The art of elections

Think of it as a sign of the season: Ramadan has its lanterns and elaborate sweet shop displays; Eid has blood-soaked streets and kids with fireworks. The weeks leading up to elections, on the other hand, are better characterized by the banners, posters, and various forms of printed propaganda indiscriminately adorning most of the city’s walls, trees, and lampposts. With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in a matter of days, Cairo’s landscape has been dominated by candidates’ hyperbolic self-promotion. By this point, the candidates have become unavoidably familiar, but what of those whose job it is to make them so?

“I’d say I’m responsible for about 10 percent of Sameh Fahmi’s campaign posters,” says sign-maker Ahmed Heikal, speaking of the current minister of petroleum, a candidate in the upcoming elections whose name and giant, leering visage have become ubiquitous on the streets of Nasr City and Heliopolis, due to an exceptionally aggressive promotional campaign. Despite the effort he’s put into supporting the candidate, however, Heikal claims he “couldn’t care less if Fahmi wins or bursts into flames.”

“The only thing I have to gain from any of these crooks is the handful of pennies they’re willing to pay me for whatever signs I make for them,” Heikal frowns.

Heikal speaks from experience. The 31-year-old has been working as a sign-maker for the better part of his life, and is well-versed in the process—and increasingly insubstantial rewards—of political sign-making. “I have no interest in who’s running for what, or any of the false promises that are being made. This is just a job, it’s how I make a living,” he sighs. “But lately, it’s not even worth the trouble anymore. It’s not like it pays.”

For his work on a single cloth banner measuring eight meters in length, Heikal claims he was paid a total of LE12—a somewhat meager sum, considering he spent an entire day working on it. “Look at the amount of posters and promotional material on the streets. A lot of these candidates have marketing budgets in the millions.” According to Heikal, the cause of the incongruence can be traced back to campaign managers, and not necessarily the candidates. “It’s like a race between campaign managers—they’re constantly searching for the lowest available price they can get away with, so that they can pocket the rest of the budget they’ve been given.” Heikal also claims that most campaign managers who approach him usually bring their own materials in order to bolster their bargaining. “They come here with the most raggedy strips of cloth you’ve ever seen, and panels of cheap, rotting wood dragged off the street, and they use those as an excuse to pay less.”

“You tell me, why should I vote for a man who either can’t, or isn’t willing, to do anything about the corruption in his own campaign team?” Heikal fumes.

Unsurprisingly, Heikal isn’t the only member of the political sign-making community to become disillusioned with his clientele. While some have been discouraged by the lack of adequate compensation, others choose to pull out for a different reason altogether.

“State security officers came in here the other day and put this up,” Walid Saad points to a palm-sized rectangular sticker glued to one of the walls of his modest studio. Bearing the label of the Cairo Security Directorate, the white label is covered with stamps and bears the names and contact information of four senior officers. “They said I was to contact them before working on any promotional material for the elections. They have to approve any slogan or message before it goes public.”

Although identical stickers have been posted in the workspace of any recognized sign-maker, Saad has taken the notice as a reason to detach himself from the entire campaign process. “I’ve made posters for a bunch of candidates whose names I’ve forgotten and have no desire to remember,” says the 27-year-old sign-maker. “But now, I’d rather stay away from that whole mess.”  

Despite being motivated to withdraw from the process because of their stickers, Saad does recognize the importance of the state’s supervision. “Slogans can be a dangerous thing,” he says, citing the Muslim Brotherhood’s notorious campaign promise from a few years back, which recklessly declared, “Islam is the solution.”

“The government disallowed the use of that slogan, but it certainly hasn’t gone away,” Saad says. “It’s still very much alive and well among people, especially in rural areas.”

Saad does not consider his detachment from the campaign process as a loss, but rather, a wise decision on his part. “There’s no money or recognition in it anyway, and the whole election process is a waste of time and a farce,” says Saad. “It’s like my grandmother used to say—you’re churning water.”

Even sign-makers who haven’t been turned off by the government’s notices are quick to agree with Saad, with many pointing out to Al-Masry Al-Youm that a good deal of the promotional material is privately funded by independent businessmen and families hoping to gain favor with the potential winning candidate.

“I lost faith in all this stuff a long time ago,” says 47-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim al-Sharkawy, a man who prefers to think of himself as an artist who has fallen on hard times, rather than a sign-maker. “Nothing changes and the [candidates] are all the same. My own cousin had a seat in parliament and he didn’t do squat for me, even though I repeatedly asked for his help.”

In the absence of a candidate whose policies and actions are worthy of support, al-Sharkawy soon came to regard his place in the political process solely as a source of insufficient income, rather than ideological allegiance. “I’ve made posters for [former MP] Mostafa al-Sallab while working on posters for his opponents,” al-Sharkawy shrugs. “I wouldn’t have a problem making posters for the Muslim Brotherhood, and ones for the devil-worshippers. It all adds up to the same thing.”

While he still works on the occasional poster or banner, al-Sharkawy insists it’s only for the money. Despite his dire financial state, though, he still tries to keep that type of work to a minimum.

“I got tired of getting bullied by people I don’t respect for a cause I don’t believe in,” says al-Sharkawy, who still harbors fond memories of the time he spent in Iraq, where he worked as a painter of murals and canvases depicting the image of then-leader Saddam Hussein—“just like the ones the Americans knocked down with their tanks during the early stages of the invasion.”

Al-Sharkawy can’t help comparing his role in the political process here with the one he played in Iraq, recalling, “there I used to be treated with respect and called ‘sir’ just because it was my job to paint images of the ruler. Here, I have to deal with the insults and mocking comments of campaign managers whenever I’d try to correct the spelling and grammatical mistakes in any text they’d give me for the signs,” he says, adding that campaign managers are “mostly illiterate.”

When asked if there’s any politician he’d be proud to support, al-Sharkawy is quick to answer. “Yeah, I’d draw them a picture. Of this.” he says, showing Al-Masry Al-Youm a rude hand gesture.

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