As Egyptian town votes, a glimpse of the revolution spurs longing for the past

In a town that was once a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, many Egyptians are voting for former Mubarak ally Ahmed Shafiq in today's presidential election because they say life has been harder since the revolution.

Islam Abdel Raheem used to sell three cows a week.

That was before the uprising in Egypt that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from power. Now, says Mr. Abdel Raheem, standing among the mostly empty meat hooks hanging from the ceiling of his tiny butcher shop, the meat he sells every week only amounts to one and a half or, at most, two cows.

The residents of this small village in the fertile farming region of the Nile Delta are buying less beef because prices are rising. The drop in business is just one of the ways life has deteriorated for Abdel Raheem since the uprising, he says. Another is security.

A few months ago, two men from outside the village killed a resident of Herreyat Razna. A group of villagers took the law into their own hands, beating the assailants to death. The police arrived late, and villagers chased them away so they could finish off the assailants themselves rather than hand them over to police, says Abdel Raheem.

“Before the revolution, the government was strong. It was governing,” he says. “Nobody could raise a gun, or even a dagger. So this never could have happened then. That’s why we need someone from the old system, so he can restore order.”

Abdel Raheem doesn’t curse the uprising, like some here do. But he says it’s made life harder. That’s part of the reason he’ll vote for Ahmed Shafiq, who served as prime minister under Mr. Mubarak, when Egyptians go to the polls today to elect a new president.

The lives of Abdel Raheem and others like him, far from Tahrir Square, help illustrate how it is possible that Egyptians could revolt against the regime, then turn around just a year and a half later and vote someone back to power who represents the same system. To them, Mr. Shafiq’s connection to the past means he also represents their best chance of stability that might improve their daily lives.    

'Shafiq knows politics'

In the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections, Mr. Shafiq earned the most votes in the Sharqiya governorate, which has traditionally been considered a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. That Shafiq came in ahead of the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, whose hometown is in Sharqiya, was a shock. But many in the governorate say they plan to vote for him again.

“Shafiq knows politics; he has an awareness of how the system works,” says Abdel Raheem, waving away the dozens of flies buzzing around a worn butcher block. He says he expects prices would drop under a Shafiq presidency, and security would improve. “He knows where all the thieves are located, and he could round them up in one hour.”

Shafiq has promised to restore security within hours of taking office, and that is an appealing promise to many Egyptians. Under Mubarak, police stood on nearly every corner, police stations were feared places of abuse, and crime was low. After the revolt, police withdrew, and crime flourished in their absence. Even now, with most of the police force back on duty, lawlessness is higher than it was in the days of Mubarak.

In Zagazig, the drab provincial capital, Um Ahmed (which translates to "mother of Ahmed," as she asked to be called) sits on a fruit crate on the side of the road next to stacks of peaches, apricots, and melons. Amid the dust and car exhaust, Um Ahmed uses an old rag to swat flies off the fruit she sells to passersby. Her round face is framed by a headscarf, the edges of which hang down to her fingertips. “Life is garbage, and Mubarak’s days were better,” she says.

Before the revolution, she was a housewife. But last year, her daughter’s husband was falsely accused of drug possession after he talked back to a police officer, she says. He was sentenced to three years in jail, and she now has to work to help support her family. 

She hasn’t seen a single good thing come from the revolution, she says, laughing bitterly at the idea. “We didn’t see anything except for price hikes and this bad life that we lead,” she says, adding that traffic and security have also worsened. She will vote for Shafiq. “He’s a respectable man, and we feel he might do something for us.”

Preexisting problems

Um Ahmed attributes her troubles to the revolution, which is not particularly accurate. Police abuse and corruption were widespread before Mubarak was ousted. Prices were already rising, and traffic was bad. Of course, traffic has in some places become more chaotic without police to direct it, and meat prices have spiraled far higher than pre-revolution levels as the weak and distracted interim government has struggled to deal with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The root of those problems, however, existed before the uprising.

But with Mubarak’s removal from power came hope that things would get better. “Bread, freedom, and social justice” was one of the popular chants during the protests in Tahrir Square. When social justice never arrived, and food continued to grow more expensive, Shafiq’s promises to restore order resonated with Egyptians like Um Ahmed. Many see him as the perfect candidate for this troubled time. Next election they'll vote for an agent of change; first, stability, they say.

In the village of Sheeba Nakaria, not far from Zagazig, Osama Ahmed Saif el Din also says the revolution has brought him little good. Though he graduated from Al Azhar University, he works as a waiter in a cafe in the village. Posters of Mr.Morsi hang across the potholed street, staring into the cafe as a boy rides past them on a donkey. But nearly everyone drinking tea and smoking water pipes in the cafe supports Shafiq. When a discussion begins about the presidential candidates, the cafe patrons gang up on the only two Morsi supporters there. Many repeat the rumors and attacks on the Brotherhood that have been levied by Shafiq, state media, or anti-Brotherhood television hosts. One patron says Morsi will sell the Suez Canal to Qatar if he becomes president.

Mr. Seif el Din voted for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party during parliamentary elections, but says the party did nothing but harm the country in parliament. Now he will vote for Shafiq.

“Shafiq would help unemployment in poor areas, and he would provide bread for the people,” he says. “I graduated from university but here I am in a coffee shop. Is that fair?”

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