Yusuf, a candidate for parliament in Upper Egypt, greets a supporter.Photograph by Davide Monteleone for The New Yorker
This past fall in El-Balyana, a remote district in Upper Egypt, there were nineteen candidates for two seats in the new national parliament, and none of them seemed to enjoy the campaign more than Yusuf Hasan Yusuf. He was a big man in his mid-forties, with smooth, dark skin that was set off by a white galabia. He had nine children, a jewelry shop, and a farm where he grew wheat, corn, and sugarcane. He campaigned entirely door-to-door—in his opinion, public political activity served no purpose. “If you have those rallies, it’s fake,” Yusuf told me. He had no platform, and he didn’t talk about issues, policies, or potential legislation. He never made a single public campaign promise. In the past, he hadn’t enjoyed the support of any party or other institution, and yet he had built a successful political career. Once, I asked a rival candidate how he did it.
“Yusuf is lucky,” he said, somewhat grudgingly. “Yusuf is a simple, kind man, and he’s lucky.”
Yusuf first won a seat in parliament in December of 2010. Running as an independent, he defeated the local candidate from the National Democratic Party, which had ruled a de-facto one-party state for more than thirty years. Less than two months later, the revolution began on Tahrir Square, and soon President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office, the parliament was cancelled, and the N.D.P. was disbanded. Afterward, Islamists were allowed to form political parties for the first time, and they won more than seventy per cent of the seats in the next parliamentary campaign, in the winter of 2011-12. In El-Balyana, though, Yusuf received many more votes than the local candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political organization, the Freedom and Justice Party. Once again, Yusuf travelled to Cairo to take office, and once again the parliament was soon cancelled, this time by a court order. In the summer of 2013, after nationwide protests, the military forcibly removed the country’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, who had been a leader of the Brotherhood, which was quickly banned as a terrorist organization.
When I asked Yusuf what he had learned from these events, he had trouble answering, and I realized that the question assumed a logic that doesn’t apply to Egypt. From Yusuf’s perspective, losers of elections tended to see their organizations banned or dissolved, whereas winners joined a lawmaking body that also tended to be banned or dissolved. “I didn’t know what really happened, whether it was a legitimate court order or something else,” Yusuf said, of the cancellation of the second parliament. Since then, the government had repeatedly delayed elections, and Egypt had had no parliament for three years. In the meantime, Yusuf continued to do what he does best. “I’m always campaigning—it never stops,” he told me last June, months before the new elections had even been scheduled. Two other local parliamentarians had remained on leave from their jobs since 2012, in part so that they could campaign more or less continuously.
El-Balyana sits on the Nile’s western bank, about three hundred miles upstream from Cairo, where the narrow river valley is surrounded by high, barren bluffs. Beyond the bluffs, in both directions, the desert is uninhabitable across all of North Africa. Upper Egypt is densely settled—about forty per cent of Egyptians live in the south—and it’s the poorest and the most neglected part of the country. Over the years, Upper Egyptians have responded to national dysfunction by effectively creating their own system for elections. Even under N.D.P. rule, Upper Egyptians developed local versions of parties, and they devised indigenous campaign traditions. This informal system survived both the Arab Spring and its aftermath; in some respects, it’s as stable as any other Egyptian political institution. These southern election campaigns reflect how, in a repressive but weak state, the problem isn’t just the ways in which the government prevents political freedom. It’s also the flawed organizations that people build when left entirely to their own devices.
In El-Balyana, Yusuf’s main rival was Rafat Mohamed Mahmoud, who was his opposite in almost every respect. Rafat had belonged to the N.D.P., but after the revolution he became an independent; in 2012, he narrowly defeated the Brotherhood candidate for the district’s second seat, behind Yusuf. For this election, Rafat had again changed affiliation: he joined the Free Egyptians Party, which had been founded by Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian who is one of the richest men in the country. Rafat himself came from a wealthy extended family, known as the Abu’l Khair, and on the first evening that I observed his campaign he travelled around to private homes with an entourage of a dozen relatives, in a Mercedes sedan, a Jeep S.U.V., and two other vehicles.
One member of the entourage was in charge of terminating each home visit. His name was Abu Steit, and he was a short, pudgy man with a toothbrush mustache who carried a wooden cane and wore a turban. At every stop, the group was escorted into the dawar, the traditional rural Egyptian reception area, where the family’s elders waited. At the entrance, the young men of the family had lined up to greet the visitors. Each of them offered a cigarette to every guest—sometimes I was formally presented with twenty cigarettes in rapid succession. Throughout the visit, the young men brought trays of drinks for the elders, although Abu Steit often waved them off and shouted, “Halawa!”—sweets. In Upper Egypt, social engagements run late, and by midnight I had lost track of how many chocolate bars Abu Steit had consumed. As his blood sugar rose, so did my fascination: there was something magnetic about a little man with a Hitler mustache who, after tossing away an empty candy wrapper, would suddenly pound his cane on the ground and yell, “Al Fatiha! Al Fatiha!” The Fatiha is the first Surah of the Koran, and it was recited to bless Rafat’s departure. A home visit might last for half an hour, or it could be finished in a minute; only Abu Steit seemed to know the appropriate duration.
Many visits were characterized by long stretches of silence. There was no stump speech or formal introduction, and Rafat rarely spoke. He was a tall man in an expensive pin-striped galabia, and often he sat in the place of honor, staring into space, until Abu Steit mercifully called for the Fatiha. Nobody ever mentioned Rafat’s N.D.P. past or his current political affiliation, whose benefit was primarily financial. In El-Balyana, a Cairo-based party like the Free Egyptians might pay for posters and other campaign expenses, but it had no local office or network. There was no functioning local press that allowed a party to promote specific issues or policies. This was one reason that candidates campaigned entirely door-to-door. El-Balyana consists of two small cities and thirty-three villages, with a population of around six hundred thousand, but candidates were able to cover this large region in part because they had started long before the official election season. On the fifth day of the campaign, I met a person whose home had already been visited by ten candidates.
Instead of parties, the campaign revolved around two local tribes: the Hawwara, to which Yusuf belonged, and the Arabs, a tribe that included Rafat. When I first began visiting El-Balyana, in early 2013, these groups impressed me as indistinguishable: they spoke the same dialect of Arabic; they dressed and lived the same way; they looked like members of the same ethnic group. All of them were Muslim; most of them were farmers. I had never thought of Egypt as having a tribal society—unlike other parts of the Middle East, it’s always been an agricultural country. But most people in El-Balyana were adamant that they had descended from nomadic tribes.
One prominent member of Rafat’s entourage was his cousin Souleiman Abu’l Khair, an actor who often plays Upper Egyptian roles on television. Late in the evening, the campaign visited a wealthy landowner named Zabit Gebr, an elder of his family, who asked Souleiman to find a good screenwriter to produce a script about their tribe. “We want a serious soap opera that represents the Arabs,” Zabit said. “We want the guy who wrote the series ‘Sheikh al-Arab Hamam,’ ” he went on. “But there was a problem—he described somebody from the Hawwara as if he were Arab.” Zabit embarked on a long analysis of other shows that, in his opinion, also conflated tribes. He said that the Arabs needed to do a better job of establishing their identity in the entertainment industry. “Keep raising our heads for all of Egypt, inshallah,” he said to the actor.
“Have you watched ‘Khalaf Allah’?” Souleiman asked.
“I just watched two episodes.”
“You have to watch it, because I play a good role.”
“Facebook ruined our eyesight. It has weakened my eyes, man.”
In truth, the history of some tribes in Upper Egypt is a recent creation. During medieval times, some nomadic Bedouin groups, including the Hawwara, migrated from northwestern Africa. But they intermarried with natives and adopted local culture, and there were many other outsiders who also settled in the region, ranging from Greek traders to Turkish administrators. There had never been a tribe called “the Arabs”—the term was popularized in the nineteen-fifties, as part of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism. In Upper Egypt, it replaced fellahin, or “peasants,” which had negative connotations.
During the past thirty years, though, the Arabs have been reimagined, along with other groups in the region. “In the nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, the tribes were not very important,” Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen, a Danish anthropologist who researches Upper Egyptian politics, told me. “But they had an electoral system that needed some group, and the tribes came in handy.” Mubarak had emphasized parliamentary elections as a way of claiming that Egypt was democratic, although the vote was often rigged in the major cities. But in the neglected south, Nielsen said, elections tended to run more freely, with the N.D.P. recruiting whoever happened to win. In this unstructured but competitive environment, where there were essentially no institutions, people naturally turned to the organization that they knew best: the family. They expanded the concept of tribal identity, sometimes creating elaborate backgrounds for groups that hadn’t existed. Near the city of Aswan, Nielsen observed a candidate who enlisted a regional historian to lecture voters on their supposed tribal past.
In the north, a victorious politician could direct state funds toward projects that benefitted his supporters, but expectations were more modest in El-Balyana. During home visits, a voter sometimes asked a candidate to make a call on his behalf, usually to a government office that issued permits or handled utilities. This was part of the reason that the campaign was so personal: knowing that candidates had no institutional support, voters asked for only small favors. And yet Upper Egyptians seemed to care much more about the election than Cairenes did. Pride was a factor, and the campaigns also served to reinforce family structures. Egyptian families tend to be strictly hierarchical, especially in the south, where the elders clearly enjoyed barking orders at lines of young men.
They also expected to decide the votes of their family members. Zabit, the elder who asked about soap operas, told me that he directed six hundred people of voting age in his extended family. “When I give the order on the day of the election, then the people have to go to the polling station and vote,” he said. “It’s not their business whether it’s wrong or right.” He told me that he didn’t really care who won the election; for him, the main value seemed to be the opportunity to assert control over his clan. And he did this publicly—the day after our visit, Zabit announced on Facebook that his family would vote for Rafat.
In Egypt, the majority of the population is under the age of twenty-five. The autocratic behavior of male elders—ordering drinks, dictating votes, wielding virtually all power—is even more striking in the light of their scarcity. Men aged fifty-five or older make up only 5.7 per cent of the population.
Large numbers of young Egyptians are underemployed or jobless, and they dominated the Tahrir protests in 2011. One of the revolution’s demands was that the young be given a greater role in the political system. For the first parliamentary elections that followed, two-thirds of the seats were reserved for members of lists: candidates who shared party affiliations or other alliances, and whose ranks had to include people under the age of thirty-five, women, Christians, and other traditionally underrepresented groups.
During that campaign, the youngest Egyptian to win a list seat came from El-Balyana. He was a twenty-six-year-old named Mahmoud Hamdy Ahmed, and he was one of Rafat’s cousins and a member of the Abu’l Khair family. Unlike Rafat, who had established himself with the N.D.P., Mahmoud rose with the sudden proliferation of post-Tahrir parties. He joined the Nour Party, which represented the Salafi movement, a conservative strain of Islam that originated in the Persian Gulf region. Nour won about a quarter of the seats nationwide, and, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, it was seen as the vanguard of Egypt’s new political Islam.
But Nour representatives often clashed with Brotherhood members in parliament, and in July, 2013, when President Morsi was deposed, the leaders of the Nour endorsed the change. Later that summer, security forces massacred more than eight hundred Morsi supporters in Cairo, according to Human Rights Watch, and the violence alienated many grassroots members of the Nour. In 2015, when a government commission set the rules for the new parliamentary elections, it drastically reduced the number of list seats.
Over time, the Nour Party weakened, and Mahmoud renounced his membership and became an independent. But he kept the beard. No other candidate in El-Balyana appeared on posters with full Salafi facial hair, in which only the mustache is shaved. The beard is a powerful symbol, but local interpretations of Mahmoud’s ranged widely: some people said that he was a true fundamentalist, while others claimed that he was an opportunist who had briefly latched on to the Salafi movement before discarding it. In the past, the Abu’l Khair family hadn’t been politically powerful, until some members went to Kuwait as guest workers in the nineteen-eighties and became rich enough to run big campaigns. By adopting a Salafi persona, Mahmoud had distanced himself from Rafat and his N.D.P. past. Village conspiracy theorists told me that the cousins used the veneer of national politics to distract from the most salient fact: that the Abu’l Khair family was rising to unprecedented local wealth and status.
When I first visited Mahmoud’s dawar, I found a tall, thin young man whose eyes reflected shrewdness and suspicion in equal measure. He had been trained as a pharmacist, a career that attracts bright students in Egypt. I interviewed him with a translator, but he seemed unwilling or unable to answer any specific questions about policies or potential legislation. This was common in El-Balyana, where candidates rarely had any meaningful experience with the press. But, when I asked Mahmoud why he had left the Nour Party, his response was blunt. “The street wants candidates to be independent,” he said. He insisted that he was neither a Salafi nor an Islamist. “Here it’s a tribal system,” he said. “There’s the Hawwara and the Arabs, and that’s it. Nothing else. No Islamists or non-Islamists.”
Mahmoud campaigned in a Mercedes 200 sedan whose back window was decorated with his official symbol, a military cannon, along with the slogan “Your Hand in My Hand . . . We Build for Your Children and for Mine.” The campaign positioned wooden cannons at busy intersections in El-Balyana, and white plastic cannons, their muzzles pointed upward, were attached to the roofs of three-wheeled tuk-tuk cabs, which cruised around town like an undersized cavalry.
Campaign symbols are mandatory because more than a quarter of Egyptians are illiterate. The rate in the south is even higher—at some El-Balyana polling stations, judges told me that the majority of the voters couldn’t read. In each district, the selection of symbols is like a fantasy draft, with candidates choosing from a hundred and sixty government-approved icons. Some of them seem to have dubious connotations: a knife, an ambulance, a scorpion. One option is a feather, like Dan Quayle in the old “Doonesbury” cartoons. This year, two candidates in greater Cairo were represented by a rifle and a megaphone. The top draft pick in El-Balyana was wasted on a chandelier, the political equivalent of the Knicks grabbing Renaldo Balkman. Mahmoud told me that he selected the cannon because “the others had already been taken.” But this made no sense—he had picked fourth. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by a reformed Islamist who showed up for the first post-coup parliamentary election sporting a cannon and a Salafi beard. Given the security climate, it seemed every bit as brave as the Cairo candidate who campaigned under the slogan “No to Terrorism.”
In El-Balyana, during the first year after the revolution, Morsi won a broad majority in the Presidential election, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice candidate was just behind Rafat for the second non-list parliamentary seat. For most of its history, the Brotherhood had been banned, but it had a reputation for charity and grassroots organizing. In elections, it performed well across Upper Egypt, which was often described as a Brotherhood stronghold.
But in El-Balyana the Brotherhood had only one small office, and I found no evidence of significant charitable activities. The same was true in most other parts of the south that I visited during the Morsi era. I came to believe that the Brotherhood was remarkably weak, and it won elections only because there was no organized competition. In April, 2013, I met with Ayman Abdel Hamid, a physician in El-Balyana and a Brotherhood leader who was slated to run in the next parliamentary election. He told me that there were only a hundred and fifty Brothers in the district.
Last summer, I visited Ayman again, at his small private clinic. In Cairo, it’s virtually impossible to meet Brothers, but Ayman told me that the local crackdown is lighter, in part because the family system insulates against national events. He said that only two Brothers from El-Balyana have been imprisoned, and he and others are left alone because they aren’t active in the Brotherhood anymore. He told me that poverty is also a factor in the gentler response from the state security forces. “Since life is already hard, they don’t want to make it harder,” he said.
I reminded him that in 2013 he had told me there were a hundred and fifty local members. “That was the crowd around the Brotherhood, not the real members,” Ayman said. “We were trying to exaggerate the numbers to scare other parties. It was just election tactics.”
I asked what the real number had been.
“Ten members,” he said, and smiled sadly. “Those were two of our mistakes. We exaggerated the number of our members to scare others. And we allowed some people to act like they were with us, but in truth they weren’t.”
It seemed remarkable: in a district of around six hundred thousand, an organization with only ten local members had dominated the Presidential vote and nearly won a parliamentary seat. Along with the Nour, the Brotherhood had been particularly popular among young men in Upper Egypt. I sensed that this didn’t reflect a deep faith in political Islam; instead, young people had grasped at any alternative to local traditions that forced them to do things like fetch chocolate bars for old men. Now that the Islamists had been decimated, the traditional system reasserted itself. In El-Balyana, the first round of voting, in mid-October, reduced the field to four finalists: Yusuf, Rafat, Mahmoud, and a former police brigadier named Nour Abu Steit. In tribal terms, the split was perfect: two Hawwara and two Arabs.
One of the eliminated candidates was Mahmoud Abu Mohasseb, a lawyer whom I had known for more than two years. In 2010, he had performed respectably in another local election, but this time he finished seventeenth out of nineteen. Afterward, he stopped picking up my calls. When I knocked on his apartment door, I heard his son’s muffled voice: “Daddy’s not coming.”
In his village, close relatives also hadn’t seen him. “Others are mocking us,” Khaled Abu Mohasseb, the candidate’s cousin, told me. “These results are shameful. It doesn’t suit the name of the family.”
Khaled had helped his cousin campaign, but now he said that the candidacy had failed because of lack of effort. It seemed unfair—even months before the vote, I had seen him making home visits. But, when I asked Khaled if he felt sorry for his cousin, he shook his head. “I feel more sorry for myself and for the family,” he said.
In El-Balyana, it seemed very hard to lose gracefully. One bitter candidate told me that his family had engaged in fraud; another announced that he was moving to Cairo because of “the stink of politics.” Mohammed Abu Hilely, a prominent eliminated candidate from the Arab tribe, told me that Rafat and Mahmoud—his fellow-tribesmen—had paid off voters. Hilely posted a public statement on YouTube, calling upon the Arabs to support the two Hawwara candidates instead.
One evening, villagers in a coffee shop discussed Hilely’s actions. Some believed that he had made his plea because his political career was finished, but Ahmed Diyab, a psychologist at the local elementary school, predicted that the final outcome would be a classic case of reverse psychology. By asking his tribesmen to support the Hawwara, Hilely had guaranteed that they would vote for the Arabs in even higher numbers.
Diyab claimed that being a psychologist who works with children helped him understand local political behavior. “Maybe a kid is peeing on himself as a way of attracting attention,” he said. “Maybe I have a problem, but I can’t express myself, so I use violence.” After years of Cairo conversations, I found his analysis refreshing. In the capital, the élite often talk about “the deep state,” the military and financial interests that supposedly control everything. Others nurse conspiracy theories that connect the United States, Qatar, Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It felt simpler in a more isolated place, where one could recognize how social traditions contribute to political dysfunction. I suspected that Cairo isn’t much different at its core—even there, institutions are weak, and family hierarchies dominate most people’s lives. Officials respond to events in ways that feel more personal than political, and general patterns resemble those in El-Balyana, with all the conspiracy theories and the wild accusations of wrongdoing. Losers lash out, and anger is a common emotion, as is pride. The old control the young; the men control the women. But none of it can really be blamed on the Brotherhood, or the N.D.P., or any particular political figure. In Egypt, the family is the deep state.
Throughout the campaign, I never saw a candidate interact with a woman. During dozens of home visits, no one even asked after the health of the women who lived there. In southern villages, men sequester wives, daughters, and sisters; some elders told me that they forbade females from voting. When they did vote, they required special infrastructure. One advantage of wealth was that it allowed a candidate to hire vehicles to transport groups of women to polling stations. When I interviewed Nora Abdel Mohammed, who was one of the few women in her El-Balyana village with a government job, she told me that the revolution had done nothing to change gender relations. “Women in the homes need somebody to reach them,” she said, explaining that housewives from different families rarely meet with one another, because there’s no female equivalent of the dawar.
In prominent families, dawar are impressive open-air courtyards, and only once did I hear a woman mentioned in this environment. The night before the runoff election, in late October, I visited the riverside dawar of Nour Abu Steit, the fourth finalist. He was a short, fierce-looking man who had recently retired from the police. He was Hawwara, and he began our conversation by claiming that the Abu’l Khair cousins had engaged in fraud. Such accusations were common, although nobody ever offered any evidence, and my impression was that the election was fair.
Nour asked about my nationality, and then he blamed the United States for El-Balyana’s poverty. “We’ve had Egyptian sovereignty for seven thousand years,” he said. “You feel angry with us because of our civilization!”
He sat with his back to the Nile, surrounded by two dozen elders. A ripple of laughter ran through the group. Nour told me that America had created Daesh, the Islamic State. “I hope that God sends you earthquakes and volcanoes!”
The men laughed again, and Nour told a story about a female American diplomat who supposedly had used sex to manipulate Saddam Hussein. In Egypt, I occasionally found myself in a situation where a man played to his companions by mocking the foreigner, and there was a bullying, locker-room dynamic. This quality seemed to characterize many of the worst aspects of Egyptian politics—pride, shame, a refusal to compromise, periodic spasms of violence—and sometimes I wondered how much dysfunction could be attributed to the unrelenting maleness of power in Egypt. Many public figures seemed likely to benefit from even the occasional sound of a woman’s voice saying: Maybe you should stop talking now.
“A woman with beautiful legs!” Nour said. He was still describing the female diplomat. “When Saddam talked to her, she took off her skirt, and she gave him the green light!” The men laughed, and Nour ranted about Americans for a while. Finally, I asked if he opposed Egypt’s acceptance of the roughly one and a half billion dollars of annual aid from the United States.
“That number is weak!” he said. “It’s not suitable for Egypt.”
I asked what a suitable figure might be.
“Not less than eight billion dollars,” he said proudly.
he most welcoming Tdawar belonged to Yusuf, who seemed like the only natural politician I met. Many Christians voted for him—they made up about ten per cent of the local population, but most candidates basically ignored them, because they were outside the tribal system. After the polls closed, I waited in Yusuf’s dawar, where elders tried to keep track of preliminary results. They did this by scribbling numbers chaotically onto scrap paper—it struck me that a couple of computer-savvy kids could have figured out a system. But all the young supporters waited outside, holding big wooden staves. These are used in a traditional dance called the tahtib, which would be performed if the candidate won. Given the history of election fights in Upper Egypt, it seemed like a terrible idea to have mobs of young men holding sticks while waiting for the results.
All the candidates were at the election commission’s headquarters, observing the count. Around midnight, somebody at Rafat’s dawar called to tell me that supporters were celebrating with gunfire. Soon after that, a young man burst into Yusuf’s headquarters and shouted, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” Everybody ran outside. Standing beside the door, I was joined by a cotton farmer in his sixties, who reached into his galabia, pulled out a 9-millimetre Helwan pistol, and fired four rounds into the sky. In the crowded street, men began waving sticks while others shot rifles and shotguns. A few minutes later, another mob appeared, holding sticks and guns and chanting Nour Abu Steit’s name. The same thing was happening at Mahmoud’s camp: in different corners of El-Balyana, the supporters of all four candidates claimed victory.
Al Hayah, a Cairo television station, announced that Yusuf and Nour were the winners, and the celebrations intensified. But soon there were rumors that the announcement was wrong, and then, at two o’clock in the morning, an official statement finally came: the Abu’l Khair cousins had taken both seats.
At Yusuf’s dawar, one of the elders stormed into the street, furious about the premature celebration. “Have you heard the real results?” he shouted in a mocking tone. More than two hundred young men stood there, still clutching their sticks and guns.
The over-all winner was Mahmoud, and fewer than five hundred votes separated the other three candidates. Late that evening, I visited Mahmoud’s home, where the sound of ululating rang out—on the upper floors, unseen women were celebrating.
In interviews, Mahmoud had always been guarded, and I often wondered what lessons his generation would take from the events of the past five years. Activists claim that young Egyptians now realize their power, having witnessed two Presidents being removed after protests. But it seems just as likely that this generation will conclude that such political activity changes nothing important. In Mahmoud’s dawar, I asked the former Salafi if there should be more space for political Islam, but he dodged the question. (“We have new matters now.”) His response was similar when I mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood. (“I don’t want to talk about old things.”) He told me that he liked the current President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has led the crackdown against the Islamists. (“He’s respectful.”)
Nationwide, the biggest victor was a coalition called For the Love of Egypt, which swept all hundred and twenty list seats. It was led by a former Army general named Sameh Seif El-Yazal, who hoped to build a majority in the five-hundred-and-sixty-eight-member parliament. But the lack of strong parties insured a degree of chaos. In January, the parliament rejected a civil-service law that had been supported by Sisi, who wanted to reduce the bureaucracy. Clearly, this wasn’t just a rubber-stamp parliament, but members were also unlikely to organize any kind of coherent opposition. In November, when I asked El-Yazal if he and Sisi had any significant differences of opinion, he said, “So far, for seventeen months now, I haven’t seen a single mistake that he’s made.”
n front of Yusuf’s Idawar, after the announcement, everybody stood in shock for a few minutes, and then the candidate appeared. “You should go home,” Yusuf said, gesturing to the mob of young men holding sticks. “It’s better than if a crime had happened.”
A middle-aged man approached him, looking distraught. “By God, did you have an accident?” Yusuf said. He laughed and kissed the man on both cheeks. “Go to sleep. Tomorrow we’ll start a new life.”
For ten minutes, he talked gently, until the street was clear. Then he took a seat at the back of the dawar. Once he was alone, his face transformed—he looked unspeakably sad. I sat nearby with my translator, and nobody said anything. All the elders had left; the room was silent. It was the emptiest dawar I’d ever seen.
After a while, I said something about better luck next time.
“There’s no next time,” Yusuf said. “It’s ended for me, politically.”
He said that he wanted to focus on farming for a while. Of the election, he said, “It wasn’t about services or love. If it had been, I would have won.” He believed that the Abu’l Khair cousins had had an overwhelming financial advantage.
While we were talking, a young boy came and sat nearby, his eyes full of tears. Yusuf paused to comfort him on the way out, and I asked if he was one of his sons.
“No,” Yusuf said, and laughed lightly at this—his last act as a politician. He said, “I’ve never seen that boy before in my life.” ♦