Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has won an inevitable second term—but his strongman approach could yet come back to bite himby Ruth Michaelson / April 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
The banners liberally slung around the streets of downtown Cairo made clear that there was an election happening. But voters had to look hard to know that anyone other than president Abdel-Fatah al Sisi was running.
One restaurant owner, a famed purveyor of the local delicacy koshary, could have easily been confused for a political candidate given how often his smiling face was shown on those banners signalling support for Sisi. In Tahrir Square, once the site of famed public protest, a screen played Sisi’s speeches and footage of military battles in the Sinai Peninsula. It was surrounded by two illuminated star-shaped photos of the strongman leader’s smiling face.
Yet politics were absent from this election, which took place last week. Sisi and his regime portrayed the vote as a ballot to demonstrate confidence in the Egyptian state and its projects, rather than a vote for a candidate or policy of any kind. There were no debates, a choice endorsed by the only other candidate Moussa Moustafa Moussa, who declared: “I am not here to challenge the president.” The state begged and in some cases bribed citizens to turn out to vote, with widespread reports of incentives such as improved sanitation and water resources offered for districts with the highest turnout in one governorate, or even food or cash incentives for citizens to go to the ballot box. But there were no suggestions as to what a vote for Sisi really meant for the average citizen.
Moussa, who in addition to being Sisi’s sole competitor has been a longtime public supporter of the president, proposed policies carefully fine-tuned to avoid anything that looked like a criticism of the president’s first term in office. He focused instead on the congestion in Cairo or redistributing shares in previously shuttered factories. Voters who went to the polls at the end of March spoke of voting as their patriotic duty, a literal vote of confidence in their country—but not a choice, or a democratic action. Some voters, especially those from Egypt’s large working class, privately expressed concerns that despite Sisi’s inevitable victory, declining to show support at the ballot box could result in punishment. On the third day of voting amid pictures of empty polling stations on Egyptian television, the government threatened non-voters with a fine equivalent to £20, a huge sum for the large percentage of Egypt’s population living in relative poverty, though implementing such a fine with an estimated 59m eligible voters could prove tougher…