Five messages Sisi must hear
Egypt’s presidential election is another blunder on the road map. The first was the trumped up results of the constitutional referendum that the military-backed regime set at 98% approval, a clear reminiscent of the old authoritarian ways. The current presidential election too has been geared to ensure the victory of the July coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The process misses basic requisites of credibility: meaningful competition, free environment, neutrality of state institutions, and disappointedly to Sisi - a necessary turnout to confer legitimacy on the new regime and provide him with a strong mandate to rise as Egypt’s new pharaoh. As expected, he received a landslide victory, but a bitter one.
The military backed regime and its one-sided media machine did its best, including begging people to vote, extortion and threats of fines, to convince Egyptians to make an overwhelming turnout. This message was directed more to the US and the EU to prove the popularity of the coup leader and facilitate their full recognition of the new regime.
Egyptians, particularly the country’s youth and opponents to the return of an authoritarian police state, boycotted the election. They disappointed Sisi, who expected 40 million people to vote. Instead he got less than 15% turnout as confirmed by independent observers. The low turnout set the pro-coup media machine up in arms calling hysterically upon all Egyptians to save the day and the “beloved” general. More importantly, the low participation rate sends five strong messages to Sisi and his regional and Western backers.
1. Inflated popularity
The low turnout in the first two days of the elections revealed that the Sisi-mania that has swept Egypt for the past 10 months since the military coup was nothing but an orchestrated and inflated media stunt that does not reflect the realities of the country’s political landscape. Whatever popularity Sisi possesses, it does not rest on a solid constituency, but on diverse social segments with contradictory interests.
These include remnants of the old regime, segments of Christian Copts, and primarily citizens who initially supported him in hope for “stability” and economic recovery, but couldn’t care less about democracy or freedoms. It is now clear that Sisi has lost a good number of these elements who were not moved to go and vote for him. In short, his base of support might have been loud, as the media made them, but not large or committed enough.
2. Questionable legitimacy
The low turnout sends a clear signal that the field marshal’s legitimacy is going to be challenged no matter what his winning percentage will be. The alleged 30 million Egyptians who have participated in the 30 June demonstrations and the similar figure who took to the streets on 26 July in response to Sisi’s request for a “mandate” to fight potential terrorism vanished leaving everyone wondering where they went.
The wide boycott or apathy for the elections is yet another indication of the deep polarization the coup has inflicted on Egyptian society. The boycott went beyond the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists to include youth, the revolutionaries and average Egyptians. The empty polling stations have succeeded in proving beyond doubt that the consensus narrative Sisi’s supporters have been relentlessly working to propagate to the world is nothing but a myth.
3. Unsupportive deep state
The first two days of elections raises questions about the extent of control Sisi has over the deep state. TV satellite channels exposed the low turn out and didn’t attempt to cover up the shocking lack of support, contrary to what they used to do during Mubarak’s time. Pro-coup TV show presenter, Ibrahim Eissa admitted that Sisi does not have a “political body” and that his campaign failed to run an effective electoral machine.
The Presidential Electoral Commission extended the voting period by a third day, thus shedding doubts on the credibility of the process and on Sisi’s expected victory. State institutions, the wide network of the former National Democratic Party and related businessmen who were believed to support Sisi appeared weak, unwilling or unable to deliver on their promises of mobilizing large numbers of voters as they did with Mubarak’s former PM Ahmed Shafeeq during the 2012 presidential elections.
Many attribute that to internal power struggles between the state’s different institutions, while others believe that Sisi lacks the experience and skills to efficiently run the system to his benefit. In either case, the efficacy of state institutions in the electoral process was undoubtedly a blow to the field marshal’s hopes.
4. No economic vision…No votes
Since the military takeover in July, Egypt has been witnessing a drastic economic deterioration. With the worsening economic situation and the decline in the standard of living of most Egyptians, many became increasingly disillusioned by Sisi’s repeated assertions that “he has nothing to offer” and may have reached the conclusion that nothing is likely to change with Sisi’s official inauguration.
It seems the field marshal’s “ingenious” suggestions for solving the unemployment crisis by providing the youth with vehicles to transport vegetables to “poorer areas,” exhorting Egyptians to divide the loaf of bread into four portions to save on wheat consumption, and using energy-efficient light bulbs to solve the electricity crisis have left many unimpressed.
5. People power
Egyptians have proved over the past three years that they will not allow a new pharaoh to emerge. The defiant slogan they raised during their popular uprisings in Tahrir 2011 “Down with the Next President” still holds and the phenomenon of “president for life” is a thing of the past. As they have previously done through mass mobilization and peaceful protests, they have once again established, by silence this time, that they, and not Sisi’s regional or international backers, have the final word.
The low turnout sends a strong message to the military establishment and its design to continue controlling the political process. It eventually needs to take one or two steps back and allow for a reset of a true democratic system and civilian control over the political process.
Egypt needs to build a rational state that respects the rule of law, pluralism, human rights and the fundamental basis of democracy. The alternative may not fall short of a third revolutionary wave. This time it will make sure to dismantle the police state and its authoritarian institutions.
- Emad Shahin is Professor of Public Policy, the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Editor-in-Chief, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. He is currently a Public Policy Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credit: Posters of Sisi in Cairo ahead of this week's election (AA)
Stay informed with MEE's newsletters
Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.