CAIRO—Egypt has begun the final countdown toward next week’s domestic presidential election. According to results coming in from last week’s votes cast by Egyptians living abroad, former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds a commanding lead over his sole challenger, Hamdeen Sabahy.
State-run news agencies report that so far al-Sisi has defeated Sabahy in nearly every expatriate poll, including a 93 percent victory in Saudi Arabia, which represents Egypt’s largest voting population abroad. But even if he can reasonably expect to vanquish Sabahi, al-Sisi faces a daunting task beyond securing his own victory: defending the election’s legitimacy.
During a television interview that aired May 18, al-Sisi expressed concern about the doubts over the validity of the elections. Many al-Sisi supporters and detractors alike view the upcoming vote as a referendum on a de-facto leader instead of a genuine contest. The former military chief has essentially ruled Egypt since removing Muslim Brotherhood leader and former President Mohamed Morsi last July.
Throughout Cairo’s neighborhoods and on the downtown 6th of October Bridge, al-Sisi posters adorn every lamppost, while Sabahi signs appear sparse and haphazard. Ahmed Azina, a volunteer for the Sabahi campaign branch based in the Doqqi neighborhood of Giza, said the discrepancy between the campaign resources marshaled by al-Sisi versus the low-budget operation of his opponents makes it difficult to win supporters.
“We try to target our speech to the poor,” since Sabahi’s platform largely focuses on helping them, Azina said. But it’s difficult, since the people with resources in Egypt back al-Sisi, paying for advertising others can’t afford, Azina said.While the Sabahi campaign has garnered support from a portion of youth who believe in the principles of the 2011 revolution, the candidate’s team struggles to compete as it relies on people’s interest in Sabahi’s political track record and published platform instead of expensive ad space or polished signage.
In contrast, Al-Sisi’s high-octane operation harnesses the 56-year-old general’s widespread fame, abundant media coverage, and publicity campaigns, including a recent door-to-door distribution of energy-efficient light bulbs—a foretaste of his proposed solution to chronic power shortages.
To many youth activist groups that led the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, al-Sisi looms large as an inevitable next president who will return the nation to its pre-Arab Spring state. One Cairo resident who has taken part in demonstrations with the now-banned April 6 pro-democracy youth movement explained that he will abstain from voting in order to make a point about the election itself: “I cannot join in this vote.” In his view, Sabahi never stood a chance. He said some of his friends will purposely invalidate their votes by writing their own names or a protest slogan across the ballot. “If there is a real election one day, maybe I will take part in it,” he said.
While al-Sisi dismisses criticisms from the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, asserting that they are not “real Egyptians” but members of a criminal organization, he has begun to adjust his message in order to dispel the cloud of criticism lingering over the electoral process. At the opening of his May 18 interview, al-Sisi celebrated the high turnout rate in the expatriate vote. He said voter turnout at home will be crucial.
For al-Sisi, high overall participation in the election could prove an essential tool to neutralize the effects of his opposition’s boycott. As if responding to Al-Sisi’s need, last weekend United Arab Emirates singer Hussein Al-Gesmy released a new song called “Good News.”
The song delivers a sunny “get out the vote” message in a catchy music video that topped charts in Egypt within one day. The lyrics praise Egyptians for what they will accomplish through the election and urges people from each individual region of Egypt to “make a step” and “make things right in front of the world.” After all, the refrain asks, “What does Egypt get from your silence?”