During the long, bewildering week in which Egyptians waited for the results of their presidential election to be announced, I took a train from Cairo to Alexandria. The Muslim Brotherhood had declared that its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, had defeated Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, by a million votes. The Brothers had collected signed tallies from all 16,000 polling stations, and their counts were said to be meticulous. (It turned out they were off by only 0.06 per cent.) But Shafiq had declared victory too, and in the last week of the campaign looked eerily confident, as if he knew the elections had been rigged in his favour. The longer people were forced to wait, the more they began to worry – or hope – that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would try to pass Shafiq off as the winner. Until 24 June, when Morsi’s victory was announced by the electoral commission, nothing was certain, even whether the former president was alive or dead. As the train reached the station at Alexandria, my fixer, Magdy, got a call from his boss, a reporter for the Telegraph, to say that Mubarak had died. ‘I guess he couldn’t bear to see Mohamed Morsi sitting in his chair,’ Magdy said. By the time we got to the hotel, CNN was reporting that Mubarak was in a critical condition, maybe on life support. ‘They’re playing with us,’ Magdy said.
On 14 June, two days before the election, the revolution’s most concrete achievement – a freely elected parliament, dominated by Islamists – had been dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court, a body of judges appointed by Mubarak. The court’s argument was that because members of political parties had run for the third of the seats reserved for independents, the entire parliament was illegal. With parliament dissolved, the SCAF was ruling by decree. The timing of the decision and the speed with which it was implemented led many Egyptians to see it as another power grab by the army. This perception was reinforced when, on the last day of voting, the SCAF – advised by the same judges who had dissolved parliament – passed a series of constitutional amendments, as if it were taking out an insurance policy in the event of a Morsi victory. Thanks to these amendments, the SCAF now has the right to dissolve the constituent assembly which was formed to draft a new constitution, and whose future is already uncertain since it was chosen by an ‘illegal’ parliament. It also has the right to veto any article in the new constitution that is held to violate the revolution’s goals. The presidency meanwhile has been stripped of many of its powers, including the power to declare war.
This wasn’t a military coup, as some claimed: the coup had already taken place on 11 February 2011, when the SCAF took control and the revolutionaries agreed to give it a chance, a decision many came to regret. But this ‘judicial coup’, as some had it, hardly inspired confidence that a handover to a civilian government would take place by 1 July, as the SCAF had promised. ‘We’d be outraged if we weren’t so exhausted,’ the human rights activist Hossam Bahgat tweeted. Some of my friends warned that the army, with the support of the feloul – remnants of the old regime – might try to put an end to the democratic process, as the Algerian generals did in 1992, sparking a decade-long war. The Egyptians were too tired to fight a civil war, but they already seemed to be choosing sides on the basis of whom they feared more, the army or the Brothers.
In Cairo, the old, narrow politics of self-interest – or self-defence – seemed to be crowding out Tahrir Square’s expansive visions of a democratic future. I wondered whether Alexandria, a port city with a rich history of political independence, would be any different. It had dazzled Cairene intellectuals by voting for a charismatic socialist politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, in the first round of the presidential elections, while the rest of the country went for either Morsi or Shafiq, as if people couldn’t see beyond the old regime and the old opposition. Alexandria, they said in Cairo, was a city that made up its own mind, a city where the revolutionary spirit lived on. Alexandrians basked in the admiration. ‘The sea makes us braver,’ one activist told me. True or not, it certainly makes the place feel more open than Cairo, where you can hardly see the sky. The cafés have charming names that ‘read like a Levantine requiem’, as David Holden wrote of old Alexandrian phonebooks. From the terrace of the fish restaurant where I had lunch, I watched children playing on the beach; a few women were in bikinis, a rare sight in a city where more and more women wear full niqabs, including black gloves. Alexandria, once known as the queen of the Mediterranean, may no longer be the city of ‘unsurpassable sensuality’ described by Cavafy, but it seems more serene than Cairo. Maybe that was an illusion: the only difference between Alexandria and Cairo, someone said, was the weather.
Egypt’s second-largest city, with more than four million inhabitants, Alexandria hasn’t been the capital in centuries. But Cairo, as Alexandrians see it, is loud and uncouth. ‘Cairo is a garage, Alexandria is a city,’ one of them told me. Anyone, he explained, can move to Cairo. Alexandria – at least its historic centre on the waterfront – is restricted to those who have lived there for generations. Older, wealthier Alexandrians sometimes talk about their poorer neighbours with disdain, much as Lawrence Durrell once spoke of Egyptian Arabs.
Alexandria was the scene of two traumatic events during the run-up to the uprising against Mubarak: the police killing in June 2010 of a young man called Khaled Said, now an icon of the revolutionary movement; and the still unsolved bombing outside the Saints Church on 1 January 2011, when two dozen worshippers were killed. Only a few days into the uprising itself, Alexandrians torched government offices and drove out Mubarak’s police. For three months, the city policed itself, with considerable success. Since then, Alexandria has styled itself as a vanguard of the revolution and a seat of opposition to the SCAF. It has also earned – or reinforced – a reputation for being defiant, unpredictable, even fickle. In last November’s parliamentary elections, Islamists won 70 per cent of the vote in Alexandria, divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and, slightly behind them, the Salafis of the al-Nour Party, a group so literal in its interpretation of ‘modesty’ in dress it covered a statue of a mermaid in a public square. But the Islamists in parliament alienated poor and working-class people by failing to address the country’s most critical issues – unemployment, the rising price of bread, the housing shortage. Hence Alexandria’s vote for the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, an advocate of social justice whose campaign slogan was One of Us. Coming second behind Sabahi was another candidate of the revolution: Abdel Monim Aboul-Fotouh, a liberal Islamist who’d been expelled from the Brotherhood. The Brothers were stunned by this defeat: Alexandria has been their base since the 1950s.
They shouldn’t have been too surprised: Alexandria is always being lost by someone. After Suez, an episode known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression, the city was progressively emptied of the foreigners who had dominated its economic life and created its distinctive culture – including a dialect sometimes called ‘Farabish’, a mixture of French, English and Arabic. The Jews left first, followed by the Italians, the Greeks, the Armenians and finally many of the old Muslim elite. Durrell, whose Alexandria Quartet is an elegy for cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic Alexandria, claimed that Nasser had destroyed the city with his ‘puritanical socialist revolution’. But even in its golden age Alexandria’s pleasures weren’t evenly shared. Mahfouz, remembering the city in the 1930s, wrote that it was ‘beautiful and so clean that one could have eaten off the streets … But all that was for the foreigners. We could only observe from the outside.’ Nasser disdained its cosmopolitanism, which he associated with colonial privilege. By ordering the foreigners to leave, he hoped to ‘Egyptianise’ the city. But once it was returned to Egyptians, Alexandria quickly fell into the hands of his political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood. They too are now discovering that the city’s support can’t be taken for granted.
Today, the people who are most afraid of losing Alexandria – and indeed their place in Egypt – are the Coptic Christians, who make up about a fifth of the city’s population. The Coptic Church, like every institution in Egypt, faced an internal rebellion during the uprising, when Copts came out against Mubarak in defiance of their leaders. Pope Shenouda, an autocrat who presided over the church for more than forty years until his death last March, was a strong supporter of Mubarak, whom he saw as an ally against the Brothers. But Copts, particularly young Copts, were just as frustrated as Muslims by the lack of reform in Egypt, and the New Year church bombing pushed them over the edge. Many believed that the regime either had a hand in it or allowed it to happen in an effort to poison relations between Muslims and Christians and thereby weaken opposition to Mubarak. Three weeks later the revolution began, and Copts gave it their support. Since Mubarak’s overthrow, however, many have had second thoughts about an uprising which, as they see it, has increased the power of the Brothers – and more radical Islamist groups – at their expense. The SCAF has not been a reliable friend – 28 peaceful Christian protesters were killed by army and security forces outside the Maspero state television building in Cairo last autumn – but many Christians believe it is more likely to protect their interests than the Brothers. Ahmed Shafiq received a great deal of Christian support, even from Coptic revolutionaries who had fought against Mubarak.
Christians are hardly alone in their anxieties about the Islamists’ growing power. Suspicion runs high among the Muslim middle class, and among merchants who fear a crackdown on the sale of alcohol. They were grateful when the SCAF intervened before the elections to clip the Islamists’ wings. Youssef Ziedan, a novelist in Alexandria, said that the Islamists in parliament had accomplished nothing in their few months in office except to embarrass Egypt by attempting to lower the marriage age for girls, and proposing bans on the teaching of English. Still, one had to be patient. ‘We spent thirty years under Mubarak, and sixty under the generals. For each of those years we will need a month to recover.’ When I asked him how an extremist Salafi movement had emerged in a city renowned for its history of tolerance and diversity, he claimed that Alexandria was still, in spite of appearances, a passionate, Mediterranean city. As we walked to a café on the corniche, he pointed out the packets of Viagra littering the street as if they were evidence of the city’s true, hedonist spirit. When we sat down at a table, he took out a piece of paper and drew a map. The coast was Alexandria; the inland districts were not, even if they had been incorporated into the city. ‘The people in these areas have come from outside, from villages in Upper Egypt and the Delta. Now they are living in very crowded and miserable places, without formal institutions. This is where the Salafis target very poor people, giving them rice and oil in return for their votes. But this is not Alexandria.’ He pointed to a float opposite the café, where people were dancing. ‘Now that is Alexandria! Look around. Tell me, do you see any Salafis here?’
I showed Ziedan’s map to Haytham Bokhalil, a close ally of the liberal Islamist politician Aboul-Fotouh. ‘Did we import these people from abroad?’ he said. ‘Are they not Egyptians? This is not only inaccurate, it’s pure class prejudice.’ Bokhalil, who is in his early forties, joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was 21, and rose to become one of its leaders in Alexandria. He quit a month after Mubarak’s overthrow, frustrated by its authoritarianism, and its failure to embrace the uprising fully. Aboul-Fotouh, he said, was Egypt’s only true consensus candidate, a man supported by liberals as well as Islamists. He might not have won the first round of elections in Alexandria, but the combined Sabahi/ Aboul-Fotouh vote in the city was over 50 per cent – evidence, Bokhalil argued, that a substantial portion of Egyptians, maybe a majority, want an alternative to the Brothers and the army. The results have given rise to speculation about the possibility of a ‘third bloc’ made up of supporters of Hamdeen, Aboul-Fotouh and Mohammed ElBaradei. ‘We have only had 17 months,’ Bokhalil said. ‘Give us time.’
They will need it. As an ElBaradei ally in Alexandria explained to me, the leaders of the would-be third bloc are ‘too self-centred, too concerned about their own interests and popularity, to join ranks’. He tried to persuade Sabahi and Aboul-Fotouh to form a single party, but they refused: ‘Each thought he was a leader.’ Rivalry, ideological differences and general distrust have stood in the way of a third bloc. Aboul-Fotouh’s supporters believe that the Brothers and the intelligence services conspired to promote Sabahi at their candidate’s expense; Sabahi supporters claim that Aboul-Fotouh remains an Islamic fundamentalist, despite his expulsion from the Brotherhood; ElBaradei is seen by many Aboul-Fotouh and Sabahi supporters as aloof and arrogant, even as ‘an Egyptian Orientalist’.
Without a revolutionary candidate to vote for in the run-off between Morsi and Shafiq, Alexandria’s revolutionaries faced the same choice as their comrades in Cairo: boycott the elections, spoil their ballot paper, or vote for Morsi. Whatever they ended up doing, they did it with ambivalence. One woman told me that she ‘tactically supported’ Morsi, but couldn’t bring herself to vote for him when she arrived at the polling station. The 6 April Youth Movement, a coalition of revolutionary groups, had endorsed Morsi, but one of its leaders in Alexandria, a computer programmer called Islam Selmy, told me the aim was merely to prevent the restoration of the old regime under Shafiq; the battle against Morsi would begin as soon as he took office. (The 6 April Youth Movement has since set up an online ‘Morsi Meter’ to monitor his progress.) Supporting candidates without voting for them, voting for candidates they didn’t support: the revolutionaries of Alexandria seemed to be at a strategic impasse. ‘They are political teenagers,’ Magdy said of them.
The Muslim Brothers, who have been preparing for power for 84 years, are the only political group in Egypt whose organisation, drive and unity of purpose match those of the SCAF. Late one afternoon, I met Hossam Iwakil, a young spokesman for the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party in Alexandria, at his office – he runs an internet news service. There was nothing in the way of decoration, not a single poster or photograph: just peeling yellow walls, on which someone had written, in English: ‘If you can, you can. If you can’t, you’re right.’ Men with beards and women in hijabs sat at their desks, surfing the internet or watching the news. Iwakil wanted to know the purpose of my visit. I told him I wanted to talk about the Morsi campaign. But when I began to ask a question about Morsi’s views on the constitutional amendments, he stopped me. ‘I think it would be better if you spoke to Anes al-Odi, Morsi’s spokesman in Alexandria.’
Magdy said that because I am American but don’t look obviously Western, Iwakil might have worried that I was Jewish, and so a potential ‘Zionist agent’, in which case he could be criticised by his superiors for having spoken to me. Having asked a higher-up to take charge, Iwakil vanished. Magdy and I waited while al-Odi looked for a parking space. He showed up half an hour later, clean-shaven and in a blue business suit. Soft-spoken and diplomatic, he never veered from the Brothers’ message. He denounced the constitutional amendments as a ‘soft military coup’, but did not say how Morsi intended to challenge them. He dismissed the concerns of those in the revolutionary camp who said the Brothers were angling for a deal with the army. ‘We work in the sun and the light,’ he insisted. ‘We don’t make deals under the table. But when the SCAF does something good, we encourage it. The SCAF’s duty is to protect the country’s borders. Otherwise it should return to its barracks and allow for a civilian presidency.’
When I returned to Cairo a few days before the results were announced, left-wing and liberal opponents of the SCAF, alarmed that the army might be preparing to impose Shafiq, had begun to rally around Morsi. After Friday prayers, members of the 6 April Youth Movement and other revolutionary groups joined the Brothers at a press conference to declare the formation of a national unity front in support of a full transition to civilian rule. ElBaradei, Sabahi and Aboul-Fotouh had all thrown their weight behind it. In his speech, Wael Ghonim, who had played a prominent role in the uprising, emphasised that participation in the front should not be interpreted as support for the Brotherhood’s agenda; the Brothers nodded in agreement. But the secular opposition forces failed to mobilise their supporters, who stayed away from the Islamist-led protests in Tahrir: these might as well have been a ‘leper colony’, in the words of the radical blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy. At the demonstration I went to on 22 June Morsi banners were everywhere. The demonstrators were almost all men; the women were busy looking after their children while their husbands and brothers chanted ‘Down with military rule.’
On 24 June, when Morsi was declared the winner, Egypt dodged a bullet. A Shafiq victory would have been a profound setback for the revolution. Instead Egypt has its first civilian president, a former prisoner of Mubarak, and the region its first Islamist head of state. Morsi moved immediately to reassure people that he doesn’t intend to govern as a representative of the Brotherhood, from which he resigned – a symbolic move, but an important one nevertheless. He also tried to assuage other fears by promising to have a Copt and a woman as his vice presidents. But Morsi’s swearing-in on 30 June did not mark the handover to a civilian government so much as a new and trickier stage in Egypt’s transition. The man who sat next to Morsi at the ceremony was Field Marshal Tantawi. Morsi praised the SCAF for having ‘kept its word and fulfilled its promise’ – while allowing that his presidency falls far short of a handover – and said he would uphold ‘all international agreements’, code for the peace treaty with Israel. This Morsi-Tantawi pas de deux has fed speculation that while Egyptians were waiting for the election results, the Brothers and the army were hammering out a deal whereby, in return for the presidency, the Brothers recognised the army’s ‘red lines’, such as immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses committed during the revolution. They also agreed not to touch the army’s economic interests: an empire, shielded from public oversight, that includes petrol stations, tourist resorts and factories producing everything from pasta and soft drinks to mineral water and butane gas cylinders. Statistical details about all these assets are classified as military secrets.
Since the SCAF declared itself the ruling authority, it has been the most dynamic player on the political scene. While the revolutionaries bickered and split into warring camps, the SCAF kept its eye on the prize: the preservation of the power, assets and privileges of the old regime, with the only losers being the Mubarak family and a handful of its closest allies. The one thing the army has lacked is a junior partner. When it began casting about for someone to fill this role, the Brothers were the first people invited to the table. No deal emerged, not because the Brothers were too radical – they are gradualists, not revolutionaries – but because they were too strong, and too ambitious. Now the Brothers have been sufficiently chastened by a year and a half of negotiations and bruising street-level clashes. The co-option of the Brothers, some argue, would strengthen the army’s claim to have presided successfully over a democratic transition, contain radical demands on matters of foreign policy, especially with respect to Gaza, and appeal to the army’s American backers (who are known to like the Brothers’ free-market economics). Left with a neutered presidency, subject to constant interference by the SCAF, saddled with the unenviable task of rebuilding the economy (Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have plummeted from $36 billion to $15 billion since the uprising), Morsi has been ‘checkmated before he was crowned’, in the words of Joshua Stacher, an American political scientist. According to Stacher, this is not so much a transition as a ‘reconfiguration’ of the old regime, with the Brothers providing a civilian façade for continued military rule.
This reconfiguration, however, is far from stable, and may be a prelude to yet another shake-up in the Brotherhood's favour, rather than a consolidation of the military's authority. Though Morsi is a cautious man, a party bureaucrat rather than a popular leader, he has begun to adopt a more confrontational posture vis-à-vis the military. Not only has he vowed to challenge the constitutional amendments that limit his power, but he has reconvened parliament in defiance of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the SCAF; at a brief session held on 10 July, lawmakers approved a proposal to refer parliament's dissolution to a higher appeals court. The military and the court are digging their heels in, but Morsi is raising the stakes as an elected president, with considerable popular support – and in the knowledge that the Americans will not allow the SCAF to exercise the ‘Syrian option’ of massacring its opponents. Any attempt by the army to reverse Morsi’s victory, or prevent him from governing, could ignite another uprising. The SCAF may not have the upper hand for long.