Prefatory note: your negligent blogger has been battling a deep bout of depression over the past week that has made following Egyptian politics an unusually bitter experience. This has, it should be made clear, nothing to do with why the site hasn’t been updated as of late and instead entirely to do with the disqualification of presidential candidate-cum-bearded-genius Hazem Salah Abu Ismail; or as I like to call him, the most entertaining reason to tune into Egyptian politics.
Personal business aside, so much has been written about Ismail that I would normally question featuring him as a topic for this blog. But for all the hoopla surrounding his late March surge to presidential superstardom, very little has actually been said about the magnitude and implications of what this man has just accomplished. In a relatively short period and with almost nothing in the way of formal support, Ismail essentially launched Egypt’s Islamist-Obama 2008 campaign. Put more boldly, Ismail appears to have run the most dynamic and effective presidential campaign the country has ever seen, and there is quite a lot to be taken away from this feat.
At the outset, note that Ismail’s campaign isn’t something new so much as the recognition of his popularity is. This is to say that the recent “surprise” of his campaign’s strength actually says more about the horrific state of Egyptian opinion polls than anything else. In other words, Ismail’s campaign has been less of a spike than a snowball that finally reached a critical mass worth noticing.
The campaign is at first noteworthy because it did what every political junkie dreams of: it took a fringe candidate and made him a viable, mainstream-like contender. Like any great political underdog, Ismail initially did two simple things to get himself noticed: he said controversial things and plastered his face everywhere.
Much has been made of Ismail’s bizarrely incessant postering, which over time became the stuff of viral internet parody, particularly a Facebook page dedicated to photoshopping Ismail’s posters into wonderfully unexpected and hilarious places.
But the presence of the Facebook pages, articles and meta conversation growing out of the postering indeed show that it achieved the intended effect. Recognize that although Ismail was a political candidate in 2000 and 2005 – losing both times, and blaming regime corruption in each case – he never held political office. Nor did Ismail ever hold a very public position anywhere. He was a popular preacher, true, but at best, still relatively parochial compared to his competition. Unlike Aboul Fatouh, he had no storied break with the Brotherhood; unlike El-Shater and Morsi he had no Brotherhood backing; unlike Moussa, Shafiq, and Soleiman, he didn’t have a priori household name recognition tied to previous posts, and unlike ElBaradei he had zero international recognition. In this way, he was mostly just a well spoken bearded contrarian, and before he could win voters over with his message he had to convince people he was someone they should pay attention to.
Thus, even before parliamentary election campaigning had gotten under way this past fall, Abu Ismail posters began popping up in cities across Egypt. In Mansoura, and in October, while the city’s residents were mostly just wondering if the People’s Assembly elections would indeed be kept to schedule, Ismail’s campaign slogan was spray painted liberally on the city’s main streets – though interestingly, his name was kept absent from the message, almost as if to suggest the admonition the paint carried was less political slogan than universal truth.
“By sharia we will live dignified.” This was the earlier version of Ismail’s campaign slogan, now simply “We will live dignified.”
The slogan itself is one of Ismail’s most notable accomplishments. Unlike any other presidential contender’s slogans, one could drop this line into conversation and all speakers present would immediately know what and who it was a reference to. Does anyone even know Amr Moussa or Aboul Fatouh’s campaign slogans, outside of perhaps their own supporters? Does anyone remember what ElBaradei’s was?
Beyond the sheer stickiness of the phrase, the message itself is brilliant. That’s because the many demands of the Egyptian people could probably be summarized as a restoration of dignity, a dignity that both alludes to a romantic past as well as to the oppressive actors that have prevented its achievement until present – whether the West, the previous regime, or most recently, the specter of an overbearing Brotherhood-ruled future. In this way, Ismail’s phrase tapped into Egyptian angst the way “Change we can believe in” entranced cult-like Americans in 2008. And yes, that’s where the Obama analogy ends.
In fact, the full meaning of Ismail’s slogan is where most media misses the point of his campaign. Two weeks ago, for instance, the Economist referenced his platform with:
“Belly-dancers would be banished. Foreign tourists could still booze in bikinis, provided they were quarantined from Egyptians. The legal age of marriage would be lowered to puberty, as in the Prophet’s time.”
Not only is it unclear if Ismail would have the authority to do any of this (still no constitution), it’s also just one small piece of a campaign platform that combines seemingly sensible ideas like localizing government to make it more responsive to citizen needs, with off-the-wall stuff like cultivating the Sahara and Sinai in order to become agriculturally self-sufficient in – and this is verbatim – two years time.
But the point here is that when read holistically and not through the cherry picking, “shit that will scare liberals” lens of made-for-cool-journalism stories, Ismail’s campaign is less about a radical that wants to rebuild the Caliphate than a pissed off conservative who wants Egyptians to live on their own terms. We won’t be repressed by an overbearing centralized government; we will grow our own food; we won’t be dependent on the West; we will live in dignity; to hell with Israel. That’s the thrust of the Ismail campaign, and that’s why people love him.
But let’s be clear: Ismail and many of his ideas are in fact Crazy. But he is less crazy in the way that’s played up in the media and more crazy in the way every irrationally self-confident individual who believes he’s the only one who can rule a sovereign nation is. That’s the point.
And it’s this irrational self confidence mode of craziness that has made his campaign both brilliantly entertaining to watch and also unbelievably effective at garnering supporters. Because at the end of the day, if you want to attract large numbers of autonomous individuals behind your cause you have to get them excited, and every other candidate by comparison has pretty much put their supporters to sleep.
Probably the most notable thing about Ismail’s success is the lack of formal support it had. The Brotherhood competed directly against him and the Salafist Nour Party as well as other Salafist groups asked him to drop his campaign so as not to split Islamist votes. Liberals and regime sympathizers consider him the Antichrist. So how again to explain his frontrunner status by late March?
As Ahram noted back in February:
“Hazem Salah Abu Ismail doesn’t have a centralised campaign, preferring instead to allow disparate volunteer groups to lobby for him. His campaign ‘supervisor’ is Hani Hafez, a 39-year-old automation engineer who left the Muslim Brotherhood three years ago.”
This is a bit more speculative, but for a constituency that has likely grown tired of the controls placed on Muslim Brotherhood campaigns, Ismail seems to have capitalized on turning pure enthusiasm loose in whatever direction it may go. It’s not clear to what extent local Hazemun (as Ismail supporters have come to be known) coordinate with any central entity, but given Ismail’s lack of concern for the torrent of online content produced in his name, my guess is very little. As an aside, Ismail’s face appears to be the most popular Facebook profile default in Egypt.
As another aside, the online content produced both celebrating and mocking Ismail has been fantastic, and at the least, I’m going to make you watch this video:
And that’s pretty much it: a decentralized campaign with a powerful slogan to match a captivating speaker with hardline views. Several billion posters later, constant online chatter, liberal mocking – likely resulting in greater conservative solidarity with their victimized hero – and Hazem The Super Candidate Abu Ismail is born.
The magnitude of what this grassroots campaign actually accomplished was, I think, put perfectly by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times when he commented on the U.S. government’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood following their decision to run a presidential candidate. Kirkpatrick writes:
“And so, in a remarkable inversion, American policy makers who once feared a Brotherhood takeover now appear to see the group as an indispensable ally against Egypt’s ultraconservatives, exemplified by Mr. Abu Ismail.”
In other words, one irrationally confident bearded man, some guy named Hani Hafez, and an army of kids with too many posters forced the United States government to support Muslim Brotherhood domination after it had been spending billions of dollars to avoid just that fate 16 months earlier – more or less.
But that was the first week of April. Now of course the campaign appears finished, killed off by the same xenophobia that partially spurred it forward. The irony of the anti-American candidate being disqualified for being too close to America has inspired no shortage of commentary, and has rocketed Ismail’s name beyond the Egyptsphere and into the realm of mainstream American news coverage and Daily Show segment. And unfortunately, Ismail’s cultish supporters’attacks on Barack Obama’s reelection page, though as funny as they were misguided, could do nothing to change the tragicomedy of their hero’s fall.
If nothing else, the wake of Ismail’s campaign throws into relief the failure of any other candidate to capture the imagination of the Egyptian electorate. It provides a decent lesson in the power of charisma over campaign funding, that conservatives can also hype campaigns via social networks, and that idealism and tapping into the Egyptian struggle counts for more than institutional support. The question now is what candidate has the political savvy to replicate the “We will live in dignity” mantra?
In the end, Egypt’s most effective political campaign is reduced to what made it so fun to keep tabs on in the first place: the comedy it engendered.