Note: This is an archived project; no significant changes have been made since parliament was seated in January 2016.
Heliopolis and Matariya: Living up to Their Reputations?
Heliopolis and Matariya are two very different neighborhoods in the western outskirts of Greater Cairo. The first is an upscale district that vocally supported, in 2012 and 2013, the protests against and then the overthrow of then-President Muhammad Morsi. It is considered home to many supporters of the regime, relatively wealthy, and who defend a socially and culturally liberal mindset while being in favor of pro-establishment politics.
The nearby Matariya displays none of Heliopolis’ architectural trappings, but rather plain buildings and overcrowded narrow streets. Pro-Brotherhood demonstrations regularly took place there following Morsi’s ouster, and local media started calling it a “Brotherhood stronghold.” Clashes with the security forces drew on long-held grievances over police brutality in the area. In the district, along with the nearby area of Alf Maskan, dozens of casualties were reported in January 2014 anti-regime demonstrations and ensuing protests as police and military forces battled youth branding fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and firearms.
Throughout Matariya, people say they know who will win the local seats: an accountant who is also the secretary-general of the Chamber of Commerce, Atef al-Ashmouni, who boasted that he organized “the biggest party in Cairo” for his campaign; Dodo al-Omda (whose real name is Ahmed Abdel Fattah Mantawi), the son of a former parliamentarian; and a former assistant security director of Cairo, Ali al-Demerdash. “I hope they win, surely it will be good for the country,” a 42-year-old street vendor who lives off Matariya Square says. “But honestly, I haven’t voted.”
“It may seem surprising that Matariya would vote for a man from the security apparatus, but the people want to show that they are not terrorists and that they deserve fair treatment from the state,” said Ehab, a young Matariya resident. Ehab, 32, works in a gas company and assists with the campaign for “al-Omda”. The nickname—“the Mayor”—unabashedly shows that the family considers itself responsible for the area. Ehab adds, “His father belonged to the National Democratic Party, (former President Hosni) Mubarak’s party … Dodo is different—he made it clear to the voters that he is not his father and that the era of the NDP is over.” Dodo is running with the Nation’s Future Party, which is widely considered a state-supported youth party.
“We are completely back to the Mubarak era,” argued another Matariya resident in his thirties, who works in the tourism sector. “The results are known in advance. And there’s no use in voting; the parliament has no power.” He went on to expound on his views, condemning the Brotherhood’s overthrow by the army, and thus declined to give his name, fearing retribution. The Brotherhood sympathizer confessed that he will not vote, even though he worked on Dodo al-Omda’s campaign.
Alaa, a thin, 27-year-old EgyptAir employee sporting a Superman hoodie and a hipster haircut, argued, “We are simple people. We are not interested in legislative disputes over laws and amendments. As for the candidates, they are also looking for their own interests. So yes, I am going to vote, but like everyone here, for someone from my family, my friends—without being convinced at all it’s the right choice.”
“It’s a rubbish generation, from the teenagers to the thirty somethings. All they do is criticize—they should be grateful the army is ruling us,” Hala Youssef, a 53-year-old voter from Nasr City, said vehemently. “We receive a lot of not-so-friendly interest from many Western countries who would prefer to see us unable to stand on our feet, so we need the army. The young generation is all messed up—they do not realize they are being manipulated.”
One of the young candidates in the district, Muhammad Seif Abul Naga, who is running with the Social Democratic Party, knows he is not in very friendly territory. “People are educated, so we can talk about politics and not about what kind of services we could provide the voters with, but they are very pro-army and pro-Shafiq,” referring to former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was runner-up in the 2012 presidential elections.
Abul Naga, 28, who worked with the Tax Control Authority, as a researcher on public policy with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and with UNESCO, added that he is disappointed with the revolutionary camp. “I understand they can be depressed and not willing to run, but staying home and silent isn’t opposing the regime. Being a complete radical and refusing anything and everything isn’t going to lead us anywhere either. The boycott isn’t organised. Perhaps it would be useful to boycott the elections if it was organized, and a big thing, but it is not.”
With all her talk about how liberal Egypt is and has always been, Hala Youssef nevertheless admitted that there are topics that should not be discussed in public and that is why one of the Heliopolis candidates does not stand a chance. “Religion is still a taboo,” she said. “Fatima Naoot, the journalist [who faced blasphemy charges for criticizing the Islamic slaughter of sheep], went too far. I can’t vote for her even if I agree with her on many things or would be able to discuss some of these issues with my friends.” Youssef said she voted for a Christian and a former military officer.
Fatima Naoot said, “I believe religion has nothing to do with rights and duties, morals; it is a cultural thing we take from our parents. Ignorant people may dislike this way of speaking but it is the truth. I mainly want education to be a national project, like the High Dam or the Suez Canal—and whenever I meet President Sisi, that’s what I say. The prime minister told me he reads my Al-Masry Al-Youm column, so I am pleased, because I know my advocacy for women, children, animals, is heard.”
One of Hala Youssef’s friends, Heba, 55, another tour guide, picked two pro-establishment candidates in the Nozha district. One is a former intelligence officer and the other worked with Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign during the runoff for the presidential election in 2012—the one which Morsi won. Hala insisted, “I am in favor of anything coming from the army, intelligence, judges—anything official, I blindly trust them.” She continued, “My own children aren’t going to vote this time, they are busy with their lives… But even if they belong to this class and generation of spoiled kids who suckled too much Western culture and are not so good at Arabic, they still love their country. They did take to the streets against Morsi, and they did vote for Sisi in the presidential election last year.”
“I voted. To be honest, I followed my father’s advice,” admitted Ahmed, a 22-year-old Heliopolis resident, who studies business at Misr International University. “I’m not sure the parliament will have any power, nor if the candidates are willing to do any good… I don’t really follow politics anyway,” he apologized.