Much has been speculated about the coming Egyptian parliament being dominated by figures who used to belong to the National Democratic Party of former President Hosni Mubarak. Given the favor conveyed to the January 25 activists, this proposition scares many.
Perhaps it should. The understanding of the old parliamentary system was that it was a non-ideological patronage network, living off corruption while extending government, business, and other services. It certainly was neither clean nor efficient.
But it was human. Unfortunately, few carry the stories of such figures beyond their ugly caricature. Fortunately, this article from New Republic does, profiling Suleiman al-Hout.
In 2007, Suleiman al-Hout had a problem. Local officials in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia refused to license the food-cart from which he sold kebda, or fried liver, a common Egyptian street food. At first he asked a relative who sat on Ismailia’s local council to intercede on his behalf, but to no avail. So Hout took matters into his own hands. He walked into the local headquarters of then-President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) with one simple question: “How can I vote for you?”
Within two years, Hout was a card-carrying NDP activist with excellent government and business connections, which he put to good use by “solving problems” for others. He frequently acted as an intermediary between local businessmen and the poor, between his neighbors and the electricity ministry, and, of course, between food-cart owners and the registration bureau. If your mother-in-law needed special medical care, he could get you into the top government-run hospital. If you had a problem at a nearby police station, he knew the officers. If there was a street fight, his “men”—about 30–40 toughs, depending on the evening—took care of it. And if street combatants didn’t accept his intervention? Well, that never happened. “They know that if they don’t respect me, I’ll take it personally,” he darkly boasts.
The author, Eric Trager, compares Hout to a different fruit cart vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who launched the Arab Spring when he set himself on fire to protest inability to obtain a license. But the question is fair: Whose reaction was superior?
Trager continues to chronicle Hout’s political activity during the revolution and throughout the period of Brotherhood rule. It is insightful and comical, a precious insight to how life was actually lived on the streets during this time, far from the rhetoric issued by both sides.
But Hout himself allows Trager to conclude with the common ‘ugly caricature’ that so infuriates many Egyptians, and certainly those who desire a transparent, non-patronage system:
But four months after Sisi’s inauguration, Hout feels let down. “I was among the first to call for Sisi to run for president,” he told me. “And I still haven’t made my money back yet. I have no job, no position, and it makes me angry. … He didn’t give us our rights.”
By “rights,” Hout means a high-level governmental appointment, such as serving as an assistant to a minister or governor. Hout was sure that this would be his reward for mobilizing his patronage network to support Sisi, since this is the way things have historically worked in Ismailia. “I deserve it!” Hout, who has a high school education, insisted. “I served this country. I am an eyewitness against the Brotherhood in two [court] cases. And I returned that vehicle to the police, which costs 450,000 Egyptian pounds.”
Instead, Hout is living off of the local businessmen who fund his patronage network, and growing more frustrated by the day. “[Sisi’s] chance is, maximum, one month,” Hout told me. “If he doesn’t give us our rights, it’s thank you, goodbye. … If I don’t take my rights, I will be very angry and you never know what my reaction might be.”
In lieu of a governmental appointment, Hout intends to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. “I think I deserve to go [to parliament], and I wish to go,” he told me. “But it depends on the arrangements.” Hout explained that he’s still waiting for businessmen to back his campaign. “A businessman will pay, and I’ll be his face in the parliament,” Hout said. “This is normal.”
And apparently, this is normal Egyptian politics. It is also human.
Reform is necessary, and entrenched inertia is no excuse to refuse it. But have patience, and be sympathetic. This is life on the streets.