Analysis

With Sissi on the Ballot, Young Egyptians Return to Voting With Their Feet

People in their 20s led the way during the Arab Spring, but the president who's tough on terror is weak on democracy

A woman voting during the Egyptian presidential election, March 2018.
Khaled Desouki / AFP

In El Arish, northern Sinai, the line was long on Election Day – but the people weren’t there to choose Egypt’s president. They were lining up to buy food after store shelves suddenly filled with goods not seen for years, from canned tuna to fresh meat, candy and eggs. Government officials asked to take a break from work to fulfill their civic duty and vote, but shopping was really on their minds.

For two days El Arish, a town frequently targeted by terrorists and thus normally surrounded by military forces, morphed into a market, as the government tried to buy the hearts of the forsaken locals.

Meanwhile, in far-off Cairo, shrill loudspeakers on horse-drawn carts blared praise for the president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and dancers appeared on small stages by the voting booths. In some villages, money or its equivalent changed hands and everybody was promised a better life.

Yet none of this helped the president bring out the voters in the numbers he had hoped for. Only about 40 percent of registered voters came out, and even that figure is dubious. Egyptians remember that in Hosni Mubarak’s time, the government would declare a turnout of 35 to 40 percent, but the real figure was less than 20 percent. In some areas it was no more than 5 percent.

Sissi’s triumph was assured; potential rivals had been arrested, or they bent under the pressure and withdrew their candidacy. Only one man, an unknown, registered at the last second to save the honor of the election. But the main drive this time wasn’t to assure victory for the president but to legitimize the election itself.

This also shows what Egypt has undergone since the Arab Spring began seven years ago. In the 2011 election, more than 66 percent of the people took part as hope and euphoria transformed Mubarak’s ouster into political reform. The 2012 presidential election was won by the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, and participation ran at 52 percent. Now hope of change has vanished, replaced by the sense that it doesn’t matter if you vote or not.

A girl looks at a poster for President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on the third day of the presidential election, Giza, March 28, 2018.
Fethi Belaid / AFP

The breakdown isn’t known yet but videos and reports from the polling stations indicate that people in their 20s didn’t show up. Seven years ago the young were a leading force. If in the past the young encouraged their apathetic parents to go out and vote, this time the old folks told the media they had to encourage the young.

Egyptian pundits have explanations for the low turnout, but the truth is, you can’t take from Sissi his label as the only man in Egypt who can fight terrorism, not to mention the better economic data over the past year.

Yet those good numbers, which even won Egypt praise from the international financial institutions, don’t reach the man on the street. If anything, that guy is paying more for gasoline, about 30 percent more for staples, and has to use the substandard public transport and school systems, receive negligent care at failing health care institutions, and eat bread made of flour not fit for consumption.

Over seven years, the young revolutionaries experienced an election that at least fulfilled the basic requirement of multiparty democracy; an election designed to block the Muslim Brotherhood from stealing the country. But they also got an election starring a president who took away their right to protest and freely express opinions, who shut down dozens of websites, stifled satire, arrested journalists and pushed the dream of gender equality ever further into the future.

Sissi had been named defense minister by the Muslim Brotherhood, which he ousted in July 2013. He’s basically the head of the legislative branch too, since a majority in parliament supports him. In the absence of a real opposition and mass media, Sissi joins a long list of leaders without an expiry date, like the heads of most of the former Soviet republics, the president of Turkey, the supreme leader in Iran and the rulers of the Gulf states.

The iron hand with which they rule makes them good partners for the West, which likes stability and continuity, even if it comes at the expense of human rights and democracy. The paradox is that even if Sissi’s presidency promises to achieve economic and military stability, it can’t protect him from exploding public rage, as the leaders of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt itself have learned.