Being Abu Ismail

8 Min Read

By Marie-Jeanne Berger

CAIRO: Hazem Abu Ismail was there, in downtown Cairo on Friday April 6. Protests were held on this day over concerns that two of his family members held different citizenships, causing Abu Ismail’s presidential candidacy nomination to be rescinded. After Friday prayers, supporters of the presidential hopeful flocked to Tahrir to fight for his right to participate in the elections.

Not only was Abu Ismail there in person, he was there in spirit. Looking into the crowd on this day, one would be shocked to see not one Abu Ismail but a number of Abu Ismail faces staring back at you. And the eyes were nothing but cut slits, gashes of shadow, obscuring the faces of those shouting against the army, foreigners, Americans and anyone else that might have an interest in another conspiracy: those that could see but could not be seen, hiding behind the features of another.

The most striking element of Ab Ismail’s campaign is his savvy publicity. His face is all over the city. Large posters hang out of windows in Salaam. His face is on the back of cabs driving throughout Cairo. Dopplegängers throughout the city have become walking billboards for the candidate, who has brilliantly used variations of his name on his print media for what can only be assumed is creative variety. Abu Ismail, Hazem Salah in bold letters, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail: the same guy. The Friday protests were much of the same but with many more variations on the theme, with a myriad of different kinds of merchandise for the purposes of the event. A variety of flags — some of which looked worryingly like the April 6 movement flags from a distance — posters, buttons, banners and odd blue ventilated baseball caps all navigated the swelling crowd.

The oddest merchandise of all was the mask, festooning the protest like decorative holiday garlands observing the fete of Abu Ismail, as the protestors effaced their own identities to become him. It is a strange experience to watch large crowds of people wearing the face of another, placing these odd, glossy, smiling veneers over their own in such a highly charged and politicized context. Masking is anything but an innovation, and can be traced back to the earliest pre-histories of man, 35,000 or 40,000 years before Egypt discovered its right to vote. But in this context, what causes such an internal repudiation of the protester for the persona of Ismail?

The mask serves two purposes: to display the self as self wishes to be displayed, while at the same time obscuring the identity of its wearer with the identity of another. This other character — the subject of the mask — signifies a specific set of symbols that the wearer in this context wishes to somehow adopt or show affinity for.

One explanation of the mask has to do with representations of religiosity and observance. The idea of being Abu Ismail brings political affiliation and religious adherence into the figure of one man, whose beliefs are exemplified by his very body and comportment. While the stances of most political candidates stand in the murky bowels of somewhere between economic reform and educational reform, one clear marker of their platform is their personal religious practice, a crucial factor in deciding votes in the upcoming election.

In these visible markers of practice, the private becomes public, and potentially becomes policy. Evidenced by his robust beard, the appearance of Abu Ismail on masks and posters refers to a particular set of Islamic beliefs and attitudes that seem to fall in the Salafi camp. At least, the people protesting for his candidacy seemed to interpret as much. Considering his previous and continuing role of sheikh to a large number of followers, Abu Ismail is following in the footsteps of many contemporary leaders in the Middle East (and Republican primaries) seeking legitimacy by bringing together the mantles of religious authority and political office. His image therefore comes to symbolize this lifestyle; the mask and those supporters who wear it wish to represent a similar unification of the political and the religious.

Another reason for the personal idolatry of Ismail lies in the history of a lack of diversity in Egypt’s political culture and civil society. If Egypt wrote a memoir, it would be a recollection of colonization, full of chapters chronicling the protectorates, dictatorships and occupiers of the country. This particular history has caused a preternatural belief in the power of one good leader — for example, a leader of the same ilk as Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Throughout protests from October until present day, the average passerby probably encountered people handing out pamphlets that discussed the need for another ‘heroic leader.’ Despite the promise of imminent democratic elections, it was more attractive, and maybe customary, to put the faith of the nation in the hands of an individual to carry the burdens of leadership in his brawny hands. Considering the track record of elections-formerly-called-democratic in Egypt, it is not surprising that a large part of the country still views ‘democracy,’ or whatever the regime is calling it (recent constitutional committee), with great suspicion.

As the individual is forced to deal with his newly gained political freedom, he realizes that this freedom carries with it the cost of participation and position. These protests, however, exemplified participation as a form of emulation, where the individual was locating his support through the praxis of mimesis. Why support Abu Ismail when you can be him? In the long tradition of following the example, or sunna of righteous believers, Abu Ismail is not a trailblazer.

When Sheikh Imad Effat — an outspoken critic of the regime — was shot by soldiers last December, masks of his own were passed among the crowd of protestors, expressing the sentiment that everyone in the streets were facing the same risks. But there is only room for one hero. Mohamed Mahmoud Street was decorated with a large mural of the Sheikh to commemorate his courageous efforts over the years. And on April 6, Abu Ismail supporters washed over his image, placing on top, stickers and posters of Ismail’s smiling face.



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