By: Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo.
There’s only one thing social media in Egypt (and in the Gulf countries the rulers of which have been the chief political and financial backers of last year’s military coup) have been preoccupied with over the past week: the dismal failure of Sisi’s propaganda machine to muster enough voters to the polls to produce the overwhelming result that everyone had been projecting (see, in lieu of many similar tweets, Amr Ezzat who actually did vote; and Abu Lotfi for the pro-Sisi side exhorting people to go and vote). Even al-Maṣrī al-Yōm, financed by business tycoon Sawīris, Twitter users pointed out, titled: “The State in Search of a Vote”, and noted that Sisi’s own home town was no exception to the general and overwhelming trend: a large-scale abstention of voters. This abstention had become clear from the first day of voting, and it sent the pro-Sisi Egyptian media into a frenzy: Last year, when Sisi called upon ‘the people’ to descend onto the streets to show their support and give him a mandate, you came in the millions, 30, 40 million – where are you now?!?!?! When appeals to the national conscience did not help, commentators started to insult the people or threaten them with a return of Mursī. In a volte face, the state decreed the second voting day a public holiday and then extended voting by another day (or as ‘sisi offlcial’ satirically put it, ‘until the end of the month, when the last frail Mohammed has returned from visiting his uncle in that far-out jail in the countryside’). Secularists had always blamed their Islamist foes for playing the religion card; now the regime had no qualms in doing exactly the same: using mosque loudspeakers to exhort people to ‘perform their duty to the nation’, and frightening Christians that abstaining would endanger the safety of Christians in the country. (Meanwhile, the Muslim Brothers’ reaction made them not look better – they were reported to have denounced the elections as ‘a ballot of women, Christians, and old people, and of the ‘Generation of Defeat’, ǧīl al-Naksa, a reference to the 1967 catastrophic defeat in the war against Israel).
All this hysteria was to no avail, however. Panicking over the disastrous turnout, the Supreme Election Authority turned up the tone a notch and threatened that those who did not vote would be legally prosecuted by the state and would face a fine of substantial 500 Egyptian Pounds. Still, people were not impressed. And not only the outsider, but also Egyptians themselves began to ask: isn’t this counterproductive? How does this ‘farce’ of an election make us look in the eyes of the world?
EU observers conceded that the election was a failure; a number of other international observers had declined to monitor the elections, judging this to be a meaningless exercise anyhow. Egyptian transparency activist group “We are watching you” was one of several civil society groups that published reports of election fraud; but activists were harassed and people who took pictures of empty voting offices were arrested. In the face of the sobering facts, the state desperately attempted to main the image of meaningful, competitive elections. When supporters of Sisi’s only remaining rival candidate, Ḥamdīn Ṣabāḥī, withdrew from overseeing vote counting, security agencies tried to force them to return. Eager to ‘improve’ the disastrous image, pro-régime papers such as al-Yōm al-Sābiʿ used pictures of a voters’ queue that apparently was taken during a different election as the people in the picture were wearing thick winter clothes while during the current election, the weather was particularly hot (again, the Muslim Brotherhood proved no better in that also they were caught using false pictures in their election coverage).
In some places, the picture looked less gloomy for Sisi. Gamal Eid, of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, noted the huge turnout in Mānshiyyat al-Ahrām — a Cairo suburb that had become famous, after the Battle of the Camel in February 2011, for bursting out on the streets carrying banners proclaiming, “Egypt stands with you, Mubarak!”
Egyptians, famous for their humour, did not wait to pass comment on what they observed: “elections without a people“. “Election office to count votes by intent”, they announced. “فاضي يا اسطى ؟ – ليه شايفني لجنة انتخابية !” [Are you free [literally, ‘not busy’]? – Why, do you think I’m a voting office??”]. “What do you think, are these elections better or those of the Brotherhood? – Oh, these now — those of the Brothers were so terribly overcrowded (zaḥma)”!
This is not the place to analyse in detail the reasons for why voters stayed away. But the general impression can be summed up thus: in the republic of fear, people were either afraid of (choose your favourite threat: Islamist terrorist attacks, or police brutality), or, perhaps more prominently over the past months, disillusioned.
When the media on Thursday announced that “Sisi secures landslide win”, this headline obscured the dramatically lower-than-hoped-for turnout. While state officials claimed it lay at 47% [a sudden jump of more than 10% from the previous figure proposed by the Electoral Committee, which itself had been unexpectedly high given earlier reporting in the state media], international observers stressed that given the circumstances, the vote count could not be confirmed. Whatever the exact numbers, the high voter abstention was recognised and understood by all sides as a humiliating failure of the régime. A landslide indeed. In Norwegian, we call it ‘ras’ – and we all know in which direction this is heading.
Hardly anyone now expresses optimism in the direction the country is taking. The fun has stopped. Apart from a gloomy economic future (where Saudi band-aid can provide only temporary relieve), commentators expressed their fear that Sisi’s running for president may have given the Muslim Brotherhood the ‘kiss of life’ again after last years’ demonstrators had gotten rid of them. After all, a recent Pew Poll revealed that despite a year of harsh repression, the Brotherhood still enjoys the support of around 45% of the population (down from 55% during Mursī’s rule). Meanwhile, public trust in the military as a positive force has steadily dropped from 88% in early 2011 to a current 56%. Almost most surprisingly, however, the same poll revealed that the (now banned) April 6 Youth Movement enjoyed the highest rate of trust of all the major political forces in Egypt: 48%. It is from within this political spectrum that the conclusion comes:
“In the next months we need to focus on two things only: civil liberty, and the detainees. Otherwise, we’ll leave Sisi to impose his vision, and the people will only get to hear the results of what he selects to focus upon.”