Egypt: landslide victory for electoral abstention reflects collapse in Sisi’s authority

Presidential elections were held in Egypt last week, in accordance with a formal concession to the Egyptian Revolution in the 2014 Constitution. This was the first electoral test of President Sisi’s authority since he was officially inaugurated back in 2014. Despite the risible contempt for democracy demonstrated by Sisi and his regime at every stage of the electoral process, early estimates of the results indicate this is a test he has comprehensively failed.

El-Ahram and Akhbar El-Youm, newspapers that carry the official line of the regime, reported on Thursday that the sitting president had received approximately 21.5 million votes. His sole opponent Moussa Mostafa Moussa, a political non-entity who has publicly questioned his own candidacy and until recently had a picture of President Sisi as his cover photo on Facebook, received 721,000 votes. Moussa’s share amounts to just a third of the number of voters who spoiled their ballots, estimated at over two million. That almost a tenth of the total turnout was spoiled ballots illustrates the disdain felt across Egypt for how this election has been conducted.

However, if we exclude these voters when calculating the turnout, the figures show that only 37 percent of those eligible voted in this election. This percentage marks a dramatic decline from the 47.5 percent who turned out to give Sisi the mandate for his rise to power four years ago, and from the 52 percent who turned out in the 2012 presidential election at the height of the revolutionary movement. It is also important to bear in mind that the percentage for this year is based on the numbers of two publications trying to present the most optimistic picture of the elections from Sisi’s point of view.

What is more, this extremely modest turnout follows two months of political fanfare and hysterical campaigning by Sisi’s clique within the regime and what is left of his ardent supporters outside it. Pro-Sisi billboards have been plastered across public buildings and squares in every town and village, while famous news anchors and Muslim clerics have delivered messages on national television reminding Egyptians that it is their civic duty to vote, and making threats against those who don’t. Patrol cars toured Cairo and Alexandria during the days of the election blaring the Egyptian national anthem and other patriotic songs through megaphones, along with messages ordering all adult citizens to cast their votes.

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At the same time, the regime has attempted to impose a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (over a third of the average month’s salary) on non-voters. In the poorest neighbourhoods of major cities, Sisi supporters have gone around bribing people with food rations in exchange for votes. It is reasonable to assume that a large proportion of Sisi’s votes were bought with these rations.

The results, then, do not simply correspond to 35 percent in favour of the Sisi presidency – which in itself, in a practically uncontested election, represents a rather pathetic return. They largely reflect a section of the Egyptian population for whom the outcome of this election bears no relevance, who are at the same time so desperate for basic necessities that they are willing to sell their worthless votes for food.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptians are not even in this bracket. Though many of them also face desperate situations, and they too were offered bribes or threatened by the regime, no amount of coercion could force them to mandate a president who has so consistently violated their democratic rights. The damage his rule has overseen to their livelihoods and dignity would have given them additional motivation to stay at home.

Blatant repression

The weak mandate that Sisi has gained from this election reflects the collapse of his base of support among Egyptians over the last four years. National scandals like the Red Sea islands episode, a deepening crisis of living standards, and harbingers of economic disaster, such as the massive devaluation of the Egyptian Pound and sudden jumps in inflation have marred the president’s first term in office.

At various points it seemed as though he would not see more than one term. On his watch, the contradictions that led to the Egyptian Revolution, far from being solved, have increased in their severity, and the class struggle has continued to simmer away just beneath the surface.

It is worth noting, though, that the farcical manner in which the election itself has been staged will have been a contributing factor in the drop in turnout compared to previous elections. The clumsy approach taken by Sisi’s agents within the regime to stage-managing the whole electoral process was unusual even for Egypt. As one observer in Alexandria told The Independent, “This time it just seems so blatant. They’re not even discreet about it.” With the Egyptian Revolution still haunting their nightmares, the ruling clique could not cancel the election outright. However, they used every trick in the book and more to guarantee that it was not contested in the slightest.

Khaled Ali, labour movement leader who was mooting a challenge for the presidency, was arrested back in September and charged with ‘offending public decency’ when a police informer claimed he made an obscene hand gesture in the street. His trial was scheduled to start on 7 March, conveniently during the peak election campaign period.

Khaled Ali Image Lilian WagdyKhaled Ali withdrew his candidacy, removing Sisi's only serious opposition / Image: Lilian Wagdy

In any case, he withdrew from the election on the eve of the 25 January anniversary of the revolution, after another candidate, Sami Anan, was arrested. Ali had called on his supporters to march to the Supreme Court building in Cairo with a list of signatures endorsing his decision to run, in defiance of the regime’s attempts to block candidates on bureaucratic technicalities and by outright force. Although something of a stunt, the march could have carried some traction among the wider masses, particularly if police brutality had been used to try and stop it. However, on 24 January, Ali announced:

"The people’s confidence in the possibility of turning the election into an opportunity for a new beginning is unfortunately over. Today, we announce our decision that we will not run this race and we will not go forward with our nomination papers in a context where the purpose was exhausted before it began.”

Khaled Ali represented the only genuine opposition to the Egyptian ruling class in the presidential race. But Sisi did not limit his crackdown to candidates who oppose the regime outright. Sami Anan, for example, was Chief General of the Armed Forces between 2005 and 2012, a stalwart of the Mubarak regime and the current President’s superior until he was forced into retirement by the Morsi administration.

The Defence Ministry, a section of government previously headed by Sisiand which is populated by some of his strongest supporters, claims that Anan had forged his military discharge papers to allow his inclusion in the election. In fact, his retirement from active service gave him the same status that Sisi himself had had when he declared that he was standing for President in 2014.

Hisham Geneina, Anan’s campaign manager and head of Sisi’s anti-corruption unit in 2016, was also arrested, ostensibly for defending Anan. However, his lawyer claims that the arrest comes as a result of “the alleged documents and files he possessed”. Geneina has previously claimed the existence of video footage implicating the President and senior members of the regime in crimes against the Egyptian people following the 2011 revolution.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Shafik, another veteran of the military general staff who also served as a minister under Mubarak and ran as the old regime’s candidate in 2012, was detained in the UAE to prevent him from returning to Egypt freely after he announced his bid for the presidency in December.

The prop candidate

In the end, Sisi’s only competitor was parachuted into the election on the day before the candidates’ registration deadline for decorative purposes. The relatively unknown Moussa Mostafa Moussa has consistently been a vocal supporter of the sitting President and even sounded unconvinced by his own answer when asked by Egypt Today if he was a phony candidate.

When trying to address rumours that he would cede the Presidency to Sisi even if he won, Moussa essentially admitted that he was a dummy candidate, telling Ahram Online, "A referendum [one-candidate election] is very dangerous at a time when there are conspiracies against the country. No one will go to vote because it will only be one person."

He outlined his hopes for the election in a statement he made to the media while casting his vote, during which he appeared to suggest that he wasn’t even voting for himself: “Whatever the result, I’m satisfied with it and what is required is the large electoral presence.” Unfortunately for Moussa and his puppeteers close to Sisi, his role as the prop in a crude attempt to legitimise this election has backfired stupendously. His candidacy has simply added to the sense of farce, further exposing the rottenness of the regime conducting this process and the amateurish and bungling approach of its leader.

In terms of its protagonists, this election superficially bears a resemblance to the 2005 Egyptian presidential election. Then, President Hosni Mubarak trounced his token opponent Ayman Nour, Moussa’s predecessor as leader of the centre-right El-Ghad Party, with minimal public participation.

There are two very clear differences, however. Firstly, in the intervening period, the Egyptian masses have been through a lifetime’s worth of revolutionary experience, and are now fully aware that they have no need to tolerate the abject condescension of the Egyptian ruling class with silence or obedience. And secondly, the monstrous military-bureaucratic regime that appeared invincible 13 years ago has been brought to its knees repeatedly by wave after wave of mass revolutionary movements.

The closed nature of the elections in 2005 seemed to represent the iron grip of the regime on power. Now, the desperate efforts of Sisi’s henchmen to stage-manage every aspect of the electoral process – often to comic effect – reflect the position of weakness and disarray in which the regime finds itself.

A presidency shaped by crisis

The ragged appearance of the Sisi administration while handling this election should come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the succession of calamitous public appearances, desperate speeches and botched propaganda initiatives that have characterised this regime. One particularly prominent example was the shambolic World Youth Forum that Egypt hosted last November. The event was supposed to showcase the social and political progress Egypt had made since the revolution, with Egyptians pacified by their newly benevolent government and outstanding young people from around the world free to debate in an open environment. In the minds of its organisers, it was to be an advert aimed at potential investors from abroad.

Sisi 2 Image PoRThe merest push from the masses could bring down Sisi's entire, incompetent regime / Image: PoR

In fact, the forum was boycotted by many of its invitees, who cited human rights abuses and shutting down of democracy in Egypt as their reason. Those who did attend were treated to one-sided discussions too obviously contrived to boost the image of the Egyptian government, which led to fights, walkouts and frequent heckles from the crowd. The President, for his part, infamously arrived at the venue and greeted dignitaries to the sound of ‘God Save the Queen’!

Sisi’s surface-level blunders illuminate something more fundamental at play. In 2013 he filled a power-vacuum created by the lack of revolutionary leadership in Egypt by posing as a strongman who could bring stability to Egypt by getting things done. But on a capitalist basis there was never a possibility of any leader being able to fulfil this role, given the crippling economic crisis afflicting Egypt and the brutal conditions imposed by imperialists as they bail the country out.

Therefore, we now have the tragicomic spectacle of a leader and a regime trying with all their might to appear big and strong, but only revealing their weakness more with every ounce of effort. In reality, the slightest push from the Egyptian masses could bring down not only Sisi but the stinking edifice of the whole regime.

United front of the bourgeoisie has disintegrated

The strategists of capital internationally have been aware of this fact for some time, with The Economist warning in August 2016, “Mr Sisi cannot provide lasting stability. Egypt’s political system needs to be reopened.” Like other bourgeois commentators, they tend to focus their mistrust on the ham-fisted president, a sentiment that has clearly permeated through the regime itself. There was a hint that cracks were opening up within the ruling class when one of the Supreme Courts ruled against Sisi over the selling of the Red Sea Islands last year. Parliament largely went with the president on that issue but also seemed divided.

Now key figures from the Mubarak old guard have tried to oppose Sisi publically and stand against him in the presidential race. Such senior members of the military bureaucracy attempting to run against the sitting president would have been unheard-of in any previous era of the Egyptian Republic. The hasty and disorderly repression of these candidates with the help of the state machine – and in Shafik’s case another state’s machine – reflects Sisi’s fear for his own position. The united front of the Egyptian ruling class, which stood triumphantly on the shoulders of the Egyptian Revolution in 2013, backed by Western imperialism, has apparently crumbled to dust.

Under the weight of growing contradictions in Egyptian society, the regime has turned in on itself and recriminations have begun. President Sisi finds himself caught between two sections of the ruling class that are pulling in different directions. One wants to open up the Egyptian economy further and make it more attractive to foreign investors, without much consideration for the political implications within Egypt. The other is largely composed of more traditional elements of the bureaucracy, who guard the privileges and extra wealth that come with their positions within or close to the state apparatus.  He has been forced by economic necessity to pander to the former wing, thereby provoking the latter into a challenge of his authority.

Ruling class changing their tune

However, as the election has come closer, serious bourgeois mouthpieces have notably changed their tune towards Sisi. In his news summary for the Financial Times at the start of last week, Josh de la Hare explained why he thought Egyptians would go out and vote for Sisi:

“Many people want stability. They are still traumatised by the upheavals which followed the 2011 revolution. So they are not really in the mood to dissent, or protest, or decry the lack of political freedom.”

On Thursday, the New York Times was optimistic about Sisi’s re-election:

“Businessmen say tough economic reforms, political stability and new infrastructure over the past four years have helped their companies recover from a slump caused by a 2011 uprising.”

Tahrir Square in 2011 Image Flickr Jonathan RashadTahrir Square in 2011 / Image: Flickr, Jonathan Rashad

What lies behind this suddenly positive take on the continuation of a presidency that these publications so often describe as unreliable at best? It is the spectre of the Egyptian Revolution, the thought of which still strikes terror into the ruling classes of the world. As they see it, a weak leader, with his feeble attempts to keep a lid on the class struggle in Egypt, is better than no leader at all.

You cannot rig the class struggle

But, like The Economist said, this is hardly a recipe for political stability. Sisi himself alluded to this when he struck a panicky and defensive tone in his 20 March interview a on national television. “We are not ready,” he said about the idea of having a properly contested election. “Isn’t it a shame?” It is a great shame for the Egyptian ruling class, whose decrepit condition is emphasised with every day that Sisi staggers on unchallenged.

Yet it is also a shame for the Egyptian masses that Khaled Ali left the contest before it had officially begun without much of a fight. Instead of standing down in the face of threats and intimidation, he could have used any criminal trial as a public platform by which to denounce the regime. If he or another real opposition candidate had attempted to run a bold presidential campaign on a class basis, the advent of this election could have served as a spark to reignite the Egyptian Revolution.

Either way, that spark will come sooner or later. The regime may be able to rig the presidential elections in its favour, but it cannot do the same with the class struggle.

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