadn’t taken the side of the people on June 30, Bakry asks, imagine if Sisi and the other top generals had all been arrested as the Brotherhood had planned, what would have become of us. “We were being ruled by a mob!” he says.
Sisi might have made history, but we have a sense that Bakry was making up history. But it doesn’t matter, because his story of the future that never happened and the hero who prevented it was so terrifying that it must have been true.