CAIRO, Egypt – As Egyptians get ready to head to the polls next week opposition groups from across the political spectrum are being jailed, banned or shot in the streets. There’s no doubt that former army head, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who led last year’s July 3 coup, will win the vote, so this election is more about legitimizing authoritarianism than it is about establishing a democratic process.
On the streets of Cairo pictures of Sisi in full military garb are plastered on billboards and hang from lampposts. Although he resigned his military post as Field Marshal and he’s attempted a cosmetic change by appearing in television interviews in suits rather than uniform, Sisi still speaks like a general. Indeed, he’s used the campaign to amplify his strongman persona. He’s promised to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood (which won the last presidential elections) telling the media not to press freedom of speech issues and calling for an end to continuing anti-coup protests.
Some Egyptians find this iron-fisted approach very appealing. “I see in Sisi’s face a similarity to [Anwar] Sadat,” says Ramy Sizar, drawing parallels with the 1970s dictator. Sizar, a young waiter in a shisha café, comes from Cairo’s working class neighborhood of Imbaba, and he says he’s convinced that Sisi’s strength as the contemporary military leader guiding the country is the only path to stability.
Among those willing to vote on May 26-27, support for army dominance in political leadership is a common refrain. Storefront windows around Cairo display posters with Sisi in military uniform at the center while the images of former army-installed presidents Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser loom in the background. It's as if Sisi has replaced Hosni Mubarak on the posters of the trilogy of presidential generals. A military man who ruled for almost 30 years before his ouster in 2011, Mubarak was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for corruption.
For almost a year now, Egypt has been assailed by Sisi’s War on Terror discourse that has been used to justify the jailing of over 16,000 opponents and the killing of more than 1,400 since the army overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of Mohammad Morsi. And while the repression has polarized Egypt, Sisi’s supporters believe that his uncompromising repression, which first focused on Islamists but has spread to encompass liberal and leftist detractors, is merely the sign of a powerful leader who will stabilize the economic disarray and improve the lives of the impoverished Egyptian masses. “He will start with the poor people,” says Sizar. (Never mind that Sisi opposed recent strikes by workers demanding minimum wage laws.)
“Because of all those arrested and killed, I could not respect myself if I vote.”
This populism has left little room for Hamdeen Sabahi, the only other candidate in the election. He, too, has attempted to identify himself as a modern day Nasser and capitalize on nostalgia for the wealth redistribution and development of the 1960s. Sabahi is using his track record of fighting for the rights of workers and Egypt’s poor to capitalize on economic dissatisfaction. However, with little disagreement about ongoing repression or divergence from Sisi on concrete economic policy, his lack of a military background has created a popular perception that he’s weak and not a serious alternative.
“He believes in the private and public sector [working] together,” says Lobna Mohamed, who heads up the political and foreign affairs committee of the Sabahi campaign. She is trying to dispel the socialist image associated with Sabahi’s Nasserite roots. “Nationalizations are not part of program,” she says. “He has a program for the private sector and attracting foreign investment.”
Given the lack of contrast between the candidates and the foregone conclusion of the voting, many Egyptians disillusioned with the post coup direction of the country are expected to boycott the polls.
“It’s a scandal that the leader of the coup is a candidate for the presidency,” says Mohammed Kelani, a 22-year-old religious studies student at Al Azhar University who is sympathetic to the Islamist camp. “Because of all those arrested and killed, I could not respect myself if I vote,” he says. In recent months university students, who are the center of street opposition to the military, have borne the brunt of attacks by security forces.
Anti- Sisi and anti-coup protests have been strong on campuses throughout the election campaign while brazen attacks on state security forces continue. Early on Tuesday morning three Central Security Force (CSF) officers were killed and nine injured during a drive-by shooting near Al Azhar University after a riot brought a crackdown on protests near the student dorms. Later that day a student was shot and killed by the CSF during an assault on demonstrators at Cairo University. On Wednesday security forces continued to clash with students encouraging vote boycotts in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
The election period has also been marked by the banning of secular opposition groups. Two days after a boisterous demonstration of hundreds of liberals and leftists condemning Sisi, military rule and the Muslim Brotherhood in front of the main Cairo presidential palace, a court banned the April 6 youth movement, which was instrumental in toppling autocrat Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 revolution. Two leaders of April 6 already are serving three-year prison terms for demonstrating against a November law heavily restricting the right to protest.
April 6 spokesperson Ayman Abdelmeguid says the movement, now banned amid accusations of espionage and support for terrorist activity, is being pushed underground and may return to the clandestine organizing tactics used in the Mubarak era.
“The critical mass [of protesters from the revolution] has gone back home because they are scared,” argues Abdelmeguid over a beer in at a bar in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek neighborhood. The 34-year-old father is also boycotting the vote and disagrees with Sabahi’s choice to run and legitimize the process. Abdelmaguid has experienced firsthand the way popular grievances are being subsumed by the hard-line nationalism that’s dominating the campaign, and sees this election as nothing more than a way for Sisi to claim Egypt’s authoritarian turn has a popular mandate.
With discontent in the streets pushed to the margins of Egyptian society, Sisi’s narrative overwhelmingly dominates both private and state media. Critical journalists continue to languish in prison and inside the courtrooms the breadth of the clampdown is on full display. The continued detention without trial of Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdullah Elshamy is the clearest indication that authorities are unwilling to tolerate any deviation from the official narrative. He has been in jailed since last August when he was arrested while covering the forceful dispersal of Brotherhood supporters at Rabba square that left hundreds dead, Elshamy started a hunger strike in January and has lost 77 pounds thus far.
Gaunt and looking very weak he recently was transferred to solitary confinement in the harshest wing of Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison. At a court hearing he mustered the energy to shout over prison guards from the caged dock, saying he was being punished for his continued refusal to eat. His supporters also managed to obtain an English video in which he holds authorities responsible for his situation and demands to be released.
During the May 15 mass appeal hearing against extended detention for dozens of prisoners, which was rejected, Elshamy said prison guards have tried to use “physical and mental pressure” to force feed him. While little attention is being given in the campaign to jailed Arabic language journalists, Elshamy, with his international connections, is an ongoing reminder of what is forcefully being kept from the Egyptians ahead of the vote.
The Sisi campaign did not respond to requests to comment.