“Maybe I’ll go vote, maybe I won’t. Everyone knows the game is fixed, so does it really matter?” Ayman Mansour, a 23-year-old university student, told VICE News a few days ago in Cairo. “If I have to study, I probably won’t make it.”
Voting for Egypt's next president begins today, which has the country shrugging its collective shoulders because the outcome has never been in doubt. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the former military general who led a coup last year against the Muslim Brotherhood government, is expected to win easily. His lone challenger is Hamdeen Sabahi, a silver-haired 59-year-old with a passing resemblance to Jay Leno. Sabahi leads the left-leaning Popular Current. He is polling in the single digits.
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Mansour prefers Sabahi to Sisi, but he says the political environment in Egypt makes fair elections impossible. Until late March, Sisi served as Secretary of Defense in a military-backed government that severely restricted protests, closed down opposition media outlets, and arrested about 21,000 Egyptians, including journalists and regime critics. The Sisi campaign is an unstoppable juggernaut that now enjoys the support of the media and powerful business elites.
Still, TV stations are playing PSAs encouraging voting, and the streets are filled with Sisi campaign posters emblazoned with the pat campaign slogan, “Long Live Egypt.”
Sisi clearly didn’t feel he needed to try very hard.
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Although the outcome of the election isn’t in any doubt, Sabahi is taking the campaign seriously. He first rose to prominence in the 1970s as a student leader when he challenged then-President Anwar Sadat on live TV over Sadat’s recent visit to Israel. The confrontation turned Sabahi into an icon of resistance; he has been in and out of jail for the past 25 years. One of the first Egyptian politicians to join the front lines of protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, Sabahi commands loyalty from secular nationalists.
In last year’s presidential election, Sabahi ran an insurgency campaign that barely registered in polls. Yet on Election Day he confounded expectations when he carried Cairo and finished a close third in a crowded field. Sabahi is now campaigning as the last hope of the increasingly embattled revolutionary movement that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak three years ago.
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When asked about Sabahi’s chances, supporters point to his come-from-behind performance in the last election. “We will not flee from the battle, we will not stand down, Sabahi will surprise everyone,” Fady Eskander, a top Sabahi aide, told VICE News. “We are the last hope for the revolution, and we intend to win.” But even Eskander concedes that Sisi is genuinely popular; many Egyptians are grateful to the general for toppling the unpopular Morsi government last summer. Now, with Egypt suffering a wave of political violence and a floundering economy, there’s hope that Sisi can restore calm.
'We don’t get paid, we have no money for posters. We are here because we love Hamdeen.'
But there's little hope for Sabahi. Though polls just opened, he took only 5.5 percent of early absentee votes from Egyptians living abroad. In fact, in recent weeks, Egyptian activists who plan to boycott the election criticized the Sabahi campaign for lending a veneer of legitimacy to the election, which they believe to be a dressed-up coup. Eskander shrugs off the criticism. “We are doing something pro-active,” he said. Chain-smoking cigarettes at Sabahi’s campaign headquarters 72 hours before voting began, Eskander was saying all the right things. “People are afraid to support Sabahi in public, but they will vote their consciences on Election Day.”
Hamdeen Sabahi casts his vote.
It's true that many of Egypt’s liberal and secular political parties have lined up behind Sabahi, who is viewed by many as the most credible critic of military government. “This campaign is about building a strong opposition movement that provides a real alternative to military rule,” Shahir George, secretary general of the Sabahi-aligned Egypt Freedom party, told us at his party headquarters in downtown Cairo. The offices were empty, since George has sent staff and volunteers to campaign for Sabahi in the final push before the election.
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In the days leading up to the vote, Sabahi’s supporters hit the streets hard. Blocks from Tahrir Square, about 30 Sabahi volunteers held a spirited (if small) rally. They flew kites with Sabahi’s image, passed out campaign literature, and sang Sabahi-themed protest songs. “We want to take our country back from the military,” said 31-year-old accountant Abdul Abd Hamid. He glanced nervously at a group of young men walking by in Sisi t-shirts who shouted, “Your revolution fucked the country… enough already!”
Sabahi loyalists are accustomed to this sort of treatment. “Of course, we are campaigning in a hostile environment,” said Hassan Ismael, a member of the Public Committee to Elect Sabahi. “Police tear down our posters and arrest our activists. Paid thugs attack our volunteers.” Nevertheless, Ismael too says all the right things. “No one can deny that Sabahi understands the plight of the poor and they will support him on Election Day.”
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The campaign is betting that Sabahi’s reputation as champion of Egypt’s underclass will pay dividends in a country where nearly 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The campaign platform, inspired by Egyptian nationalist icon Gamal Abdel Nasser, emphasizes government services, education, and poverty relief. Sabahi supporters often point out that Sisi has not released a detailed platform — that his campaign is based on a fear of instability rather than on solutions to problems.
Some Sabahi voters are skeptical that his populist message will reach the masses, however. “Honestly, no one expects it to be a fair fight,” Dina Magd, a 30-year-old lawyer said during a Sabahi rally. But that sort of pessimism was surprisingly rare among Sabahi supporters.
At Sabahi headquarters in Cairo, the atmosphere was upbeat but serious. A dozen young men in Sabahi t-shirts smoked cigarettes, sipped tea, and watched videos of Sabahi on YouTube. The rest of the campaign staff was sleeping on the floor, using giant canvas Sabahi posters as sleeping bags. Ibrahim Korba, 25, told us that many of the campaign workers had been sleeping of the floor of headquarters off and on for two months. “We don’t get paid, we have no money for posters,“ he said. “We are here because we love Hamdeen.” Sabahi’s young campaign volunteers often refer to the candidate by his first name; many have pictures of themselves with Sabahi on their cell phones.
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For these campaign foot-soldiers, the emotional stakes are high. “Dozens of my friends have died for the cause of our revolution,” said Alaa Sheko, a 25-year-old student at Cairo University. “For me, supporting Hamdeen is the only way to continue the revolution, and the best way to honor my friends.” Sheko had been up all night hanging Sabahi banners. When we spoke to him, he was cramming for an accounting exam later that afternoon.
Video takes May 13 and released by Sisi of a ‘human chain’ demonstration in support of the candidate.
The Sabahi campaign has also been fueled by genuine fear of what Egypt under Sisi will look like. The general has little tolerance for dissent, and Sabahi supporters worry that they could find themselves in the crosshairs after the election. Sisi recently advised Egyptian newspaper editors to refrain from criticizing the regime, and instead recommended that they “whisper in the ears of the government if they uncover corruption.” So while hoping for the best, Sabahi supporters are bracing for the worst.
“If Hamdeen doesn’t win,” Eskander told us, “the political climate could get darker than under Mubarak.”
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro