Egypt’s new president, military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has handily won the election, but voter turnout was much lower than expected. Are Egyptians losing faith in him? Journalist Vickie Smiles reports from Alexandria.
As expected, Egypt finally has a new civilian president in former army chief and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man most responsible for orchestrating the bloody demise of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
But unlike Morsi, who was dumped last July after huge protests, a Sisi-engineered takeover and a road map for democracy, it’s back to the future with a military strongman in residence at the Presidential Palace, just like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
This week’s vote was a crushing blow to Egypt’s self-assured 59-year-old Sisi, with an unexpected low turnout at the two-day run-off against leftist competitor Hamdeen Sabahi compelling authorities to extend voting for a third day.
Preliminary results by the Presidential Commission (PEC) on Thursday showed turnout reached 47.3%, but Sabahi said: “I say to the people whom I respect: We discredit these numbers, we will not give credibility to the declared turnout numbers. These numbers are an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence.”
Sisi sweets, jewellery, pyjamas, and all manner of paraphernalia could equally turn one’s head, so the perceived lower turnout, even with the extra day of voting, may encourage the implementation of more compassionate and effective polices to restart a distressed and neglected economy. Sisi won 90% support from those who did vote over the two days.
Sisi’s campaign managers (some who have never met him) justified his lack of articulated policies by saying they were too complicated to explain and that he didn’t really need to talk about such things. His TV interviews were also pre-recorded and reportedly edited in his favour.
Nobody ever expected Sabahi to win, and the vote count will likely show he came third after spoiled ballots, but Sisi was hoping for a landslide (40 out of 53 million registered voters). But when voting began last Monday some polling stations were like vacant lots while others seemed dominated by the many women who’ve come to view the man as a saviour and matinee idol.
Even the catchy election song A Good Omen (Boshret Kheir) For Democracy failed to excite the masses, despite its relentless playing on television, in cafes and at deafening volumes on oversized car speakers throughout Egypt.
By Tuesday night, when panic set in and the controversial vote extension was announced, Egypt’s pro-Sisi media made frenzied calls for the laggards to get out and vote on Wednesday, blaming apathy, the hot weather, the public holiday declared on Tuesday to make voting easier and Morsi supporters for allegedly paying voters to boycott the election.
“People are being lazy,” said one TV commentator. “The one who’s slouched back, and the one who’s got a fan and, excuse me, sitting in his white dish-dash and can’t be bothered and the one who’s got the air-conditioner on, I swear to God I’ll tell them to cut off the electricity tomorrow in all the homes, so that the air-conditioners don’t work so that people will go down to the streets.”
“Every business owner, if he’s letting people off work, he has the right to see your finger when you get back,” said a third, referring to the pink stain applied after voting. “I’m willing to cut my veins for the country!” he continued. “Right now, on air for people to go down and vote.” He didn’t, of course.
But while the song played on, Wednesday came and went and voters held their boycott or remained elusive, although some turned up to avoid a threatened 500 EGP ($70) fine.
Another commentator said: “When the Field Marshal [Sisi] asked people to come down on the 24th July , around 40 million came down. What happened?” (Crowd sizing experts at the time said that such figures were impossible, with some citing as low as 6 million across the entire country.)
Whatever the numbers, Sisi got his mandate to fight terrorism, which had been his key campaign platform. Terrorism, barely mentioned before, was front and centre during last year’s ouster of Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood was said to be its cause, blamed even for deaths of its own members (up to a thousand) after the brutal August 14, 2013, eviction by Egyptian army and police forces from the Rabaa-al-Adawiya Mosque and Nahda Square sit-ins in Cairo.
Collective denial left few shocked by the bodies lined up in makeshift morgues, but protests, violence, imprisonment, alleged torture and death continued even after an anti-protest law began sweeping thousands of innocent youth off the streets into cramped cells in police stations and prisons nationwide. An estimated 16,000 have been arrested since last July.
Defending the protest law Sisi said: “The existing dangers to the Egyptian state are much bigger than a discussion of the protest law. Anybody who thinks otherwise wants to destroy Egypt.”
Local and foreign journalists have also been threatened, attacked and jailed, including Australia’s Peter Greste, working for Al Jazeera, who has been languishing in prison since December 29.
The Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation in December and banned forever, according to Sisi, but there were more shocks to come last month when in just two mass trials, military courts sentenced 1212 people to death, including the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. While most of the sentences will not be carried out (37 of the first case of 529 were upheld), the alternative is life imprisonment.
But the tide is turning now, with more and more families touched by recent strife in Egypt, a factor that might explain the peculiar voting pattern of this week’s election. Some may remember the “virginity tests” carried out on 17 women detained and beaten by soldiers at an anti-Mubarak protest in 2011, which Sisi said had been done to “to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape”.
It’s not unusual for an Egyptian to have up to 30 or more cousins, and within this extended group there’s a cocktail of jobs, careers, professions and religious affiliations both weak and strong, and of course family members belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Any supporter of the Brotherhood who has been suffering on the streets has been suffering tenfold at home.
People want jobs, security, better health and education. None have been forthcoming since a peaceful revolution began on January 25, 2011. More than 800 died then for bread, freedom and justice, and those who didn’t have been left empty-handed.
More than three years on, Sisi is still asking them to sacrifice their demands for Egypt.
How long Sisi lasts depends on whether Egyptians can accept the result and wait four years for the next election. They had military support for getting shot of both Mubarak and Morsi, but this time the president has the military’s blessing.