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Egypt’s Undead Reach for the Presidency

In his 2003 book, The Zombie Survival Guide, author Max Brooks reports that one of the world’s first recorded zombie pandemics took place in the ancient city of Hierakonpolis, Egypt, around 3,000 BC. A 19th Century expedition to that desert site, he writes, unearthed a tomb whose every surface was etched with scratch marks, as...

In his 2003 book, The Zombie Survival Guide, author Max Brooks reports that one of the world’s first recorded zombie pandemics took place in the ancient city of Hierakonpolis, Egypt, around 3,000 BC. A 19th Century expedition to that desert site, he writes, unearthed a tomb whose every surface was etched with scratch marks, as if an undead tenant had spent millennia trying to claw his way out.

Five thousand years after that fictional outbreak, another zombie is trying to rise from the dead in Egypt. Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s longtime intelligence czar and, briefly, Hosni Mubarak’s vice-president, emerged this week from the crypt to announce his candidacy for president

Egyptians should re-inter their old torturer-in-chief.

Suleiman was last seen in February 2011 when, pallid and unsteady, he appeared on state television to announce Mubarak’s resignation following an 18-day uprising that saw the murders of more than 680 Egyptians.

After 29 turgid years in power, Mubarak left Cairo, waving, Nixon-like, from a helicopter. Suleiman all but disappeared from public view, an archduke of intelligence deposed by a clique of generals out to save the system that had fattened them.

Now Suleiman’s back, claiming to be a democrat and pretending that the two decades of torture he oversaw never happened. Make no mistake, Suleiman isn’t running as some lone wolf – there’s a zombie horde backing him, the old deep state of spooks and securocrats.

Some Egyptians, unsettled by more than a year of turmoil caused by epic street demonstrations and the ruling military’s tragic incompetence, are happy to forget about the violence and humiliation on which Suleiman’s power was based. They want a familiar, reassuring face –- not to mention the promise of a strong hand. And they fear rule by the Islamists who dominate Egypt’s first freely-elected parliament.

There may even be voters who agreed with Suleiman when he told ABC News, just days before Mubarak’s ouster, that Egyptians weren’t ready for democracy.

Now, of course, he’s singing a different tune. “Egypt will always be and continue to be a national democratic state where its children enjoy full rights,” Suleiman told the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper in an interview published Monday. He denied he was a representative of the old order, and even tried to cast himself as a dissident in Mubarak’s government.

“Those who think that my candidacy for president means reinventing the former regime must realize that being the head of the General Intelligence Agency or vice president for a few days does not mean that I was part of an institution against which people revolted,” Suleiman told the paper. (Wire reports of the Arabic-language interview make no mention of whether this statement was accompanied by laughter.)

He is, of course, just that – a representative of an undead government that held its people in contempt while feeding them a steady diet of conspiracy, beatings, and low-quality subsidized bread.

Nobody thinks Suleiman will legally win the presidential election scheduled for May 23 and 24. Right now, the real contest is between businessman Khairat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate; Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a Salafi Islamist who may be disqualified amid reports his mother took American citizenship before her death; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a more liberal Islamist who was expelled from the Brotherhood; and Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister. The key word is “legally.”

The Brotherhood, which holds almost half the seats in Parliament, is up in arms over Suleiman’s candidacy (“I consider his entry an insult to the revolution and the Egyptian people,” Shater told Reuters), but its leaders were more than happy to negotiate with Suleiman during the uprising.

The months since then have been violent and traumatic. When armored vehicles crushed to death Coptic Christians demonstrating peacefully against attacks on their churches, state television claimed it was they who fired on the army. When more than 70 Cairo soccer fans – rabid opponents of Egypt’s brutal Interior Ministry – were massacred in a stadium in Port Said, police stood by and did nothing. The physical toll obscures deeper injuries to the spirit.

Some Americans may feel uncomfortable with the ideology of Egypt’s presidential frontrunners. That’s too bad. As much as anything, democracy is about the right of the people to make mistakes at the ballot box, and the right to correct those errors the next time around.

Very soon, Egyptians will choose a president to chart the frightful and promising future. They may choose right and they might choose wrong. But they will surely leave behind the monsters of the past.

Dan Morrison is author of The Black Nile.

The views expressed in this guest blog are those of Dan Morrison and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are invited to comment, so long as their tone is civil and their comments are on topic. Please read our rules of conduct.

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Meet the Author

Dan Morrison
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.