Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Campaigning with Gameela: Day Two

Gameela speaks to residens of the poverty-stricken
Bulaq neighborhood
A dozen young men and women spread down the street, handing out pamphlets and holding large, black-white-and-red posters. Not far behind, a woman with bright, smiling eyes followed, shaking hands and speaking with shopkeepers and residents. Four television cameras and a half-dozen journalists and photographers observed her every move, capturing her interactions on film.

Yesterday was my second day following the parliamentary campaign of prominent public figure Gameela Ismail. Gameela is running for parliament in Qasr el-Nil, a key district in downtown Cairo, against seasoned ruling-party politician Hisham Mostafa Khalil (Khalil's father was once Prime Minister of Egypt).

Gameela has seen and experienced more in the way of dirty politics than most Americans or Europeans could imagine. She learned how to deal with campaign tricks when she ran for Shura Council in 2001, and again when she ran Ayman Nour’s presidential campaign in 2005. When Nour was imprisoned under false pretenses, Gameela managed to raise their two sons and keep the political party running for the next four years, despite constant harassment from the government. She received phone calls late at night threatening the safety of her children, and was even caught inside the party headquarters when a rival faction attempted to burn them down. Gameela survived these trials and became known and respected throughout Egypt for her strength and courage.

After everything she has faced in her fight for democracy and civil rights in Egypt, Gameela is running for parliament against a strong government force. Why? Because she refuses to stand by and watch a parliamentary campaign with no worthy candidates in the district where she has spent her entire life.

And she thinks she has a chance to win.

Gameela speaks to media outside the
Gezira School in Zamalek
The morning began outside Cilantro cafe in Zamalek at 7:30am. More than twenty State Security officers were prowling the area when Gameela’s car pulled up. As her son and sister-in-law covered the car with election posters, Gameela spoke to the already waiting media – CNN, another television crew, German and Japanese reporters – and a half-dozen of her supporters.

The morning was spent visiting schools in the Zamalek area. Soon, a total of four television cameras were following Gameela – CNN, BBC, and two programs from Dream TV – in addition to reporters and a dozen of Gameela’s supporters.

The group then headed downtown to the Mugamma. The Mugamma is a giant, Soviet-looking building smack in the middle of Midan Tahrir, one of Cairo’s most important squares (also home to the Egyptian Museum and the old campus of the American University in Cairo). Gameela considers the Mugamma to be the biggest mark of the State – and she is right. Everyone, from Egyptians needing identity cards to foreigners obtaining visas, must pass through the Mugamma’s doors at least once during their lives in Egypt.

Outside the entrance the thirty or so people now in Gameela's entourage set up camp – supporters passed out Gameela’s pamphlets while reporters filmed Gameela’s interactions with security outside the Mugamma, who were reluctant to let any of the group inside the building and were extremely uncomfortable with the presence of TV cameras. Finally Gameela entered the building with a dozen or so supporters, but without the television crews.

Hanging Gameela's poster on a
wall inside the Mugamma
She headed straight for the Ministry of Education, where she knocked on every door and introduced herself to everyone she encountered. Even here, in this important Government building, the people were receptive to her. They hung her posters on their walls. “The people were so brave,” Gameela said later. “They spoke up loudly against the government.”

Eventually the group made its way out of the Mugamma and moved to one of the poorest areas in Gameela’s district. That is where my story began – as Gameela moved through the streets speaking with potential voters. It’s a hard battle here: the people like Gameela, and many would support her. But unlike the other candidates, Gameela refuses to buy votes.

“A few days ago, this woman’s sister called me,” Gameela told the group, referring to a woman she had just met. “She said, we like you, we want to support you. How much are you paying?”

Gameela's poster hangs over a
shop in Bulaq
The woman's query literally meant, how much money will you give us to vote for you. In many ways it is endemic corruption. Candidates offer poor Egyptians 500 Egyptian Pounds – less than US $100 – for their votes. Half is paid up front, the other half after they take a picture of their ballots with their mobile phones. Then, whoever wins disappears for the next five years.

Gameela wants to change this. “I want the people to understand that I will not pay them for their votes, but that if I win I will work for them for free for the next five years,” she said.

It will be a difficult battle, and only days remain before the elections take place. Bizarrely, the Egyptian government only allows fourteen days of campaigning before elections take place.

Surrounded by a mixed group of journalists, supporters, and potential voters, Gameela pauses to look up at someone speaking to her from their window. Behind her, a young man holds her election poster high, creating a backdrop. She smiles, and the expression on her face echoes the one on her poster – she is looking toward the future with hope, and perhaps that is the key that will help her effect her vision for Qasr el-Nil, and perhaps, eventually, for her country.

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