Where Egypt toppled Mubarak, a modest candidate makes his own run

Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on the first anniversary of the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak
Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on the first anniversary of the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak Mohannad Sabry/MCT)

CAIRO — Chanting "Down with military rule," hundreds of thousands of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square on Wednesday for the anniversary of the revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule and left the country in the hands of a few entrenched generals.

Among the crowd — which appeared to be the biggest in nearly a year — stood Nabil el Kouny, a retired accountant with no political credentials. He was so convinced that the square was the place where the impossible could happen that he staked out a spot and announced that he was running for president.

Politically speaking, Kouny, 56, is a nobody. He hails from the cotton-ginning city of Tanta, is a self-described centrist with no leadership experience, is of modest means and belongs to no party. His campaign photos make little attempt to hide a mouthful of crooked, blackened teeth.

It was unclear whether he even meets the basic requirements for official candidacy. Yet thousands of protesters of all backgrounds, when they saw he was a candidate, ignored his modest appearance and seized the chance to debate with him on the matters of the day.

Tahrir Square is the only place where he could be taken seriously as a presidential contender — and the fact that he was underscored both the outsized hope and political naivete of the revolutionaries a year after they brought down Mubarak and made Egypt the centerpiece of the Arab Spring rebellions.

"The atmosphere of freedom inspired me," Kouny said, explaining why he printed 60,000 fliers last week and stunned his wife, the future "first lady," by seeking Mubarak's vacant seat.

"I feel like I can finally do something for my country," he said.

Like other protesters, Kouny lamented that few goals of the uprising had been achieved in the past year: the Mubarak-era military council is still in charge, police brutalities continue, the economy is severely crippled. In the recent parliamentary elections, Islamist parties steamrolled candidates who were supported by the still-leaderless liberal core of Tahrir.

For Wednesday, at least, the fractious revolutionaries — Islamists included — stood together again in the square to mark Jan. 25 of last year, when an anti-Mubarak demonstration launched an 18-day uprising. While the chant heard most often was "Down with military rule!" protesters disagreed over whether the generals should go now or after presidential elections in June as scheduled.

Analysts doubt that Wednesday's renewed momentum could build quickly into a serious threat to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Despite constant criticism in the independent or opposition media, the military is still largely respected by Egyptians, and its commanders would be harder to dislodge than Mubarak.

Kouny dismissed the notion, reflected in several polls, of a disconnect between Tahrir Square protesters and the rest of Egypt's 85 million citizens. Yet time and again, the revolutionaries have seen their demands shunted aside by the powerful generals or the savvy Islamists, with virtually no public outcry.

"The genie's bottle has been uncorked, and the people are coming out," Kouny said. "It's just taking a long time because of the lack of a political culture here."

The recent election revealed the isolation of nascent revolutionary politicians; apart from Islamists, well-known business figures and entrenched liberal parties were the big winners. It's almost impossible to fathom how a total unknown from Tanta could somehow beat the influential Islamists and diplomatic luminaries — household names all — who are considered frontrunners for the presidency.

Kouny said he was undeterred by the election results, arguing that Egyptians are eager for a fresh crop of leaders with no ties to the old regime. The Parliament is one thing, he said, and the presidency another.

"Anyone with experience, with a past, has a worse chance at the presidency because he's tainted by the old regime. We new ones have the best chance," he said.

Kouny's moment may have been fleeting, but he reveled in it. He eagerly engaged with the crowds that surrounded him, some arguing that his proposed minimum wage was too low, others asking his views on the Muslim Brotherhood. Only a year ago, Kouny would've been arrested immediately for publicly declaring his desire for the presidency.

"The accomplishment we have is the freedom to be standing here," said Mohamed el Sayed, 28, who was among those debating with Kouny. "Before the revolution, he wouldn't even have made it here for us to see him. They would've gotten him before he hit the street."

As the day wore on, protesters asked for Kouny's autograph or snapped pictures with him, muttering, "You never know," as if seeing a 30-year ruler toppled in 18 days made anything possible. Others were more cynical. "Who are you, anyway?" one woman demanded.

A young revolutionary from the crowd leaned in close to Kouny and asked: "If you become president, would you still come down here to the square and talk to us?"

"Nothing would stop me," he replied.


Egypt's revolutionaries see little progress a year after revolt

First parliament session shows Egypt's new political landscape

After year of Arab upheaval, Islamists are biggest winners

Follow Hannah Allam on Twitter

Related stories from McClatchy DC