In post-Mubarak Egypt, it's one "giant conversation"

LUXOR, Egypt Wed Apr 11, 2012 10:13am EDT

1 of 3. People walk past under a banner by El Hag Abo Randa (L in banner), created for presidential candidate and Egypt's former vice president Omar Suleiman (R in banner), in Cairo April 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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LUXOR, Egypt (Reuters) - Scrambling down the tunnel of a 3,000-year-old tomb decorated with exquisite reliefs and hieroglyphics, watchman Abdel Rahman Sherif accosted a group of Cairo youths to berate them.

"Why did you do it? You threw Hosni Mubarak in prison, you demeaned him! What for?" Sherif shouted at the group, for being part of a demographic whose dissatisfaction sparked the uprising against the man dubbed Egypt's modern-day pharaoh.

But while the turmoil may have hurt Sherif's livelihood by scaring off tourists, it also allowed him a political rant that would have been unheard of just 14 months ago.

While hopes for an end to poverty and corruption remain unfulfilled and Egyptians still sometimes fear a return to the old days, a seemingly irrepressible spirit of political debate is everywhere, from movie theaters and salons to supermarket queues, office kitchens and parking garages.

As the countdown to the country's first real presidential elections in history begins, no one can stop talking about the race, who to vote for and how it will impact their future.

It takes very little to set off a political conversation. In Sherif's case, it was the sight of the young people: once he was done railing about how ousting Mubarak was a mistake, he moved straight on to who should replace him.

Sherif says he is no longer willing to be silenced by the authorities or be afraid of what others will think. It is time for Egypt to have a "giant conversation", he says.

"Of course I'm going to vote and of course I will talk about it to just about anyone. This is my very life, my future," said the 46-year-old, dressed in his traditional galabiya robe.

DEBATE ON THE STREETS AND IN PARLIAMENT

The number of talk shows has ramped up dramatically since the revolution, pushing the drama series that Egypt is famous for across the Arab world out of prime-time slots. Even programmes once exclusively dedicated to fashion or sports commentary frequently kick off with discussions of politics.

When a movie-goer in a Cairo theatre interrupted the film to tell his friends about the latest political development on Twitter, others in the audience, far from asking them to pipe down, joined the conversation. One suggested they gather in the cinema's lounge, saying: "I need more details. Let's take this outside." The entire row stepped out to talk.

A number of former officials, liberals and Islamists are running in the election due to be held in May and June, including Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chief who enjoys wide name recognition.

Other candidates include Mubarak's chief of intelligence Omar Suleiman and Khairat al-Shater, the representative of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which was the big winner in parliamentary elections earlier this year.

In a downtown Cairo parking garage, a group of security guards huddled around a radio to listen to a parliamentary session, a sight almost unimaginable in Mubarak's era when the assembly was packed with members of his ruling party and seen as a rubber stamp.

"Every day I wake up and there is something new. It's like watching a drama series, or maybe an Indian movie," said one guard, who only gave his name as Aziz. His colleague Ramadan Ahmed laughed and protested: "No, Indian movies are funny. This is a Japanese film without subtitles.

"There is no way I'm voting for the Brotherhood again," Ahmed went on. "It took us 30 years to discover the end of Mubarak's one-party rule, but it took us three months to find out that the Brotherhood wants to do the same."

Many Egyptians, faced with a real choice for the first time, are eager to hear what others around them think and what the media is suggesting in order to help them decide.

Ahmed's spontaneous group discussion was typical. Three strangers walking past joined in. One driver in search of an empty parking spot also paused to express his views.

MANICURES AND COFFEE

In hair salons, clients and hairdressers who once talked primarily about their love lives and celebrity gossip now discuss the future of the country and its transition.

"I don't know who to vote for, but I'm leaning towards someone like Ahmed Shafiq. We need a strong man to bring back security," said hairdresser Waleed Mohamed, referring to Mubarak's last prime minister and a former air-force commander.

"What are you talking about? That man cannot become a president," said one woman, asking her manicurist to take a break so she could cross the room to make her points. "Pay attention to his facial expressions. He is a dictator and he doesn't know how to listen."

Even glossy fashion magazines have caught the bug. The new criteria for the ideal spouse, according to one beauty magazine, is that he must belong to the revolutionaries ranks.

"It is impossible to be disconnected because everyone around you, and even in a magazine like this, is always having a conversation about politics," said 26-year-old Ola Mohamed.

The constant debate can be wearying, many Egyptians say. Some long for the time when politics were simpler.

So many debates turn into a series of monologues, they say, and those coming to the world of politics for the first time often feel lost.

"Everyone is always making something up. They think they are all brilliant or that they have a brilliant solution for everything and that their solution must be the right one," said Salma Ali, 24, who works at a multinational firm. "No one listens."

But Mohamed, who admitted she never watched the news before the uprising, said there was something appealing about the hubbub.

"We are engaged with our country and are attempting to take on an active role. Sometimes that means engaging in conversation."

(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Sonya Hepinstall)

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