The pillars of Mubarak’s regime and the aged forces of Egypt’s counterrevolution were preparing to “impress the world” (as goes the rhetoric that is used in privately owned, pro-Mubarak media) by a historic turnout at and unprecedentedly long queues outside polling stations in the first presidential election after Mohamed Morsi was ousted on 3 July. Supporters of frontrunner Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the former defence minister who led Morsi’s ouster, wanted to prove that they could outnumber those who turned out to vote in the 2012 presidential election which Morsi won.
The regime and forces allied to it cajoled Egyptians into voting through a media campaign that told viewers that they must show up at the polls in massive numbers “in order to make Egypt proud” and intimidated them by getting across the message that any citizen who fails to vote is a traitor who wants Egypt to descend into chaos and become another Syria or another Libya. The justice ministry even threatened that those who did not vote would be fined. One of Cairo’s largest shopping malls was closed so that Cairenes would refrain from shopping and go vote. And some employers known to be close to Mubarak’s regime went as far as threatening to deprive employees who did not vote from bonuses.
But despite their desperate efforts, today, the youth of the revolution win. One day more than three years ago, youth stood in the faith of gunfire, expired tear gas, snipers, camels and swords and they won the first round against an aging regime that has controlled the country since the military ascended to power in 1952 and assumed a long-lasting role in the country’s politics and economy. The youth won when they made Hosni Mubarak step down. And today, they win by abstaining from voting and keeping propagandist images of the voters at the polling stations void of a strong presence of youth and full of elderly citizens in a country where a quarter of the population are aged between 18 and 29.
In an ironic manifestation of Egypt’s generational gap, old generation supporters of Al-Sisi have appeared in the media blaming the youth of being too lazy and irresponsible to fulfil their duty toward their country by voting. Some pundits urged parents to coerce their sons and daughters to exercise their democratic right of voting. Perhaps they forgot that if it hadn’t been for the 25 January uprising that was spearheaded by the youth, the 1971 constitution would have been in place, preventing contested presidential elections.
This is no belittling of older Egyptians, many of whom are democrats who support human rights, transparency and the rule of law, and call for empowering the country’s youth. But it is also difficult to overlook the fact that the older generations have been greatly affected by living their youth under an authoritarian, elderly and patriarchal regime that has survived through disseminating conspiracy theories to rally the people behind it and create a superficial sense of nationalism. The rhetoric adopted by anti-revolutionary forces about an alleged foreign plot aiming to bring down the nation could give the impression of a 1967 or 1973 Egypt that is in a state of war.
In the end, those who voted for Al-Sisi regardless of their age, are Egyptian citizens and they have the right to vote and have a say in their country’s fate. In terms of election’s results, Al-Sisi’s supporters do constitute a majority, and Al-Sisi is clearly popular – but he is not overwhelmingly popular. Less than half of the electorate took the election seriously and voted for him. Although voters’ turnout is not necessarily high in elections held in democratic countries, Al-Sisi had said that he expected 40 million voters (80 % of the electorate) to cast their ballots. They did not come close to their target, even after they took the abnormal and widely controversial step of extending voting for a third day.
The legend of the unprecedented, impeccable leader who enjoys the overwhelming majority of the population has been destroyed. The allegation that Al-Sisi’s opponents constitute a slim minority and are only a bunch of “terrorists” has been proven false.
Now what? We know that a considerable segment of the population, at least 25 million of Egypt’s 90 million population, want stability even if it comes in the framework of a political system that gives the military undemocratic privileges. They look up to the new president and they have hopes that he will achieve their demand. Al-Sisi has major challenges ahead of him. He lost the first challenge – proving that the vast majority of Egyptians are behind him. He is left with a deteriorating economy, an energy shortage that has left millions – under Morsi and under the post-July 3 interim government – angry due to frequent power cuts, poverty that mars the lives of 51% of the population, deeply-rooted corruption, a divided society and an alienated youth. Not only Al-Sisi’s popularity will be put to the test, but this time the entire army’s popularity is at crossroads because Sisi’s popularity is partially attributed to the institution he came from – the armed forces.
Sooner or later the millions of poor Egyptians who hope that Al-Sisi will bring a stability that will improve their lives will realise that a corrupt regime cannot elevate them from poverty. And a system in which the military possesses vast economic assets with a budget immune from public accountability will not fight corruption or touch the military’s privileges. An atmosphere in which the state that waives tenders for its contracts and directly awards projects to the military – then the military in turn subcontracts via direct allocation of projects rather than tendering – is not an atmosphere where corruption could be eliminated.
Hypernationalism is currently in the air. Al-Sisi has rallied his supporters under the banner “Long Live Egypt” (the slogan of his electoral campaign), with a vague promise that Egypt will be ‘as big as the world” and a wish to fight terror and protect the country against an alleged conspiracy.
In 2006, a similar fervour of hollow patriotism prevailed amid a 2006 football match that a 78-year old Mubarak attended in the Cairo stadium. As millions of Egyptians cheered for the match, a thousand families were mourning their dead and searching for the bodies of their loved ones who were on a ferry that sunk in the Red Sea. The ferry’s owner who was sentenced in absentia was a Mubarak-appointee to parliament. Only three years later, Mubarak managed to rally millions behind him again over yet another football match between the Egyptian and Algerian national teams. The very people who rallied behind Mubarak ousted them in 2011.
Today, a significant segment of the population are celebrating Al-Sisi’s ascendance to the presidency as more than 16,000 political detainees are behind bars and the families of hundreds of protesters killed by the police since 2011 are still mourning their dead.
It is not always safe to make predictions about Egypt’s future and Egyptians’ orientations, but one can be sure that a battle has already begun between an alienated but resilient youth and an aging regime that has tightened its grip on power and started a fierce crackdown campaign on dissident voices.