When we got word that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed el-Beltagy would be campaigning on the northern outskirts of Cairo, in a neighbourhood called Shobra el-Khaima, and that he’d be staging a sit-in at the local police station, visions of classic Egyptian political street battles began filling our heads.
There have already been street clashes between police and Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the run-up to Sunday’s vote for the lower house of parliament.
Instead, we got a chance to see first hand what it looks like when an Islamist movement that has been technically banned since 1954 campaigns in broad daylight, participating vigorously in an electoral process that some of its allies in the opposition have chosen to boycott in the face of crippling gerrymandering.
Working-class Shobra el-Khaima lies in the shadow of a factory’s twin smokestacks. On Friday, they were pumping streams of dark, grey soot into an otherwise clear, blue sky.
Beltagy’s sit-in was set to begin after the midday prayers, and we met up with his contingent in front of a brightly painted pink and green mosque. They first set out, as usual, on a promenade around the neighbourhood.
Beltagy, his face caught in a perpetual “pleased-to-meet-you” expression, stopped periodically to greet residents and shake hands.
“Elect the future of the country,” he told a few young men – many of whom appeared far too adolescent to cast a vote.
As we snaked further into the dusty and often decrepit allies of Shobra el-Khaima, one of Beltagy’s supporters shouted to a woman in a black abaya that she should pray for the candidate’s victory.
“Good luck,” she shouted back. “God be with you.”
The crowd around Beltagy ebbed and flowed, with a few Brotherhood staffers and lawyers staying constantly by his side. Small children scurried around the edges, waving signs. A young man asked me who the candidate was when I paused to think, an even younger girl answered: “Mohamed el-Beltagy”.
The Brotherhood’s well-worn and regime-provoking slogan, “Islam is the solution,” was nowhere to be found. Instead, the loudest shouts – perhaps pragmatically – simply repeated Beltagy’s name, district and the sign that will accompany his name on the ballot: an anchor.
“If you sell your vote for a pound, tomorrow you’re going to regret it,” went one of the chants. Women and children leaned over window ledges to catch a glimpse of the commotion.
Eventually we left the alleyways and came to Shobra el-Khaima’s main street, where Beltagy stopped on a narrow median to deliver remarks to a tiny crowd and the accompanying journalists.
The issue was polling place monitors. Election officials had declined Beltagy’s request to send his own campaigners to oversee voting in his district’s stations, even though many other campaigns have been given that very opportunity, since Egypt’s High Elections Commission has not ensured complete judicial supervision of this year’s election.
“There’s only a few hours left,” Beltagy said.
As plainclothes officers holding radios looked on from down the street, Beltagy and his entourage ascended the stairs to the police station’s front door, which they found shut and locked.
“They always allege that we go in by force,” Beltagy joked.
He called an officer inside on his mobile phone.
“I’m standing in front of the police station and they shut the door in my face,” he said. “It’s bad for your image with all these cameras.”
A few minutes passed by. A guard in a green uniform at the bottom of the stairs with an assault rifle hanging off his shoulder watched the group lazily. He was replaced by more plainclothes officers – men who had been watching Beltagy’s approach carefully and now awaited orders.
Inside the station, a figure came to the other side of the door and, blurred by the opaque glass, spoke with Beltagy, who told him he had already spoken with a man inside.
Finally, the door opened. The officer, someone with more authority than the bored-looking street cops hanging out by their armoured trucks, was the picture of politeness: “Please, come in,” he said.
The younger officer to his right wasn’t quite as pleasant. As Beltagy, his lawyers, and the plainclothes man filed into the recessed of the police department, the journalists were told to leave.