Presidential candidates are hard to reach. But they are even harder when they’re attempting to sway public opinion that associates them with the previous regime and dealing with a Parliament decision that might have them expelled from the race altogether.
So it is an understatement to say that I wasn’t exactly optimistic when I started chasing Ahmed Shafik for an interview.
I started my stalking nice and early late last January to have him in for the May issue — yes, we do plan that far ahead. I attended an industry conference to get a lead on his campaign, and I did. So after months of chasing the campaign team and scores of nudging texts later, we finally got the interview. Did I mention that about four other people from our magazines were co-nagging to get the interview?
We were scheduled to meet him on Easter weekend — to my surprise, politicians don’t actually get to take a long weekend off before elections. So, of course, all my beach plans were gladly canceled; how many times do you get to interview someone who might be Egypt’s president? I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to brag to future generations about interviewing our president.
But on Thursday, Parliament approved a law that might have expelled Shafik from the race. Sure, I have tremendous respect for the man and would absolutely love to meet him, but I really didn’t want to ruin my long weekend in vain. Any candidate in his place would have definitely cancelled on us or at least rescheduled. So I double-checked with his campaign team, who confirmed the schedule was on as normal — the man didn’t seem to be fazed by something that might end his bid.
I was told that Shafik followed serious military timing and was never late for an appointment. So I made my way to his campaign’s premises in Dokki early — of course the city was half empty and I got there about 90 minutes before my interview. Not wanting to look too eager, I circled the block a few times until my colleagues got there. Then we headed to his office.
I was worried I might get lost, but the big white stylish villa couldn’t really be missed. A smiling security guard welcomed us, and we stepped into the premises. I have to say, I was surprised. This was nothing like the dreary military offices I had seen before — there was no sign of office furniture, no white and gray color schemes and nothing that shouted out formal and serious military candidate. The two-story villa was fancy to say the least. The interior was neoclassic and carefully chosen to show taste and grandeur —the fanciness was a tad intimidating, to be honest.
Two young women greeted us and offered us tea and coffee, ushering us into the room where the interview would take place. We still had an hour to go, so we sat down and chatted with the media team. Unlike what I expected, his team was overwhelmingly young and mostly composed of women — a pleasant surprise given his military background.
Two hours and about a dozen different conversations later, Shafik finally made it to the headquarters — a good thing since topics for conversation were about to run out. The presidential candidate came in dressed in an immaculate black suit and before anything, told us he was sorry for being late but that it was out of his hands. He then went on to greet everyone in the room and made his way to his chair for the interview. He was calm, composed and spoke easily. He rarely reacted emotionally — save for a slightly irritated answer when I asked him why people should give him a second chance and quizzed him on what more he could offer that he couldn’t offer as prime minister — but spoke naturally and without much reservation. He called me “my dear daughter” quite naturally and jokingly told me to buzz off when I asked him for 10 more minutes at the end of our meeting to make up for the long wait. But then he laughed and told me to go on with my questions.
He was unreserved and spoke at ease, and during a break from the interview, he jokingly told me “ana mesh mertahlek,” or “I don’t trust you.” But his true character showed more during the break, where he spoke off the record freely and openly and wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts on sensitive topics, which made him seem closer and more approachable to me.
Shafik’s attitude might be misinterpreted or come across as too patriarchal for some, but to me, he instantly seemed like a father figure that I was at ease with. He again called me “my dear girl” and patted me on the back on my way out and wasn’t afraid to crack a joke during the interview. He seemed surprisingly natural and closer to the heart than he appears on television.
In the interest of full disclosure, I walked into the interview already respecting Shafik. But that only makes it harder as he had an image to live up to. So I can confidently say, and with all the objectivity I can muster, that I was all the more impressed by the man’s attitude, vision and plans. It is a shame that the personality I saw during the interview isn’t the one that always comes across on television.