The Political Education of a Sandmonkey

Mahmoud Salem, the Sandmonkey

As a result of the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak, Egypt is witnessing a surge in political participation as young revolutionaries enroll in the political process. One such figure is Mahmoud Salem, otherwise known from his blog as ‘Sandmonkey’. Salem was an early activist against Mubarak, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in which he tongue-in-cheek labeled himself a ‘micro-celebrity’. Since then his fame has grown electronically, having over 50,000 followers. By contrast, NBA superstar Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets has only 33,000.

As the democratic transition has stuttered in Egypt, Salem realized the necessary commitment now was not activism alone but political and civil society participation. Though discouraged by current post-revolutionary conditions, he decided to run for office in the People’s Assembly, from his home district of Heliopolis, seeking to do something good for his son for the future of Egypt. This remark came from a political stump speech delivered in Heliopolis on November 3. The invitation was issued to the Sandmonkey, fittingly, through Twitter.

Disappointingly, nowhere near the 50,000 followers of Salem attended. By my count there were only twenty-six Egyptians, joined by fifteen foreigners. Salem spoke for about twenty minutes, answered questions for another twenty, and then left quickly at 9pm to get to another meeting.

Perhaps it served as a dry run. It is not an easy thing to run for office, or to become a politician. Until learning of the reasons for his quick exit, I figured he was either disappointed by the turnout or else reticent to ‘press the flesh’ and interact with potential voters, however few. At least he had one more notch on his belt in making campaign speeches, imagined to be much more difficult than writing an engaging blog post.

During his presentation Salem spoke of his hopes for Egypt as well as his focus on the local district of Heliopolis. The chief problem the country faces, on both the national and local level, is poor administration of work. This is seen currently in three areas: security, economy, and transparency.

In terms of security, Salem spoke of his efforts to interact with local policemen, though as a unit the police force is widely despised. They told him there has not been a great increase in crime, as popularly believed, but that the police feel impotent after the revolution to police as before. They requested, and Salem supports, an effort to equip them with cameras so that their interactions with the people are recorded. Such evidence would keep police from abusing their position, as well as protect from the abuse of false accusation. Salem also spoke of the popular committees which defended their neighborhoods during the revolution. These must continue and expand their work, representing positive community participation upon which the new Egypt should be built.

In terms of economy, Salem concentrated on the local needs of Heliopolis. Though the district is comparatively well off, it suffers as the money to pay government services throughout Egypt is collected almost entirely from the tax base of Cairo and Alexandria. More money must be retained locally, as garbage collection and hospital care in Heliopolis stands in need of improvement.

In terms of transparency, Salem spoke of the problems of bureaucracy, in which he like many hates going to government offices. The people are underpaid, and thus seek bribes, as the labyrinth-like process scuttles confused applicants from one line to the next. Instead, a simple 1-2-3-4 order should be established everywhere, to streamline movement and pay only at the end.

The question and answer period was dominated with concerns about the sectarian tensions in Egypt. Salem spoke of the role of the state, especially in the 70s when President Sadat gave a religious veneer to government that continued, to a lesser degree, under Mubarak. But he also spoke of the role of society, lamenting the poor integration of Muslims and Christians, as well as the poor understanding Muslims have of Christianity – a problem generally not reciprocated, he believed. His general advice was to encourage Copts to participate in society and politics, stating they would achieve their rights if only they properly mobilized. There are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Muslim Brothers in Egypt, he stated, if their extended family members are counted. By contrast, he counts twelve million Copts.

I attended this event curious to see what an activist looked like. Young, middle class, social media friendly Egyptians are credited with driving the revolution, but are increasingly marginalized and accused of serving foreign agendas. What is the reality with Sandmonkey? I have read his blog in the past and been impressed by his analysis; it was hoped a face to face encounter would be more telling.

I was surprised by his appearance. I had assumed an ‘activist’ would be a grizzled combatant. Instead, he appeared more akin to a teddy bear. His normalcy was appreciated, as was his speaking demeanor. Salem was comfortable addressing the room, but not polished, and certainly not charismatic. While admitting the difficulty in addressing a handful of people, there was little that was magnetic in his presentation. Void of rhetoric, he simply spoke what he believed, and of what he was doing to study and improve the lot of his country. He was very much a non-politician.

Conversation after the event mirrored my appreciation for his style and person, but added a resignation that he was likely to fail. I was more hopeful, if only from faith. It is true that he does not speak the language of the street and would be hard pressed to win over large crowds. Yet if he met the person on the street, could he not win him over through sincerity of heart? Can he do so sufficiently to win Heliopolis? That is the art of politics.

It is an art that surely Salem is learning on the fly. Sandmonkey has 50,000 votes won in Egypt and abroad, but the tens of thousands of Heliopolis residents need much more than a Twitter account. Salem knows this, and has thrown his hat in the ring to pursue the transformation. He, and many activists like him will soon discover if they have what it takes – experiencing now what may only pay off in the future. Win or lose, it is a necessary process for Egypt, but also a test for the revolutionary generation. They overcame their apathy and political restraints in January 2011; can they mobilize and strengthen civil society in November, in 2012, and beyond? Mahmoud Salem is among those leading the charge.

Also see: Optimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey, written following one of his blog posts from June 2011.

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