Rally of the Beards

I have never seen so many beards in a single place.

This afternoon, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and ultraconservative Islamist Salafists staged a mass demonstration in Tahrir Square following Friday prayers. The target of their wrath: former Mubarak spymaster–and briefly vice president–Omar Suleiman, who declared his presidential candidacy for Egypt’s upcoming election last Sunday at the eleventh hour–one day after pledging not to run.

Suleiman’s candidacy has understably been interpreted as a slap in the face to the revolution, which unequivocally rejected Mubarak’s last ditch attempt to salvage the ancien regime by annointing Suleiman his heir apparent last January. Ultimately it was Suleiman who, in a 30-second television appearance on Feb. 11, announced Mubarak’s resignation and the transfer of power to the military, before vanishing from public view for an entire year.

Despite being implicated in some of the worst abuses of the Mubarak police state as head of the feared intelligence service, the mukhabarat, Suleiman went untouched in the post-revolution purge of Mubarak’s inner circle. (There’s a nice overview of his well-documented record of torture here.) So while his old boss awaits a verdict in his murder trial in June, Suleiman  now stands a shot–how real, I’ll get to in a second–at assuming the office he was resoundingly denied by popular will last year.

In fact, not only has Suleiman escaped legal action over his past crimes, he seems to have emerged from the revolution and its  aftermath entirely unscathed. As David Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times today, Suleiman maintains an office in Egypt’s intelligence headquarters and is protected by military security. His chief of staff in the intelligence service now runs his presidential campaign. And in one of the more bizarre stories to emerge from an election season already jam-packed with absurdity, Kirkpatrick tells of seeing this chief of staff being sent a slice of cake from a senior judge on Egypt’s administrative court seated at a nearby table in a restaurant outside the intelligence headquarters. Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, claim to be staying neutral in the presidential race, but it hardly requires a leap of faith to think that they might just be pulling some strings for their former (and perhaps current) colleague.

Hence the anger on display in the square today. I arrived via the Qasr Al-Ainy entrance at around 12:30 (dutifully manned by two solid rows of Muslim Brotherhood “security guards”), right in the middle of Friday prayers. The square was already almost full by this point.The sheik delivering the sermon on the giant stage at the east end railed against Suleiman. Giant banners with Suleiman’s image defaced with black Stars of David, meanwhile, were festooned throughout the square. Indeed, if there was one message for the casual visitor, it was that: Suleiman is an Israeli stooge. A banner I saw later on my way out of the square depicted Suleiman as a devil with two horns–one wrapped in an Israeli flag, the other in an American flag. So, an Israeli and an American stooge. You can’t get much more damning than that.

The crowd in the square was almost entirely Islamist. The liberal revolutionary contingent that typically occupies the center patch of dirt seemed to have abandoned camp for the day. Many wore tags around their neck bearing a picture of either Khairat El-Shater, the former Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide, or Abu Ismail, the mercurial Salafist lawyer/preacher, whose candidacy was resurrected Wednesday by a court finding that his mother was not a US citizen (having a parent with foreign citizenship automatically disqualifies a candidate).

Even so, the demonstration had a decidedly revolutionary feel. Perhaps there were a few more chants of “Allahu Akbar” than your standard Tahir fare, but the organizers cloaked themselves repeatedly in the language of the revolution. As soon as prayers wrapped up, the familiar cry of “Down, down with military rule!” went up, followed by the full spectrum of revolutionary cheers. Although a majority of Egyptian voters polled have expressed a preference for an Islamist candidate, the mantle of the revolution still carries considerable weight, and the Islamists are no doubt keen to grab it.

Back to Suleiman. I’ve been quite skeptical ever since his name surfaced as a possible candidate that he would have much of a shot. Between the Islamists, who despise him for presiding over decades of repression of their leaders and what they view as kowtowing to Israel and the West, and the liberals, who despise him for similar reasons, he doesn’t look to have much of a base of support beyond that so-called “party of the coach”–the unknown portion of the electorate tired of the upheaval, terrified of the Islamists, and in search of a strongman to restore some order to the country.

I question how significant a constituency this really is, and how much of it would throw its weight behind a figure so indelibly linked to the previous regime when there are other plausible establishment, “feloul” (remnants) candidates like former Foreign Secretary Amr Moussa and former Prime Minster Ahmed Shafiq. After this morning’s cab ride, though, I can attest that fervent Suleiman supporters do exist. My driver, maybe in his mid- to late-30s, pointed ominously out the window at groups of men boarding buses headed to Tahrir, gesturing at their beards and repeating, “No good!”

He told me he supported Suleiman. Suleiman would restore order and put the Islamists in their place. I asked him what he thought about Mubarak. “Mubarak very bad!” he said. So Mubarak bad, but his chief henchman good? I was struggling to follow the logic. Mubarak was corrupt, but not Suleiman, he elaborated. I tried to ask how he knew this, but an answer wasn’t forthcoming.

According to the most recent polling (which, for many reasons, should be taken with a heavy dose of salt), Amr Moussa leads the pack with over 30%; Abu Ismail trails close behind in second; former Brotherhood leader but ostensible liberal Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh sits in third with 8.5%; Suleiman claims about 8%; the Brotherhood’s Shater is way back with 1.7%. Clearly, the presidential election is going to be a whole different ballgame than the parliamentary elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists swept to victory, largely due to name recognition and extensive political and social networks. Those advantages won’t count for nearly as much in a presidential election where, for example, the Brotherhood’s Shater is up against the equally, if not better, known secularist Amr Moussa.

But as the demonstration rolled on through the blazing mid-afternoon sun, and thousands more streamed into Tahrir from across the river, it served up a reminder that no one can match the Islamists when it comes to mobilizing their people. Although the rally was ostensibly aimed at Suleiman (Moussa and Shafiq too), its message was perhaps most relevant to the other non-Islamist candidates (and I’m including Aboul-Fotouh among them; in three hours in the square, I didn’t find a single supporter of his) in the race, who, seeing the Islamists’ show of strength and the backlash against it, might be tempted to take a page out of Suleiman’s book and position themselves as the antidote to the scary Islamists.

It’s not a winning strategy. Because if you’re a voter just looking for an antidote to scary Islamists, you might as well get your money’s worth with Suleiman. The others have to offer something more. God knows, there’s no shortage of things here to talk about.

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