The regular tricks did not help. Nor did the threat of a 500 Egyptian lira fine (about $62) for those who did not come out to vote. Neither did the half day’s vacation given to all workers. Even religious rulings that banned boycotting the elections didn’t help. The initial round of voting in the first parliamentary election campaign since President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi came to power two years ago ended in disappointment last month.
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The official results show that 26.6 percent of eligible voters participated, but unofficial figures suggest a much lower turnout. The second round will be held in December in the regions that did not vote this time, but expectations aren’t high for the next round, either.
Disappointment over the government’s inability to rehabilitate the economy, continued terrorism and growing unemployment all had a central role in the Egyptian public’s agenda. But the most significant factor that caused voters to stay away in their droves was the lack of hope for change. After all, the feeling of hope that arose with the removal of former President Mohammed Morsi and the rise of Sissi, the feeling of empowerment as a result of the opening of the Suez Canal extension last summer, and the improvement in relations with the United States – these have all faded very quickly.
To the great disappointment of many Egyptians, the results of the first round showed that most of the newly elected representatives, those who ran as independents or on party slates, were members of the ruling party during the days of disgraced ex-President Hosni Mubarak, and most supported Sissi. The rebirth of the ruling party – the loathed National Democratic Party, whose removal was the most significant achievement of the Arab Spring protest movement – suggests that the second round will not be very different.
In truth, even before the election it was possible to predict the apathy. Even though Egypt hasn’t had a parliament for three years, it’s hard to find systematic criticism of the government in the media. However, this is only because Sissi is the one who sets the economic, diplomatic and political agenda. And it is widely assumed that the newly elected parliament will act as he wishes, in any case.
If criticism is expressed, it is never aimed directly at the president. This week, the Al-Watan daily published an article in which it attacked the corrupt educational system, saying it does not focus on advancing education but developing the income of the “members of the education mafia.” The author was referring to the thousands of teachers who make a living from giving private tutoring lessons, as well as the inspectors busy with publishing the textbooks they have written. The article was directed at the education minister, but the target was really the president.
The hopes raised by the opening of the Suez Canal extension, which included promises to eradicate terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, have been disappointing to date. Last week, the Rasad website dedicated an article to mark the first anniversary of the clearing of the land in Sinai that borders the Gaza Strip. Some 3,000 homes were demolished in the operation to create a sterile zone between Sinai and Gaza, thousands of families uprooted from their homes and made jobless. The alternative city the Egyptian government promised to build in order to house those evacuated still exists only on paper.
The establishment of factories, the creation of new jobs and investment in infrastructure – none of these have succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal and reaching the lands of the Bedouin in Sinai. Instead, the regime has announced an extension of the state of emergency in the El Arish region and its surrounding area for three more months. This means, among other things, a curfew between 7 P.M. and 6 A.M.: The Bedouin, who have lived under a state of emergency for more than a year already, are irate.
The pro-government media may be filled with positive stories highlighting the successful adaptation of El Arish residents to the state of emergency – holding their weddings during the day instead of at night, for example. But the Al-Tahrir website, owned by businessman Akmal Kourtam, the leader of the Conservative Party, dared wonder how Sissi has managed to extend the state of emergency for 15 months, even though any extension beyond the first three months requires the approval of parliament.
The answer is clear: Without a parliament, the president does not have to receive approval. In Cairo, the commentators warn that neglecting the Bedouin could harm efforts to eliminate the terrorist organizations in Sinai – since without the logistical support and aid provided by the local Bedouin, the terrorists would have a hard time continuing.
It’s impossible to claim that Sissi doesn’t understand the danger. But when the costs of the war in Sinai are taking up a major portion of the budget, there isn’t a lot left for civilian investment. The press avoid placing the blame on Sissi for these failures, making do instead with the permitted criticism of ministers and other officials.
Sissi sees these parliamentary elections as the final stage in the political road map he drew up when he took power in July 2013. There is no doubt that, officially, he has succeeded in carrying out his political commitments. But there’s also no doubt that this isn’t the dream the revolutionaries fought for, either.