| My managing editors and I reached Garden City, one of Cairo's older and affluent residential areas originally designed by the British, at 4 pm — an hour before our interview with presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abolfotoh.Our mood was a mix of excitement and anxiety; in just about 60 minutes we were going to meet someone who might well become Egypt’s next president. We had been trying to get this interview for the last three months as part of our special presidential issue that we were planning for May, when the presidential elections would be held. We — like every other Egyptian — wanted to know who each candidate was and what they were offering Egypt and Abolfotoh's name had always been among the top contenders. Even though visual media is paramount to our publication, we were not allowed to bring along a photographer or camera crew and even though we pushed hard for it, we let it go in the end, and it's a good thing we did.
We got out of the car in the middle of a narrow street lined with cars on both sides and walked around the corner to the entrance of the building where we bumped into a four-man team who we later found out were from the Wall Street Journal and had been interviewing Abolfotoh upstairs.
We were early so we decided to hang back in the building's foyer to calm ourselves down and go over our questions one more time until we could reach Abolfotoh's media campaign manager on the phone.
A few minutes later, he called us back. He had just finished a meeting and was waiting for us on the thirteenth floor. He met us in the reception area and led us into a small meeting room where we sat down and shared the table with other campaign staff.
Abolfotoh's campaign had just issued a 40+ page booklet outlining his electoral platform so we had decided amongst ourselves that we would cut to the chase and ask him the questions that he hadn't answered in this booklet.
Sipping our lemonades, we discussed the presidential hopeful's history with his campaign manager. Then it was go-time.
As we entered Abolfotoh's all-white office, we were initially taken aback by the stark difference between his space and that of the rest of his campaign office. The colors of the flag contrasted quite elegantly with the crisp whiteness of his desk which faced a long, white meeting-room table. A white modern Islamic motif sliding door hid what was probably his sanctuary. The hardwood floors and the golden-beige calligraphy curtains added a nice touch to an overall elegant office which definitely exuded a more peaceful vibe compared to the hustle and bustle of the offices downstairs.
We heard footsteps as Abolfotoh entered the room, appearing as a man of much bigger build than we had imagined. After exchanging courteous hellos we sat down to start our interview — little did we know that two minutes in, our hours of anticipation and anxiety would turn into flat-out disappointment.
After the pleasantries we started with a question, which we were pretty sure everyone was interested in asking: his differences with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abolfotoh's smile disappeared immediately and he gave us an agitated answer which set a tense mood for the rest of the interview.
“What do you mean my position on Ikhwan? Just like my position with any other party; they are a political party that functions in this country and I wish them all the best of luck.”
It was downhill from there and it became immediately clear to us that Abolfotoh had made up his mind not to give us the interview that we were looking for. We switched tack and tried asking a question about the army and the candidate's thoughts on a united budget but were met with a sarcastic smile and a question: “Are you the journalists of conflicts?”
After 10 minutes of vague answers, Abolfotoh thanked us for coming, bringing the meeting to a close. Grappling for a lifeline, I urged him to answer one more question about Egypt’s foreign policies and his intention to revise the Camp David treaty. “We will revise our treaty with Israel and if there’s anything that needs to be changed, we will change it,” he replied. He then stood up, assertively ending the interview and left. I had managed to bring our total time with the presidential hopeful to a mere 12 minutes.
We looked at each other in disbelief as we were ushered out by the apologetic media campaign manager who similarly seemed confused as to what had just happened.
In this new age of supposed democracy and transparency that Egypt is going through, it was hard to accept that someone who was running for the presidency of this country chose not to answer our questions and accused us of trying to raise issues of conflict. Asking any question can’t be wrong — that's what journalists do.
A few days later when Abolfotoh appeared on different television channels and answered the same questions we had asked but in a more poised manner, we were left with one of two conclusions: Our encounter with him highlighted a flaw that the campaign managers moved to quickly rectify or that something about our three-woman party did not sit well with him.