As supporters of Egypt’s former military chief turned president-elect, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, took to the streets of Cairo to celebrate his overwhelming election victory, lighting fireworks in the iconic Tahrir Square, it soon became clear that, in the eyes of his supporters at least, the former field-marshall had won a sweeping mandate after more than a year of turmoil.
Based on the headline figures it seems as if al-Sisi has gained a landslide, securing 96.2% of the 21m cast votes and therefore – surely – claiming the support of the wide majority of the Egyptian population. His only opponent, the secular liberal Hamdeen Sabahi, barely figured in the calculations, gaining just 700,000 votes – or 3%. Taken on these numbers alone, one could conclude that the Egyptian population is finally unified in its presidential choice and that such an unprecedented support means that al-Sisi has a prosperous and relatively peaceful political career ahead.
But looks beyond these numerical results and you will get a considerably less optimistic picture of events. Even if al-Sisi has gained 96% of the votes, that does not mean that the majority of Egyptians gave him their support. Interestingly enough, the majority of Egyptians did not vote at all. In fact it appears that only 24m of the 54m Egyptians registered to vote actually turned out to cast their ballots – and there have been many claims that the elections were flawed and heavily manipulated.
Turn-out only accounts to 44% of the population. This is significantly down from the 52% who voted when Mohammed Morsi was elected president in 2012. This lack of political involvement clearly demonstrates that al Sisi does not enjoy as much support as he would like everyone to believe – and that the democratic process he claims to be enacting is already flawed.
Even if the low turn-out can partially be blamed on the voting boycott called by various political actors, such as the liberal and secular groups as well as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood (a lot of whom have been arrested) it still looks as if nearly 10 months of continuous political campaigning in favour of the former army chief still didn’t rouse mass support from the Egyptian people. And when you think that the electoral commission made the unprecedented decision to extend voting for a third day and a national holiday was called especially for the occasion – which gave people free time to vote – polling stations remained empty. Anyone following the election on Twitter will have seen photos of deserted schools and offices.
The electoral commission even urged citizens to vote by claiming that the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood would come back and take their revenge on al Sisi should they not vote. They went as far as threatening to persecute all abstainers. But largely without success.
Back to the future with al-Sisi
So, in fact, political apathy appears to be the real winner of these presidential elections. This comes with a whole set of dangerous implications. It could be argued that the lack of citizens’ participation is in part due to the widespread assumption that al-Sisi was always going to win – but it also reveals high levels of discontent and opposition. There are many within the Egyptian public who are strongly critical of the former army chief’s lack of clear policy plans. There are also many who see in his victory the inevitable return to Mubarak’s “deep state”. And sitting behind that seeming apathy is fear and apprehension about standing against or supporting a candidate standing against someone who has, frankly, been set to be Egypt’s new ruler since the army staged a coup d’etat on July 3 last year.
International observers such as Human Rights Watch have also declared that the violent crackdown over the month following the Muslim Brotherhood’s deposition also negatively impacted on the perceived and actual fairness of these presidential elections. So it looks like not much has changed in the country in the past three years and that Egypt is heading back to a military dictatorship that will once again take hold of the country.
Despite all these irregularities, al-Sisi’s sweeping victory remains unchallenged and the former field marshall is set to rule the country for the foreseeable future. It’s not hard to imagine that at least some of the popular support for al-Sisi might be based on many Egyptians’ belief that, despite what looks like a return to the sort of quasi-military rule that they kicked out in 2011, some degree of much longed stability and security will come out of al Sisi’s election. This is something Egypt has not enjoyed in more than five years.
But we should keep in mind that, as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Kevin Connolly, clearly puts it: “Mr Sisi’s appeal is to those Egyptians who would accept a little less freedom for a little more stability – a dangerous but tempting trade-off in a time of chaos.”.