Took the train from Cairo, heading north: The four- and five-storey unfinished red-brick apartment buildings quickly give rise to the flat, green fields of vegetable crops – the cauliflower looks ready to be picked – only a few minutes from the downtown of a city of 18-million people.
The only thing more numerous than the minarets we pass are the ubiquitous satellite dishes – religion and television; both the opiates of the masses.
The Nile Delta, through which we travel is the most religious part of Egypt, and Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city, is the area’s capital.
The man beside me, with trim beard and well-groomed hair, is softly singing verses of the Koran.
The man opposite, wears the longer unkempt beard of the Salafists. Across the aisle, a young man watches music videos on his laptop.
My photographer and I appear to be the only foreigners in this second class car. We didn’t see any others at Cairo’s bustling Ramses Station either, not in first or second class.
Tourism is a modicum of what it would normally be this temperate time of year. And while the livelihood of a large proportion of the population depends on tourists, the few visitors who are here often are viewed with suspicion.
This is a point acknowledged this week by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a presidential candidate as formidable as his name sounds.
The tall, gangly, Dr. Aboul Fotouh (he’s a pediatrician) is one of two or three men with the best chance of becoming Egypt’s first freely elected president. Ever.
He hails from the Muslim Brotherhood – although he is not that movement’s declared choice for president. The Brothers say they are not fielding a candidate, and because of his determination to run, Dr. Abdel Fotouh, 60, was booted from the 14-member Guidance Council that controls the massive organization. He had held a position on that council for 29 years, having been chosen for it as the council’s youngest-ever member.
The man joined the Brotherhood when he was at medical school in the early 1970s. A conservative Muslim, he had been shunned by the students’ union, then dominated by leftist nationalist followers of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser.
So the future Dr. Aboul Fotouh organized like-minded Muslims and took over the union.
By the time the Brotherhood’s old guard were released from prison by Anwar Sadat (they had been locked up for years by Mr. Nasser), they found a whole new generation of younger Brothers waiting to greet them.
In recent years, Dr. Aboul Fotouh had a reputation for being a reformer. He fought for greater freedom of expression within the Brotherhood, an aide says, for greater distance from the Mubarak establishment, and for a less elitist interpretation of religious values.
“He’s a real independent,” the aide says. “No one controls him.”
Spending two hours with him this week, he greets his foreign visitors warmly, shaking the hand even of the female photographer and the female translator – something many religious Muslims will not do, including Dr. Aboul Fotouh’s own brother when later introduced to us.
We watch as the candidate fields questions for an hour from an Egyptian TV interviewer, then have a chance to ask our own.
“How are you feeling,” I ask, a pertinent question, since the man had been knocked unconscious just five nights before – hit with the butt of a shotgun wielded by one of four attackers who forced his car off the road, slugged Dr. Aboul Fotouh and his driver, and drove off with his car.
“I’m fine,” he replied, adding that the effects of the concussion he suffered had ended.
The candidate adamantly denied he had been a victim of a rapidly-expanding wave of crimes such as armed car-jackings.
He had been a political target, he insisted, not a victim of crime. Someone was trying to scare him off, he said.
More importantly, it seemed, and counter to all evidence, Dr. Aboul Fotouh wanted to make it clear that the crime rate in Egypt has not risen.
This was an exaggeration by the media, he said, and it was frightening off foreign investment and tourism.
“I hope it will stop,” he said (meaning the message, not the crime), apparently hoping we would carry this new message away with us.
As an Islamist, Dr. Aboul Fotouh has a good chance of gaining a substantial share of the religious vote (Islamists are large enough in number to have elected religious candidates to more than 70 per cent of the seats in the new parliament), and he’s just reformist enough to appeal to many less-observant Muslims (shaking hands with women will help there).
The biggest risk he faces would be if the Brotherhood decided to tell its members that it was haram (forbidden) to vote for the man – something not likely that they’ll do.
On Wednesday this week, the country’s election council announced that the election for president will take place May 23-24; with a run-off vote, if needed, on June 16-17.
The new president will be announced June 21, but already Dr. Aboul Fotouh is behaving presidentially – putting the best image of the country ahead of the reality of crime, and blaming the media for all the troubles.
The verdant farm fields are giving way to red-brick apartments as we pull into “Alex.”
Minarets again outnumber the satellite dishes.
Dr. Aboul Fotouh is holding a major rally of his campaign workers tonight in Alexandria.
He will do well here.