Egypt: Apathy eclipses Sisi's “landslide victory”

The whole of the Egyptian establishment, from statesmen, to businessmen and TV presenters, are falling over each other as they praise the ‘landslide victory’ of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in the Egyptian presidential elections. However the stability that the bourgeois are craving for is further away than they think.

Preliminary results in the presidential elections show a convincing victory for Al-Sisi. However if one scratches the surface of the results a much different picture emerges. The turnout of the eligible voters was about 43 percent, which is even lower than the 49 percent who participated in the 2012 presidential elections.

However even this is not the full truth. On Monday as voting started, after a brief peak, the polling stations throughout quickly emptied out. Rabab Zein al-Din, speaking for the opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s campaign, said that about seven million people had turned out to vote on the first day and that an even smaller number took part on Tuesday.

Alarmed at this state of affairs on Monday, the government extended the voting hours until 10pm Tuesday and declared the date a public holiday. It should here also be noted that the previous government, which was clearly seen as a government of Al-Sisi, declared significant wage increases for government employees.

However seeing as participation was still very low, voting was extended for another day. At the same time public transport was declared to be free. Egyptian prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb also threatened those who failed to make it to the polling station with a $70 fine.

On television several presenters addressed the nation in a combination of threats and surreal propositions to raise the participation in the polls. The well-known television presenter Tawfiq Okasheh asked:

"What shall I do to make you turn out? Shall I kiss your foot? What do you want me to do? Take off my clothes and go on air naked in order for you to trust me [that voting is important]?"

"I will ask [the government] to cut electricity, in order to stop the air conditioners, forcing you to go out of your homes and take to the streets [to vote]."

Mostafa Al-Bakri, another famous television commentator, urgently called upon Egyptians to cast their votes in order to give Al-Sisi strong power. "Anybody who does not vote is giving the kiss of life to the terrorists .. Those who do not come out are traitors, traitors, traitors who are selling out this country."

In the polling stations several reporters were threatened and their cameras confiscated and emptied. Others were not allowed to report from the empty polling stations. They were told to come back in the evening when the polling stations were more full. Also many of Sabahi’s campaign workers were harassed, attacked and expelled from the polling stations during Tuesday. 14 of Sabahi’s campaign workers were also arrested after documenting irregularities. They were later released on Wednesday.

Building a myth

sisiFor the past year since Al-Sisi assumed power a colossal effort has been put into developing a myth around him. Writers, musicians, businessmen and religious heads of church have lined up in one television show after another to praise Al-Sisi and his above-human nature as the only salvation for Egypt. All state and private owned media have tried to outcompete each other for who can paint the rosiest and most heroic picture of Sisi. Television presenters have offered themselves to him on air and one song after another has been made in his honor.

Sisi was molded into a superhuman being. He did not participate in debates or interviews, but addressed the nation on television.

This farce was raised to new levels as soon as Sisi’s official candidacy was announced. Every day hour long shows were broadcast about Sisi’s life and achievements and the few interviews that Sisi did agree to were completely absent of any critical tone. At the same time his rival was thoroughly challenged in the little airtime that he got.

Sisi’s campaign itself was a major operation with 351 offices nationwide. Tarek Nour, the campaign’s advertising adviser, told the Aswat Masriya news website that the campaign had spent about $1.8m on campaign adverts. Although this figure is grossly underestimated it is still in stark contrast to the less than $50,000 spent by the Sabahi campaign.

The Emperors new Clothes

al-sisi-rtEven in his election campaign Sisi did not tour the country, citing the danger of ‘terrorists’ as the main reason. Instead he broadcasted pre-recorded ‘meetings’ with editors, and other ‘influential’ people. While there would undoubtedly be a certain risk, the main reason behind the lack of public appearances was not to ruin the illusion that he is more than ‘just’ a human being. In fact, despite the pre-recorded and edited character of the interviews with Sisi, he not only managed to stand out as a simple human being, but probably more simple than most human beings.

Instead of assuring the nation of his greatness he appeared more and more as a backward temperamental philistine. Several times during his interviews he raised his voice telling the interviewers that they are merely there to listen and not to talk. In one interview he appeared in an almost pharaonic settings - an unfortunate setting for someone who claims to be the servant of the revolutionary people.

When asked about how he would handle the economic crisis in Egypt, Sisi’s answer it was “hard work”. For instance he asked young people to save money and fuel by walking to school rather than taking the bus. He asked households to use energy saving bulbs, and said that he would take legal action to enforce this. He asked others to work harder. For many Egyptians who work 2-3 jobs this is an insult, but even more for the millions who are unable to find a job. On the question of how he would reduce unemployment he suggested that the state would buy 1,000 carts and hire 2-3 young people on each to sell fruit at reduced prices. He also suggested that instead of eating one loaf of bread citizens should split it in four so there is more to go around. He did not, however, explain how to fill the stomachs of those millions who do not have much more than that piece of bread.

In the poor neighbourhoods around the country billboards are filled with calls for austerity."With work," read the signs, next to Sisi's smiling face. Another sign shows Sisi and the words "hard work is all I have, and all I will ask from you." However it is becoming more and more clear that  it is only the poor who must sacrifice in order to “save the nation”, while the millionaire officers, businessmen and professional charlatans who live in the closed compounds outside of Cairo are silently skipped over.

The reaction to this has been an increasingly apathetic attitude towards Sisi.

As one Reuters report explains:

But Sisi's tough love message offered little hope for a brighter future after Fathi's wife died last month in a grimy state hospital. In the end he did not vote for anyone.

Fathi concluded that the former army chief, like so many other leaders from the military before him, had little to offer.

‘She died at one of our garbage government hospitals,’ said the father of two toddlers, sweating at his sandwich shop in a working class district of Cairo.

‘"I thought I'd go for Sisi, but I realise now that neither candidate is capable of helping me. Why go vote? There's no point.’

From the few controlled glimpses that the public got from Sisi, a picture emerged of a man who is completely out of touch with the lives of the workers and poor of Egypt and who really doesn't care about solving their problems. While the workers and poor have to sacrifice, the “business community” must be supported. In fact the real reasons behind his calls for hard work is to create a favourable environment for businesses which have been disrupted by strikes and protests.

Sisi has emphasised that Egyptians are in for two years of frugality and hard work. Strikes and street protests will not be tolerated, he said in one interview. "I'm not leaving a chance for people to act on their own... My program will be mandatory."

After the election victory Mohamed El Sewedy, chairman of the Federation of Egyptian Industries, praised this line stating that "The business community is very happy about the results. We need real reform and opportunities ... a guy with courage to take decisions.”

What he really means is that the capitalists need a state which will push an austerity agenda, “stabilise” the country (that is, to stop strikes and protests) and support the big business.

Capitalists rejoice

That is the true programme of Sisi, who more than anything is the representative of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, which supported his campaigns with millions of dollars.

Speaking to Reuters, Egypt's "fertilizer king" Sherif el-Gabaly explained the interests of this layer:

"We need the masses to be also stable, we cannot work in the situation where we live on our own and just grow and make money and live our own lives in closed compounds and the rest of the country is in shambles.

"Because the next day they'll turn out in the streets and your production and everything will go chaotic."

Another businessman, Hussein Sabour - a 77-year-old real estate and engineering mogul who made his money in part through a joint venture with the largest state-owned bank - said:

"We should not continue being lazy. We cannot live with the government subsidising everything."

About one fifth of Egypt’s budget is spent on subsidising basic food stuff, utilities and fuel. Without these subsidies millions of people would have no way of surviving. Sisi has declined to comment on what which actions he will take regarding the subsidies, however the previous prime minister, Hazem Beblawi, who was clearly Sisi’s man, was much more frank. Speaking to the Financial Times in March he said that:

“There is no way to avoid tackling this problem, and we are committed to doing so. We are not going to abolish the subsidy but we are going to rationalise it, because the percentage in Egypt is just crazy.


The end result will be some subsidy, [and we will] reduce the subsidy from, say, 24-25 per cent of the budget to something like 10 or 8 per cent.”

This is a declaration of war against those workers and poor for whom the subsidised food and fuel is a lifeline. This allows the most basic foodstuff such as bread to be an affordable item. However it is clear that the Egyptian bourgeoisie cannot even afford to concede this luxury to the masses. However what they forget is that the same people whose stomachs they are emptying are the ones producing all wealth in society and they are the vast majority of society.

Not only this, but they are also the same people who overthrew the Mubarak dictatorship, forced the Tantawi government to leave, overthrew Mohammed Morsi and only recently forced Hazem Beblawi to resign as prime minister. The plan that the bourgeois are preparing will sooner or later result in the melting away of the narrow base that secured Al-Sisi’s victory. Then a new and even more tumultuous period will begin.

Sabahi’s chronic lack of backbone

The only opponent of Al-Sisi during these elections was the left Nasserist, Hamdeen Sabahi. His candidacy came as a big surprise. Sabahi had praised Sisi and called him to stand for president. However a few months ago he became increasingly critical and started criticising the undemocratic nature of the regime. This was the reflection of increasing pressure from below.

This move immediately galvanised the main left wing and revolutionary youth organisations around him. However, despite his strong rhetoric in defence of democratic rights Sabahi did not pose any real alternative to Sisi.

When asked about his stance with regard to the subsidies he said that “Subsidising the commodities for the poor people can be reduced by about two thirds”. This is hardly much different from the presumed austerity programme of Sisi.

More than anything Sabahi is not seen as a serious politician. While he has always presented a democratic platform he has continuously shown to be weak and to lack clear principles. After the revolution he joined an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood for the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Then 6 months later he stood as a presidential candidate but this time denouncing his recent ally Mohammed Morsi (as well as Ahmed Shafiq who was a former Mubarak loyalist). In these elections he won almost 5 million votes and came in third place. In Cairo and most of the industrial towns and cities of Egypt he came in first. It was clear that he was the main candidate of the revolution and there were clear signs that vote rigging had taken place to stop him from entering the second round of the elections. However he de facto legitimised the elections by accepting the final result and by not mobilising the masses against the blatant irregularities.

Again, a few months later in November 2012, when an insurrectionary movement was gathering against Morsi, Sabahi and his liberal ally Mohammed El-Baradei, instead of organising and spreading the protest, tried to break it by calling for negotiations. Then they joined forces with a Amr Moussa, a former bureaucrat of the Mubarak era to form the National Salvation Front. Even for many of his own supporters this came as a big shock.

Again in January 2013, when the Morsi regime and the armed forces were waging a crackdown on revolutionary forces, Sabahi was silent. After the 30 June revolution, where Sabahi didn’t play a role, he became a worshipper of Sisi, continuously calling on him to stand for presidency.

So it is no surprise that the latest turn of Sabahi is not taken seriously by anyone. A former supporter of Sabahi told Ahram Online in Alexandria: "It’s all the same. Nothing changes. He didn’t do anything with the National Salvation Front. He isn’t the fighter I thought he was."

Here is the real mood of the masses. The apathy and inactivity which rule on the surface is only a cover for the lack of a credible revolutionary leadership. The masses are not tired of the revolution, they are tired of weak willed leaders who will not fight and who bows before any challenge.

In the bourgeois media the false statement is often carried that Egyptians want a strong-man, and thus they elect Al-Sisi. This is only a loosely covered way of repeating the old racist claim that, just like children need parenting and firm boundaries, Arabs need dictators to tell them how to live their lives. The truth could not be further from the truth. In fact throughout the revolution it has been the masses who have consistently fought for democracy and progress, while the ‘great’ educated minds of the intelligentsia have found themselves defending the rule of this or that rotten bourgeois.

The harder and the more conscious and determined the masses have acted, the weaker and more cowardly response of the leaders has been. At least on 6 occasions since 2011 the rotten Egyptian regime could have been uprooted. The masses have been ready to go all the way, but no lead has been given and at every occasion the movement has been diverted into ‘democratic’ channels and power has been passed - by the ‘leaders’ of the revolution - to one faction or another of the ruling class.

On the one hand, this is the cause of Sisi’s undeserved ‘revolutionary’ authority amongst wide layers of the population and at the same time this is the cause for the disillusionment and apathy of the most farsighted parts of the revolutionary masses. The Egyptians do need a ‘strong’, determined and decisive leadership, that is, one which can represent their determination and strength and take the revolution to its logical conclusion. That is the key to the present impasse.

Sabahi oozes weakness and cowardice. His acceptance of the present results despite the obvious irregularities and the overt bias of the state machinery towards Sisi, merely confirms this fact. In accepting Sisi’s victory he continues to give Sisi revolutionary legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. In this sense, by consolidating power in the hands of the counter-revolutionary generals, he is continuing the actions of the other leaders of the revolution who after 30 June passed power on the to the SCAF.

But today when wide layers of the population are beginning to see the true nature of Sisi this is an even greater mistake. Thus the reasons for the lack of success for the Sabahi campaign is to be found within itself more than anywhere else.

Class struggle continues

As we have explained many times before the popularity and authority of Sisi was mainly caused by the leaders of the revolution. By passing power to the generals they allowed for them to pose as being “with the revolution” while they in reality represented another wing of the counter-revolution.

As long as the crackdown on the hated Muslim Brotherhood was taking place they could uphold this position. However the past few months have seen a rapid decline of this illusion. Under the guise of cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the state has increasingly targeted layers of revolutionary activists and even workers’ activists. Anyone who dares to criticise the current state of affairs is called an Islamist and a terrorist. This has also been increasingly echoed by Sisi himself in his election campaign.

At the same time the rule of the generals has not managed to break the rise of unemployment, inflation and poverty. The power cut,s which were an important cause of dissatisfaction with former President Mohammed Morsi, have reached record levels and there is a growing sense that the new regime is highly biased towards certain sectors of the population.

When the government, under the pressure of the 30 June revolution, introduced a 30 percent rise in the minimum wage of public sector workers, this gain was narrowed down to the workers within the state apparatus keeping the workers at state owned factories out of the deal. This sparked a massive strike wave amongst other public workers which shook the country and overthrew the previous government.

Within one month the percentage of people who said that they would vote for Sisi declined from 51 to 39 percent. The cracks in the polished surface of Sisi’s rule have been widening and these elections were far from comforting for Sisi. Only a few days before the elections, Sisi was publicly betting on at least 40 million votes. Despite the vast resources at his disposal he had to threaten and drag people to the polling stations, he only managed to get half of that target.

In the next period even this support will melt away. The Egyptian economy is in a deep crisis and has until now only been saved by 20 billion dollars of aid from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In spite of this aid, the budget deficit of last year still stood at 12 billion dollars. Sooner or later the stream of money coming from the Gulf will dry up and the question will be posed: Who pays the bill?

It is clear that Sisi has already made up his mind. His allegiance is with the corrupt parasitic capitalists and bankers who are already planning how to attack the few remaining lifelines of the poor. But the election results have exposed that they are far weaker than they thought.

Of course there is also an element of tiredness amongst the masses. After three years of struggles there is a natural withdrawal. However as we saw in March, just under the apparent calm and apathy the revolution is still strong confident and to this day undefeated. Over the next period they will have to go through the school of Al-Sisi, which will drive them back into the arena of struggle. In this context the Egyptian bourgeois’ dream of stability seems further away than ever.