First published in the New Internationalist on May 30th
As polling booths closed late last night, Egyptians ticked off yet another election. This has been the country’s second presidential election in as many years, and the 7th time Egyptians had been sent to the polling booths in just over 3 years. Democracy by way of the ballot box abounds. Yet the only reason these elections could even be called ‘democratic’ was down to one man, the Nasserist opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.
With early results from the elections trickling out, the inevitable looks to be confirmed: ex-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next President with a landslide majority, while his only opposition is left far adrift with just a single-digit percentage of the ballots. Yet while the result itself is as expected, the turnout and build up to the election was anything but.
The idea of campaigning against the man considered by many as the “saviour of Egypt” would be a hard, if not impossible, task. Sisi had, after all, been the “hero” who removed the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi – this was a common sentiment from voters I spoke to. Other potential candidates quickly opted out of the race, either out of reverence to Sisi, or citing the impossibility of competing in what was termed a “state of fear”.
Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year hundreds of his supporters have been killed. Over a thousand more have been sentenced to death in the courts. Journalists have been targeted and harassed. Activists and members of youth groups have been imprisoned after the passing of a draconian protest law. The message was clear: dissent and opposition will not be tolerated, and the same seemed to apply with the elections.
So when Sabahi announced his candidacy, he was met with accusations of delusion and backroom cooperation from a fragmented opposition bloc. There was no way he could possibly win, and by competing he was simply bestowing a veneer of democracy to what was a practical coronation.
Travelling around Cairo, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one candidate. Sisi’s face beams down from posters and billboards, while Sabahi is apparently neither seen nor heard. Yet out of the two, it was Sabahi who embraced the campaign period with gusto, while Sisi himself eschewed nearly all forms of electioneering. Ostensibly due to security issues, the three-week campaigning period ended without Sisi making a single public appearance.
In the first week of campaigning, Sabahi’s headquarters was abuzz with young volunteers oozing an infectious confidence. The walls were littered with posters of Martyrs from the previous three years revolting, in keeping with the image that Sabahi was trying to portray: he was the candidate of the youth and the revolution.
This belief was apparent in his team, and a sole objective was clearly stated. Ehab Ghobashy, an organiser in Sabahi’s ‘Street Committee’ who referred to his candidate only as “the President”, held, if anything, a hubristic view as to who would win the elections. “You wait and see, our President will win.” He would say with a smile, reasoning apparently superfluous to his “good feeling”.
Further up the campaign echelon, a more pragmatic approach was taken, but the singular hope was still that, with the correct strategy, Sabahi would somehow win. “We are targeting the youth [18-39], they make up 60% of the voting bloc” explained Hussein Qorshum, head of the communications committee. “When we travel, we hit the areas we know we have support and tailor our speeches to address the needs of the people there. This is how we will win – with our policies. Sisi speaks of energy saving light bulbs? We talk of solar power!”
However, as the campaign dragged on, the cracks started to show, literally. The campaign was working on a laughably small budget and that much was clear to anyone watching. Mid way through the campaigning, Sisi’s team had spent LE 12 million (£1,003,400) including renting a private jet that purportedly cost them £7,500. In the same period, Sabahi’s director of advertising stated they had spent just LE 100,000 (£8,362).
It was a picture of forced frugality. A great deal of their resources were drawn from Sabahi’s failed 2012 presidential bid. Slogans, songs, posters and t-shirts from two years prior were all dusted off and brought back to life. The campaign team didn’t even have a security officer, as, according to their secretary of the political relations committee, they “can’t afford one”.
The young team of volunteers found themselves harassed, assaulted, arrested and impeded in their work by both pro-Sisi civilians and policemen. “Just two days ago, we had trouble in Mahalla,” said Ahmed Dowayik, a 22 year-old volunteer with Sabahi. “They tried to stop our bus and pull us out but we just quickly drove out.” He shrugs when asked who they were. “They were dressed like civilians, but you never know. The police just watched it all happen and did nothing.”
As the campaigning neared its end, it was noticeable that Sabahi’s team were trying to shift the goalposts. The main objective remained the triumph of their candidate, but another aim suddenly came to carry great importance too. “What’s most important for us is the spirit of youth.” Said Mohamed Aziz, a prominent organiser with the campaign.
As one of the cofounders of the Tamarod movement that brought about the fall of Morsi, Aziz knows what a successful campaign feels like, and the day after campaigning was finished, he was expert in avoiding a straight answer as to possible success in the elections. “We’ve gained some ground and we’ve trained a lot of the youth in the democratic way. The thousands that volunteered for us, work with us, the spirit of hope for a young crowd that believes in a democratic state, for me this is the most important thing.”
Yet on the day, the brutal reality in the turnout of the elections would have left both candidates disappointed. While Sabahi had hoped for some success among the younger voters, Sisi had called for record voter participation, thus providing proof of his popular mandate. The first days showing was so poor that it prompted an angry reproach from local television personalities. The youth were particularly conspicuous in their absence.
On the second, and what should have been the final day’s voting, the turnout was hardly better, despite the best efforts of the state. Non-voters were threatened with fines (voting is mandatory in Egypt, but this is never observed); a popular shopping mall was closed early; and the day was proclaimed a national holiday. One studies centre put the turnout over the two days at a staggeringly low 7.5%. Then, late on Tuesday, a desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day. The latest state figures now put the overall turnout at between 38 and 59 percent of voters.
The events of the polling period seemed to exactly mirror an earlier episode during the elections. On a trip to Benha, a group of Sabahi volunteers careened around corners in their campaign minibus, blasting songs and handing out posters. The occasional onlooker smiled and the occasional onlooker gave a thumbs down, but the vast majority watched on with complete indifference, instead returning to whatever they were doing, as if nothing had happened. As if nothing had changed.