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Grassroots politics: A story from Beheira
Published in Ahram Online on 01 - 12 - 2020

After the run-off of the first round of the Egyptian parliamentary elections last week, almost half of the seats in the new parliament were decided. The elections finished with many positive phenomena and the sweeping victory of the list led by the Future of the Nation Party. Individual-seat elections were hotly contested in most constituencies, and some well-known names, possessing money and family power, were toppled in both major cities and rural constituencies.
In the midst of these indications, one young man of no more than 32 years of age from the Beheira governorate in the north of the country caught the attention of many in the elections to seats in the Kom Hamada and Badr constituency. Ahmed Helmi Al-Shishini came first in the run-off, without carrying out an expensive campaign or even having electoral insurance or registration fees at the beginning. The young man announced his candidacy almost two years ago in a large constituency that cannot be won easily.
He was determined to run in a traditional and rural area and was not interested in what is usually said about the necessity of having funds to do so and warnings about gangs supporting candidates in such elections. He decided to start his electoral battle early by building a popular base among young people who feel deprived of public services and affected by the absence of representatives that they feel represent them in this vast constituency.
Most commentators usually view the victory of well-known names who own great wealth and are supported by ancient families as a given in such constituencies, and voters often do not think about alternatives from among the humble people who live in their midst. The story of Al-Shishini's rise to becoming an MP is thus an exceptional story of the kind that film star Adel Imam could have presented satirically in a film only a few years ago.
The absence of politics at the grassroots level is what made Al-Shishini's victory an event worth celebrating, whether at the electoral district level or at the national level. It also represents politics at the popular level in its clearest form. According to Wikipedia, “a grassroots movement is one which uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement. Grassroots movements and organisations use collective action from the local level to affect change at the local, regional, national or international levels.”
This modest candidate used social media to spread his electoral message and to address young people and ordinary people in his constituency. If we look at his method of responding to voter concerns in the form of questions and answers on Facebook, we also find ourselves in the presence of a naturally mature politician who practises politics with complete transparency. This was one of the secrets of the success of his campaign despite its modest means.
Al-Shishini has said that “I ran for election despite the weakness of my financial capacities, and I stood steadfast despite the frustration and the lack of hope among even some of my closest relatives. It was a bold and difficult decision for any humble person, but I had the boldness and the courage to do it.”
He attracted the support of young people and others tired of traditional politicians. “In my success, there is nothing in my life that is more precious or more important to me than the great and sincere love in people's hearts for my person, and there is no temptation or force that would make me violate my principles, my words, my dignity, my goals or my path,” he said.
He also addressed the defamation campaigns of which he was the object by saying that “I could respond, but I refrain from doing so because my goal, my dream and my ambition is much greater than responding to such people.”
He answered questions about his limited education and lack of qualifications. “This position [of MP] needs a person who is aware of what the people are suffering. Such a person needs to know how marginalised the people are in his electoral district and about their demands for the right to healthcare, education and public services. He needs to be aware of real people's problems and the solutions to them without any mutual interest,” he said.
A candidate unfamiliar with standard politics thus broke with the traditional view of elections in a country like Egypt. The prevailing trend was, and still is, that most MPs come from a class that has money or that is based on a family inheritance in political life or that enjoys the support of a political bloc that wants to present a diverse mix of various groups. The Kom Hamada and Badr candidate did not meet any of these requirements. He was not, educationally, professionally or socially, the kind of candidate who would have the support of any of the traditional electoral forces, whether parties close to the authorities and loyal to the government, or the opposition parties.
Some observers may say that a candidate who is modest in his financial and educational capabilities will have difficulty succeeding in any election without support. This logic seems right in theory, but it does not take into account the details of the electoral battlefield. The overwhelming popularity on which this inexperienced candidate relied can be understood by referring to the slogan that appeared on his electoral banners and on Facebook: “Together we can.”
But the stereotypes about the candidates in Egypt's parliamentary elections also marked the coverage he was given. Instead of the media celebrating a candidate who had emerged from among the general public or from the poorer classes, many media outlets tended to question the ability of this winning candidate to have achieved victory alone without hidden funding or clandestine political support.
The behaviour of the media was criticised by the people of the constituency, who expressed their anger at it. However, they did not direct their criticisms at the state apparatus, but instead concentrated on criticising the prevailing pattern of thinking that underestimates the poorer classes and does not see them as deciding on the way they wish to cast their votes without the influence of money.
The story of Ahmed Al-Shishini thus gives hope for change from below in political practice. It shows, without the use of empty political slogans, that the interests of the various classes can indeed be represented under the roof of the Egyptian parliament, which is the goal of the country's political leadership. The latter wants to see the emergence of mature political practice in Egypt to compensate for the absence of politics in the country over recent decades.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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