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 than holding the vote itself.
“This was a battle for the love of Egypt,” announced the head of the National Election Authority, judge Lashen Ibrahim, during a press conference to announce the results. Sisi secured 97.08 per cent, a fraction of a per cent more than his previous victory in 2014 where he won 96.9 per cent of votes. Turnout had dropped four percentage points to 41.5 per cent. But perhaps most surprising of all was the over 1.7m voters who had spoiled their ballots, making up 7.27 per cent of the overall result. Pictures of these ballots circulated on social media, with frequent jokes about writing in the name of famed Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah. It is little surprise that some voters chose to spoil their ballots by creating additional fictional candidates, after five potential candidates representing a genuine challenge to Sisi’s rule were all prevented from running.
“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”
So far, there are few indications that Sisi will seek to anoint a successor during his second term. Instead, he is expected to amend the Egyptian constitution to remove term limits and thus become “president for life” in a similar manner to Chinese premier Xi Jinping and—some fear—Russian president Vladimir Putin, both supporters of his rule. But a long-term Sisi presidency primarily promises a regime curiously devoid of ideology or political thought, save for the paranoid rumblings of a security state. In Sisi’s Egypt, even the blandest public political statement is made revolutionary, in a society where politics have long been banished from public space.
“This is a return to the paternalistic structure of government we’ve long witnessed in Egypt, in which the state demands obedience from the population in exchange for minimal support—and with the justification that it knows best and the people are ill suited to determine their own fate,” said Timothy E Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “It has been undertaken to deny the public any say in governance while also preventing any structure of accountability over the government from taking hold.”
But stamping out politics from public space could prove to be a driver of resistance. Sisi’s likely push to amend the constitution is set to create friction, even from his supporters. Further expected economic reforms, including unpopular subsidy cuts, have stirred rumblings of discontent from Egypt’s poorest. Sisi can no longer rely on his faded cult of personality after a term in office that has brought many unwelcome changes to the life of the average Egyptian.
In a victory speech, Sisi promised to continue working for Egyptians’ stability, development and “quality of life.” But the calls for more changes in his second term began not long after. Famed late-night anchor Lamees Elhadidy, normally a staunchly-pro government voice, dedicated her show to discussing the need for the country to allow more active political parties, and perhaps even release some political prisoners. Politics can only be absent for so long.