Note: This is an archived project; no significant changes have been made since parliament was seated in January 2016.
Mahalla: What Remains of a Revolutionary City
“Mahalla al-Kubra, the capital of Gharbeya governorate, is the city that started destabilising the Mubarak regime,” Faisal Laqusha, 49, claimed. He is an independent labor leader at the largest state-owned textile factory in Mahalla, called Ghazl al-Mahalla, which he said has over 20,000 employees. Despite his pride in Mahalla’s role in ridding Egypt of former President Hosni Mubarak, his revolutionary tendencies stop there, and much of the rest of the city seems to be on the same page.
Many potential electors, in a gesture of defiance, forswore their right to cast their ballots as no candidate in Mahalla’s runoff is vocally against the regime.
Two workers in a glass workshop, one in his twenties and one in his forties, said they boycotted the elections. “They didn’t respect our voice in the previous elections, so why bother? In these ones, again, all the candidates are more of the same: they want a position and money.”
Laqusha admitted, “The turnout is quite low; voters don’t have hope in anyone anymore.” However, he quickly added, “People here trust the army and President [Abdel-Fattah El] Sisi so they want to vote for someone who supports them. And that’s why the campaign against Ahmed Belal al-Berlisi works so well.”
Independent candidate Berlisi, 33, is a journalist for the Egyptian private newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, and formerly worked with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and the online opposition newspaper El-Badeel. Laborers such as Laqusha, who said Berlisi stood by the workers’ strikes over the past decade, support him.
“The campaign against me says anything and everything, that I’m an atheist, that I’m a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood… But the main accusation of course is that I belong to the April 6 Movement [an independent labor organization with a history of political activism] or that I am against the army,” Berlisi said. “They show people a video—sharing it on social networks, and even going door-to-door, showing people their phones—where I say, ‘Down with the military regime!’ But it is from 2011, the protests against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who ruled the country during the transitional period after Mubarak was toppled.”
Neither Berlisi nor Laqusha is openly against the current regime—or, at least, they will not say so during elections.
Berlisi said he would like to amend some of the laws that were passed in the absence of a parliament, “mainly the ones on the right to demonstrate, on investments, on pensions, and on education.” He believes in his chances to amend them, through lobbying his fellow representatives, even though the parliament is expected to be broadly supportive of the government. Labor activist Muhammad Fathy, 49, who works for Berlisi’s campaign, expressed a different opinion. “The coalition ‘For the Love of Egypt’ won all the party list seats. They are quite unlikely to amend anything.”
According to Laqusha, Sisi supports the workers. “His economic policy, supporting the poor and attracting investment, is unlike what [former President Hosni] Mubarak did in the last years of his rule, where businessmen literally ate the country. We’re still striking these days, granted, but we are listened to,” he said.
Berlisi echoed Laqusha’s comments. “I have a plan for Mahalla, relying on its large textile industry. Textiles is one of the rare industries the state didn’t privatize in the last years of Mubarak’s era, so we can actually ask the government to support it, and not depend on the businessmen to develop this sector.”
Since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, formal labor unions in Egypt have been co-opted by the regime and were not of much use to the workers. Modern labor leaders like Laqusha did not join them for this reason. Laqusha said he himself suffered a backlash in 2010, when he was sent to Cairo, where there were no jobs for him. He wondered if this was because he had organized too many strikes and protests.
Berlisi and Laqusha both seem to believe Sisi follows a semi-socialist, state-led economic development policy regarding businessmen, and wants them to serve the people.
Both men accuse Mahalla’s businessmen of starting the hate campaign against Berlisi. “Probably mainly the ex-NDP parliamentarian, Ahmed al-Shaarawi,” Laqusha said, referring to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which is now dissolved. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if it also came from [Muhammad al-] Shafei and [Mahmoud] Shehata.” The latter two, both businessmen, are the presidents of some of the top sporting clubs in the city (which is not unusual as club elections serve as a proxy for political and social influence).
Laqusha does not see himself as a revolutionary. “I don’t agree with the Revolutionary Socialists, for example; they protest for the sake of protesting. To me, when we obtain what we ask for, we go back to work. We need investors to come and create jobs. We need to implement the roadmap, go on with these elections. We need security and stability. If we don’t protest, it’s not out of fear, but out of love for our country.”
“I didn’t belong to the April 6 Movement,” Berlisi said. “I sympathize with their struggles. But they turned the events in Mahalla into something completely different.” Laqusha went even further, adding, “April 6 leader Ahmed Maher and the like weren’t even in Mahalla. They turned it into a political movement.”
Though these remarks sound like Mahalla representatives are disowning its revolutionary past—or at least like an elections-day effort to appeal to as many voters as possible—distancing oneself from the movement is understandable; the organization was officially banned at the beginning of 2014.
However, many Mahalla voters agree on one thing: the need to get rid of the “old regime” or NDP figures. Berlisi explained he left the Tagammu Party over their electoral strategy. He shied away from elaborating, but the Tagammu Party has allied with the Egyptian National Movement Party (ENMP), which is linked to Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former prime minister, and has several former NDP members in its organization. Berlisi’s supposed foe, al-Shaarawi, is one of the former NDP affiliates now with the ENMP.
But whether or not the ENMP will be successful is unclear. An agricultural engineer in his thirties, who declined to give his name, explained that he used to vote for the NDP candidates, but that this is now out of the question. Another worker, also in his thirties, admitted he had supported the NDP but said that this time, he steered clear of candidates with links to the Mubarak regime. “I chose two young people, Berlisi and the Wafd Party candidate, who is also a young and respectable man,” he said.
A housewife in her forties said that in her working-class neighborhood, near Souq al-Gomaa, some of the campaigners promised payments of hundreds of Egyptian pounds or distributed hashish in exchange for votes. She did not vote this time, as the candidate she was supporting, head of a lower-class sporting club, had not made it to the runoff and did not endorse another candidate.
The agricultural engineer, speaking within earshot of the soldiers that guard the polling station, said, “These elections are actually much cleaner than the ones before.” However, farther away, he said, “I guess you’ll see a lot of vote-buying in working-class neighbourhoods, though. You know, there’s so much poverty and child labor.”
A bit further down the street, two street sweepers shouted, “Have you voted yet?” to a man whose clothes looked as worn out as theirs. “Why not?” they pressed him. “You don’t want one or two hundred extra pounds?”