Sisi’s Big Day Is a Bust

The Egyptian election was supposed to bring the former Army chief to office on a massive wave of popular support. So why did so many voters stay home?

Photo: Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images
Photo: Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images

CAIRO — Former Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi faced the first setback of his effort to consolidate power in Cairo, as voter turnout in the election that was widely expected to bring him to the presidency was reportedly anemic. Despite widespread reports of empty polling stations throughout the country, the Egyptian government took the unusual step of extending the ballot into a third day in an attempt to drum up more voters.

Sisi has touted the importance of overwhelming public participation as vital to confirming the Egyptian people’s endorsement of the new political order that followed President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster last summer and to giving the incoming president a mandate to rule. The former Army chief said in an interview aired on Egyptian television that he hoped 40 million people, or roughly 75 percent of registered voters, would go to the polls. Both the Sisi campaign and that of his sole challenger, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, objected to the extension of the vote.

In an email to reporters on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 27, the second day of voting, the Sabahi campaign estimated that turnout stood at between 10 and 15 percent. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, an independent NGO in Cairo, also estimated turnout at 15 percent after the first day of voting. If the turnout is anywhere close to those numbers, it will be far below what Sisi’s supporters were hoping for.

"I hope that there will be a majority of voters that will have gone to participate," Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister who serves as an advisor to Sisi, told Foreign Policy on Monday. "It’s not a usual period; it’s an exceptional one. We have a major, major crisis.… So all citizens should join and participate and contribute."

Over the past two days, the Egyptian government has pulled out all the tricks at its disposal to boost turnout. After the first day of voting, it declared Tuesday to be a national holiday, freeing state employees to head to the ballot box. Egypt’s Transport Ministry made the trains free to make it easy for voters to travel to polling stations, and some of Cairo’s largest malls shut down early so patrons and employees could go vote. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, meanwhile, threatened to fine registered voters who abstained from casting a vote.

The reason for voter apathy, however, may be inherent in the campaign itself. Sisi’s victory has appeared inevitable for months — he had already been meeting with foreign delegations even before the formality of the election. Moreover, the career military man ran a campaign that was almost completely absent of policy details, giving even voters inclined to support him little idea of how he would govern the country.

"A new Egypt. Back to discipline. Back to production. Back to moving ahead. And an end to chaos," explained Moussa, when asked to describe Sisi’s message to voters. "The implementation of the Constitution. Democracy. There are so many messages — development, social justice."

There are precious few specifics, however, on how to attain those goals. For example, Sisi’s 16-point presidential platform, which is drawn from the candidate’s promises during his recent TV interviews, fluctuates between exceedingly specific and totally abstract. One point, for example, calls for the construction of 22 new industrial cities and 25 other cities and resorts, without offering any information on how the construction will be funded or where the cities will be built. Another point advocates "offer[ing] material and moral support to the teachers for resolving their problems," without describing what that may mean in practice.

Sisi hinted at this low-profile strategy when he announced his candidacy in March, saying that he would not run a "traditional" campaign. He has more than lived up to that promise. He has not made any public appearances, due to what military officials and his supporters describe as serious security threats presented by the Muslim Brotherhood. He also declined to debate Sabahi, and he oversaw a campaign team that rarely engaged with the public or the media. The campaign is headed by Mahmoud Karem, a former Egyptian ambassador, and has received counsel from Moussa and other political figures — but it is unclear whether these are the figures whom Sisi will rely on as advisors once, inevitably, in office.

In the absence of a clear ideology, the focus of the Sisi campaign has turned to his personal virtues. His face dots posters across Cairo, sometimes with a lion or the pyramids as a backdrop. "Men who made history," blares a red headline of one banner near downtown Cairo, below a trinity of Egyptian military leaders — former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, former President Anwar Sadat, and Sisi.

"There is this popular hypnosis about Sisi — that he’s a savior, that he can repair the country, that he’s a legendary figure," says Ashraf El-Sherif, a professor of comparative politics at the American University in Cairo. "This idea will be tested very soon, when he comes to power."

Although Sisi is still guaranteed to ascend to the presidency, those personality-centered appeals now appear unsuccessful at generating the overwhelming public mandate that he hoped for. What’s more, his persistent vagueness about his plans in office means that it still remains a mystery how exactly he will combat the country’s daunting economic and social challenges.

The rhetoric coming from his camp, if not yet his policies, suggests grand changes are afoot. Moussa described Egypt as entering a "Third Republic," distinct both from the reigns of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, as well as from the one-year experiment in Muslim Brotherhood rule.

"In 2011, the goal was to bring the regime down. Now, our task is to establish a new regime," Moussa said. "This time is the time of construction."

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The less-than-overwhelming enthusiasm for the election — as well as alleged electoral violations committed over the past two days — could also catalyze opposition from groups that had previously seem prepared to work within the rules of the political game. The Sabahi campaign in particular has increased its criticism of the process, alleging that the state was throwing its weight behind Sisi.

On Monday, the campaign said that it had "monitored systematic violations" by police and Army officers. It cited locations where its delegates were denied access to polling stations or were prevented from filing complaints, and instances where its delegates had witnessed military vehicles being used to campaign for Sisi, or where voters had been directed to cast their ballot for a particular candidate. On Tuesday, the campaign objected to the extension of the vote, which it said "raises logical doubts among the voters regarding the integrity of the whole process."

In contrast to Sisi, Sabahi ran an energetic campaign that crisscrossed the country in an attempt to drum up enthusiasm for his dark-horse candidacy. While many considered his effort a lost cause, he consistently rebutted claims that the state would not let him win.

"We have these three myths that are being propagated by the same people who would benefit from them," he told Foreign Policy last week, while flying on a commercial jet to campaign in the Upper Egypt city of Sohag. "The first one is that the elec
tion is predetermined. The second one is that even if Hamdeen has popularity," he said, referring to himself in the third person, "the election will be forged. And the last one is that even if Hamdeen wins, the state institutions won’t work with him and he will be a failure."

The candidate cheerily took pictures and chatted with supporters who approached his seat. He gave no indication that he knew he was fighting a losing battle. When complimented on his number of supporters on the plane, he shrugged and smiled: "I am the next president."

While Sabahi admitted that state institutions would be biased in favor of Sisi, he demanded that the election not be tainted by outright forgery. How far he will push his criticisms of the electoral process in light of the past two days will be an important barometer of the government’s stability.

For now, Sisi must find a way to energize voters more concerned with their day-to-day struggles than the presidential election. His old Islamist enemies, after all, are down but not out. In Sohag, the capital of a governorate that gave 58 percent of its votes to Morsi in the second round of the last presidential election, the Muslim Brotherhood appeared far from defeated: Faded Morsi posters still line the streets, while hastily scrawled graffiti reads: "Sisi is a killer" and "Egypt is Islamic."

Whether Sisi can heal the divisions implicit in those words and rebuild the country’s tattered economy will determine whether he will become the heroic figure his supporters claim him to be or whether he will succumb to the political turmoil that has swept out two presidents in three years. If he fails to inspire Egyptians that he can bring a better future, another leader may well try to step in and fill that role.

"When Morsi was ousted, OK, at least we knew we had the military to replace him," American University in Cairo’s Sherif said, miming the action of slapping down a card on the table. "But if the Muslim Brotherhood fails, and then the military fails, who could come next?"

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