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Mubarak Nostalgia is the Winning Strategy in Egyptian Politics Right Now

Gianluigi Guercia/Getty Images

ISMAILIA, Egypt—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. 

Hout with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb

Hout, 35, is the anti-Mohamed Bouazizi. Unlike Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable cart owner who inspired the “Arab Spring” when he set himself ablaze in the face of governmental harassment in December 2010, Hout responded to the injustices of Egyptian autocracy by partnering with, rather than resisting, the system. Both men had similar interactions with the state—government harassment of their food-carts—but totally different responses.

Of course, Hout’s response isn’t exactly praiseworthy, so he won’t receive the kind of attention that the revolutionary youth of the “Arab Spring” received.  He won’t be invited to conferences in Washington, win awards for his activism in Europe, or grace the covers of international magazines as an inspiring story of Arab youth empowerment. Yet Hout is precisely the kind of “youth” that Egypt’s July 2013 counterrevolution, in which the military responded to popular protests by ousting the country’s first elected president, has brought to the fore: a security-state enthusiast who believes that his local patronage network entitles him to a political position. Indeed, Hout intends to run for parliament in the upcoming elections, which will likely take place in the next few months. And in a political environment that seeks a return to the status quo ante, the Mubarak-era political strategy that Hout embraces—leveraging his patronage network and governmental connections for victory—will likely be a winning formula. 

For characters like Hout, the “Arab Spring” wasn’t so sunny. The collapse of Egypt’s police state amidst the January 2011 uprising damaged his most valuable connections, and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which drew massive support through its nationwide social services networks, made Hout’s local patronage network virtually irrelevant. Running as an independent in the December 2011 parliamentary elections, Hout appealed to voters by selling propane tanks, which he says he acquired through his “connections,” at substantially reduced rates. When the Brotherhood and local NGOs reported Hout’s actions to the authorities, he sent his “men” to destroy the Brotherhood’s campaign kiosks. These Mubarak-era tactics, however, weren’t effective in the “Arab Spring” era: Hout received approximately 10,000 votes—roughly 180,000 fewer than the Muslim Brother who beat him.

When the Brotherhood’s popularity plummeted following President Mohamed Morsi’s November 2012 power grab, however, Hout found his second wind. He participated in the anti-Morsi demonstrations outside the presidential palace in December 2012, and helped organize the massive June 30, 2013 “Tamarod” protests in Ismailia. After the Egyptian military responded to the demonstrations by ousting Morsi on July 3, Hout was injured in street battles with Brotherhood cadres, and he claims to have filed the first report against Muslim Brothers to the local prosecutor. Later that month, Hout garnered national media attention when he mobilized his men to call on the military to “protect lives and property from terrorist groups that speak in the name of religion,” meaning the Brotherhood. Hout emphasizes that this preceded then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s infamous July 24 speech, in which Sisi called on Egyptians to go to the streets to “authorize” his fight against “terrorism.”

Hout’s anti-Brotherhood activism reached its pinnacle in mid-August 2013, after security forces killed hundreds of Morsi supporters while violently dispersing the Brotherhood’s northern Cairo “anti-coup” sit-in. Intense fighting erupted in Ismailia, and Brotherhood cadres allegedly stole two armored vehicles. Hout managed to grab one of the vehicle’s keys, and ordered an associate to retrieve and return the vehicle. “[My associate] said, ‘If I do it, the Brotherhood will shoot me,’” Hout recalled. “But I said, ‘You’ll die either way. And it’s better to die at the Brotherhood’s hands, because the police will pay money for you.’” Hout and his colleague returned the vehicle to fawning headlines.

Naturally, Hout was an early supporter of Sisi. Hout founded the (unnecessarily wordy) “Popular Front for Nominating and Authorizing Sisi for the Presidency of the Country” in the autumn of 2013, while Sisi was still defense minister, and then organized public campaign events in both Ismailia and the surrounding villages during Sisi’s spring 2014 presidential campaign.

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.”

An Ismailia-based revolutionary activist, now laying low during Egypt’s counterrevolutionary period, reluctantly agreed. “In this kind of environment, Suleiman al-Hout can be a parliamentarian,” he said.

“Imagine that.”