Egypt’s ‘election economy’ brings in work, money

Friday 09/10/2015
Egyptian calligrapher Nour Mabrouk at work

CAIRO - With polls due to open on October 17th, these are busy days for 48-year-old Egyptian calligra­pher Nour Mabrouk, who is try­ing to make up for months of slow business with a deluge of orders for election posters painted the tradi­tional way with brush on canvas.
“This is the high season for peo­ple like me,” Mabrouk said. “It is probably the time of the year when I receive enough work to compensate the recession of other days.”
Mabrouk and thousands of other Egyptians are part of what can be called the “election economy”, one that only thrives during the cam­paign season.
The advent of elections brings such people work and profits that make up for the tough times they often endure other days. Calligra­phers such as Mabrouk are usually at the centre of election propaganda in this country of 90 million. When this election season dawns, they do everything possible with their brushes and canvases to fill their wallets.
“Although these people are part of an invisible economy, I can easily say that they make a lot of money during the elections,” economist Rashad Abdo said. “They write a sizeable portion of election banners and this brings them profits.”
Egypt is expected to hold the first phase of its parliamentary elec­tions, the first after the army’s over­throw of Islamist president Muham­mad Morsi in July 2013, on October 17th. The second phase is slated for late November.
The independent elections com­mission accepted the applications of 5,424 independent candidates, who will be contesting 80% of the parliamentary seats and nine po­litical party lists, whose candidates will be contesting the remaining 20%.
With every independent candi­date having an election propaganda spending limit of 500,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $62,500), there is a potential combined election propaganda budget of not less than 2.7 trillion pounds (around $339 million), supposing that each inde­pendent candidate will spend the 500,000 pounds on his or her cam­paign.
Some of this money should end up in Mabrouk’s hands. He prepares for the election season beforehand by hiring junior calligraphers and buying huge amounts of fabrics and colours. He then starts contacting candidates and offers his services.
His clients range from the famous to the very obscure and includes po­litical newcomers.
He says he does his best to pro­duce the attention-grabbing elec­tion banners, ones that end up on the streets of Cairo. Some candi­dates from other provinces also ask him to write their election propa­ganda materials.
“I hope there are elections every day,” Mabrouk said.
Egypt had five nationwide votes during the past four years, includ­ing a referendum on a revised ver­sion of the 2012 constitution and presidential elections in 2014.
These votes gave Mabrouk and people like him plenty of work, but his country’s subsequent turmoil-induced recession cost him busi­ness.
When there are no elections, Ma­brouk receives requests for writing school banners and those used in the elections of professional unions and sports clubs.
Despite this business, he is part of a profession being killed off by com­puter printing and high-tech media tools. Most of the election banners these days are designed, written and printed by computer.
“I have been doing this job for 28 years now,” said a bespectacled Ma­brouk. “I can easily notice declin­ing demand on what I do year after year.”
The growing prices of hand-writ­ten materials as opposed to the low cost of computer-printed materials also contribute to less demand for calligraphers, according to Ashraf Khairi, the head of the printing sec­tion at the Egyptian Industries Fed­eration.
He said a computer designer takes less time to write an election banner and printing is also much quicker.
“This means that a very large number of computer-written and printed banners can be produced every day,” Khairi said. “Technol­ogy has made things easier, more accurate and faster.”
He said a computer-printed ban­ner can cost less than 50 Egyptian pounds (about $6.20). Mabrouk charges his clients 50% more be­cause he includes the cost of the fabrics and paint and the time he spends in writing the banner.
While competition is increas­ing, Mabrouk did not want to think about the future. He preferred to focus on his work. Mabrouk applied his brush to a white fabric he placed on the wall in front of him and start­ed writing the name of one of the parliamentary candidates.
“The elections give me the things I want the most in life: work and money,” he said. “These are two things I scarcely find on other days.”