Egyptians nominate President Morsi to be blasted into outer space


This is what Morsi's profile on the Axe space contest page looked like before it was pulled. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Whatever you think of the efficacy of Egypt's liberal protest movement, which played a major role in the 2011 revolution but has since largely failed to organize politically, its sense of humor is beyond reproach.

It started when Axe Cosmetics, yes the company behind the spray deodorant, opened a contest to attend a "space academy" in Florida, which would maybe even end with a brief trip into actual outer space. The way that contest works is that anyone can fill out a profile on the company's Web site and then go out to solicit votes, thus driving traffic to the Axe Web site. Whoever receives the most votes wins the free trip to space camp.

Some Egyptian activists, increasingly unhappy with the leadership of their Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, saw an opportunity. The April 6 youth movement, a liberal grassroots group that formed back in 2008 when mass organizing and protest was forbidden and often dangerous, announced it was nominating Morsi for the Axe contest. The group even created a profile for him and deployed its substantial online organizing tools to solicit votes.

"We made an account for President Morsi on this Web site and if he gets your vote he will travel to the moon and govern them there," April 6 announced on its Facebook page last week, according to the New York Times' translation. Their nomination was the start, they said, of a "popular campaign to send Morsi behind the sun."

Egyptians on social media, whom anecdotally seem to be largely of the liberal secular activist persuasion, tweeted tongue-in-cheek that they were proud to have exercised their democratic right in the contest. Many used the hashtag #Send MorsiToTheMoon.

By Friday, Morsi was leading the contest with tens of thousands of votes. His victory seemed all but assured. The grassroots youth of Egypt, it turns out, knew how to win an election after all. But, sometime between Friday and Monday, Axe appears to have removed Morsi from the leaderboard, the democratic intentions of the Egyptian people dismissed by a higher authority's unwanted intervention. It must have felt familiar.

Still, most of the top vote-winners in the Axe competition appear to be Egyptian. Most of them carry the names of people whose participation in the contest would not be outlandish: Egyptian world-traveler Ahmed Haggagovic, for example, and Egyptian mountain-climber Omar Samra. But ranked seventh with 641 votes is Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an Egyptian Islamist politician with the ultra-conservative Salafist movements. Presumably, he is not actually seeking a trip to Florida and possibly the cosmos.

It is a remote but real possibility, as the Times points out, that Morsi might be disappointed to learn that he's been pulled from the grassroots campaign to send him into space. He has expressed an odd but apparently earnest passion for "Planet of the Apes" and may or may not have had some past affiliation with NASA while he was a graduate student in the U.S., a point of controversy in the Egyptian media.

I have not yet heard back from Unilever, which owns Axe, on why Morsi was pulled from the competition. I'll update if I get a response.

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Max Fisher · February 25, 2013