Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Popularity tested

Critics of Al-Sisi argue that the low turnout in the first round of parliamentary elections was a yellow card to the president, but supporters claim it reflected a growing belief that he should run the country on his own, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

Considering that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi personally addressed Egyptians one day before the first round of parliament elections last week, appealing to “youth, women, workers and peasants” to vote in big numbers, the low turnout of 26 percent was certainly bad news. Yet, amid the current atmosphere of deep divisions among Egyptians between those who support the president and his opponents, it was not necessarily all that bad.

Critics of Al-Sisi, such as Cairo University politics professor Hazem Hosni, said he hoped that the president would get the message and reconsider his policies that alienated many Egyptians, especially youth. “There is a general feeling of frustration among the people. This was clearly a yellow card to the president, using the language of football,” Hosni said. “It is definitely not a red card, but an important warning that many people feel that the promises Al-Sisi made before his election as president were not met, particularly on the social and economic levels,” he added.

Hosni noted that the president started his term with daring decisions that influenced the lives of the majority of poor Egyptians, reducing subsidy on fuel and gas and increasing taxes and electricity prices in order to cover the huge deficit in the budget. “The enthusiasm which the majority of Egyptians felt when Al-Sisi became president is now being replaced with frustration. That’s why the majority of Egyptians decided not to respond to the president’s emotional appeal in his speech to go vote, very much unlike their reaction when he appealed to them in late July 2013 to come out in big number to give him a mandate to fight terrorism,” Hosni said.

Al-Sisi refused to set out a detailed programme during his election campaign in early 2014, and told Egyptians they should not demand any results from his overall development policies for at least two years, or June 2016. The two-year deadline is still a ways off but many Egyptians have started to pose questions over the validity of his policies, namely giving priority to the war against terrorism, and concentrating on long-term mega projects, such as the expansion of the Suez Canal, reclaiming millions of acres of desert land and building a new, modern capital.

Tarek Negeida, a lawyer and member of the Popular Trend that supported Al-Sisi’s only rival in the presidential elections, Hamdeen Sabahi, listed other reasons why many Egyptians did not go vote in parliament elections. “Egyptians are very smart people,” he said. “When they saw many of the corrupt old faces that belonged to the (now dissolved) National Democratic Party (that was headed by ousted president Hosni Mubarak), they decided to boycott the elections. Many Egyptians were also clearly not happy to see the attacks that marked the media scene against the 25 January Revolution since President Al-Sisi took office,” Negeida added.

Negeida and many other pro-democracy parties that supported the 25 January Revolution against Mubarak also spearheaded opposition to Muslim Brotherhood rule when former president Mohamed Morsi was in office. “Yes, we supported the 30 June uprising against the Brotherhood, but not to bring Mubarak back as most of us feel is the case now,” Negeida said. “We also supported President Al-Sisi in his fight against terrorism because we wanted to build the modern, democratic state that we aspired to when the majority of Egyptians removed Mubarak nearly five years ago,” he added.

Negeida noted that “when young people were asked why they didn’t go to vote in the first round, the most common response was: ‘because we don’t feel our vote is going to make a difference, and the result is known in advance.’”

The Popular Trend, like several other small parties that came out after the 25 January Revolution, has sharply criticised the Election Law, saying it was “tailored and designed to produce a parliament that will provide 100 per cent support for President Al-Sisi. And that’s not something many young people would like to vote for,” Negeida said. They were also critical of the Protest Law, issued in November 2013 which resulted in the imprisonment of dozens of young men and women who took part in peaceful protests. Although the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest after notifying the authorities, the current law requires a prior permit for protests from the Interior Ministry. Violators face imprisonment for periods ranging from two to five years, adding to the problem of overcrowded prisons in light of the ongoing confrontation between police and army and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite their criticism of Al-Sisi’s policies, both Hosni and Negeida believe the Brotherhood’s absence in elections was not among the key factors that contributed to the low turnout. “Of course their participation in previous elections increased the turnout. But this was not the case this time. We had Al-Nour Salafist Party, and it did very poor in the elections, even in its own strongholds because the public in general lost faith in political Islamist groups,” said Negeida.

However, such arguments by Al-Sisi’s critics make no sense to many Egyptians who remain hard-line supporters of the president. The Foreign Ministry came out with a strong statement on 19 October, denying reports in the Western media that the low turnout was an embarrassment for Al-Sisi after his appeal to Egyptians to vote. The statement said that this was an attempt to twist facts and did not reflect current realities in Egypt. Ahmed Abu Zeid, Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the Western media ignored several realities such as the complicated election system, relatively new to many Egyptians, and how many citizens felt “election fatigue” after voting on seven different occasions since 25 January 2011.

Presenters of popular television talk shows known for supporting the president were also swift in denying the charge that Al-Sisi’s popularity was going down. As a matter of fact, the spin was that because the majority of Egyptians supported Al-Sisi, they felt that there was no need for a parliament. “Egyptians love Al-Sisi and they are worried about widespread reports in the media that the next parliament could restrain the president and limit his freedom to take quick decisions,” said Mohamed Attia, a lawyer, who presides an alliance formed to support Al-Sisi, “Egypt is Above All”.

To Hosni, the Cairo University politics professor, such explanations “are sickening and make no sense whatsoever”. He added that if such claims were right, the state would not have been that “nervous” in denying arguments linking the low turnout with the declining popularity of the president. “Because they (the state) felt that the turnout was such an embarrassment, the Foreign Ministry was quick in issuing its statement, thinking that they could fool domestic and international public opinion. But reality spoke for itself; polling stations were empty,” Hosni said.

The government also rushed to try to increase the turnout during the second day of voting, giving government employees — nearly seven million — half a day off to give them time to vote. Several governors announced they would offer free transportation on voting day, and several local radio and television stations came up with unconfirmed warnings that those who would not go vote would be fined LE500, and their subsidy cards suspended. Similar attempts were used in order to bring a higher voter turnout during last year’s presidential elections when Al-Sidi was running, as well as the referendum on the new constitution. But there were no reports of any citizen who had to pay a fine for not showing up to vote.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a prominent veteran journalist who met Al-Sisi a few times during his election campaign and after he became president, also did not see a link between the low turnout and the president’s popularity. In a television interview on CBC, Heikal, 93, had a wider vision: “Egyptians are confused and worried, not only because of the difficult situation in Egypt, but in the entire region. Amid such complicated circumstances and the turmoil in the region, parliament elections became a side issue, not the key factor,” Heikal said. However, Heikal noted that the president needed to declare a detailed vision on how he wanted to run the country in the years ahead.

“The contract between Al-Sisi and the people has been based on their appreciation and admiration of what he did on 3 July (removing the Brotherhood.) However, we don’t know what he plans to do in the future. He needs to present a vision and a plan to the people in order to lead,” Heikal said. He also advised the president to keep his earlier promises to give youth, who make up more than 60 per cent of the population, a chance to run the country. “It shouldn’t only be lip service. Young people should feel that we are giving them a chance to take part in public life. This is the age of young people. But in Egypt, it seems that the old people do not want to go,” Heikal said.

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