A woman speaks on a mobile phone in front of a wall filled with graffiti against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) near Tahrir Square during a demonstration in Cairo June 5, 2012. The Arabic words above the graffiti reads: "Soldiers are killers". Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Cairo has always had its slums, among them tidy neighborhoods like Shobra and Agouza, which were once middle-class but have been abandoned over time to the poor and homeless—the “Egypt of rags and sores,” as novelist Lawrence Durrell put it. Over the past decade, however, a new and more sinister species of urban blight has advanced along the city’s outskirts: great honeycombs of mostly uninhabited apartment blocks, products of a vast unregulated economy without permits and inspections or public services like paved streets, lighting, sewage systems and clean water. Many were built by speculators and abandoned in mid-construction. Colonies of squatters have moved in, announcing themselves by the lines of laundry that protrude through windows like flags of capitulation.
Pop-up slums are only a small part of Hosni Mubarak’s legacy, the ousted dictator’s revenge on a nation whose natural resources he plundered and whose markets he rigged for his family and corrupt hangers-on. Having throttled even peaceful opposition throughout his thirty-year rule, he bequeaths a nation at war with itself ahead of the second round of its first free presidential elections. A once-molten political landscape has hardened into a handful of rival camps defined less by issues than by identity and class: Muslim and Christian, religious and secular, haves and have-nots, liberal-minded and security-conscious. Unless the new president can form a broad coalition government to confront the challenges that lie ahead, Egyptians could see years of partisan gridlock, with occasional interludes of violence.
The first round of electioneering in May produced a runoff between the two most divisive candidates: Mohammed Morsi of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, and the law-and-order Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak crony. Both men are creatures of an ossified establishment incompatible with the revolution’s liberal ideals. Shafik is regarded as feloul, a remnant of the old regime who would drag Egypt back to the wrong side of history, while Morsi’s Brotherhood (Ikhwan in Arabic) is a secretive, hierarchical order that rewards obedience, punishes dissenters and thrives on the politics of identity. Once widely respected for its decades-long resistance to the old regime, the Ikhwan has antagonized even orthodox Muslims since Mubarak’s departure with a series of ham-fisted miscalculations. The group assured Egyptians it sought only a minority bloc in Parliament, then fielded enough candidates to control half the seats; it promised to protect the virtue of the revolution, then colluded with the illiberal military that runs the country; it prohibited its members from running for president, but changed its mind midway through the campaign, when progressive contenders like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an Ikhwan renegade, began polling well with voters.
Despite this, both Morsi and Shafik were able to prevail among a diverse field of candidates by appealing to their respective bases: Islamists on the one side, and, on the other, voters who, in turbulent Egypt, would trade one part liberty for an equal share of security—that slippery slope to autocracy that Benjamin Franklin warned about. The recent torching of Shafik’s campaign headquarters, as well as the outraged response to the dismissal on June 2 of corruption charges against Mubarak’s sons and the acquittal of six security officials charged with murder, shows how quickly Egyptian democracy can turn violent. As The Nation went to press, Morsi had allied with Fotouh and third-place candidate Hamdeen Sabahi to demand that election officials enforce the parliamentary legislation that disqualified Shafik because of his connection to the old regime. (The elder Mubarak, meanwhile, was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes and ordering a lethal response to peaceful protests.)