CAIRO—Egyptian voters will head to the polls in two weeks to choose between two presidential candidates in the first election held since the country’s latest revolution. The contest, held on May 26 and 27, features former Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi, a seasoned politician who took third place in the 2012 elections that began the short-lived presidency of Mohamed Morsi.
One question looms large for both candidates: Can either side win the support of the nation’s roughly 20 million youth? During a visit to the Citadel, one of Cairo’s top tourist destinations, I spoke to a young employee named Samir who told me he doesn’t believe either of the two candidates will deliver the freedom he wants for his life and his society. He does not plan to vote.
He’s not alone. Among Cairo’s youth, pervasive cynicism about Egypt’s politicians and media, and frustrations over issues from traffic to unemployment, have produced apathy toward both presidential candidates. Many youth gravitate toward cultural figures like musicians to represent their views.
In 2011, singer Ramy Essam put the call for “bread, freedom, social justice” to a driving melody that galvanized the crowds in Tahrir Square. The song continues to stir Egyptian youth. At a February concert at Cairo’s Al-Sawy Culture Wheel, a popular venue situated along the Nile, Essam made a guest appearance that electrified the largely under-thirty crowd.
At the same venue last week, singer Mohamed Mohsen had the crowd singing along to poetic lyrics that conjure nostalgia for how Egypt used to be and sadness about the current state of its society. A young woman named Mansoura told me she likes the ideas in Mohsen’s music: “He says that Egypt can be better.”
Another popular group, Cairokee, combines the words “Cairo” and “karaoke” to symbolize singing along with Cairo.In January, the band released an album entitled Sekka Shemal (meaning “wrong direction”) that critiques Egyptian society. Coinciding with the three-year anniversary of the 2011 revolution, the group also released a YouTube exclusive, “People are Dancing and People are Dying” that laments the lack of freedom in Egypt today. The haunting melody, reminiscent of 1969 American chart-topper “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” starkly contrasts their iconic 2011 hit “Sound of Freedom,” which captured the hopeful spirit of Tahrir during the revolution. The new song expresses frustration with members of the older generation and urges them to “pass the torch” so the youth can think for themselves.
But musicians have limited ability to change the country’s direction in the short term. While many youth lack enthusiasm for the upcoming elections, the presidential face-off moves full-steam ahead as each candidate vies for the nation’s support. In a televised speech on May 5 Al-Sisi told voters he wasn’t aiming for the presidency when he oversaw Morsi’s removal from office last summer, but that he responded to voters’ calls for his candidacy in February.
Sisi named security and stability as top his priorities, and said the Muslim Brotherhood, officially considered a terrorist group by the current Egyptian government, would not be allowed to exist under his rule.
The candidate affirmed that protest laws aimed at ending chaos (including a controversial law passed in November banning unregistered demonstrations and authorizing the arrest of protesters) would remain in place under his command, along with any laws that promote stability.
To a large segment of Egyptian society, Al-Sisi has been the candidate, the presumed victor, months before he officially announced his campaign. Many Egyptians favor Al-Sisi, including Christians who fear Islamist rule and tourism professionals whose business has plummeted amid ongoing unrest.
But Al-Sisi faces at least one obstacle: For many of Egypt’s youth, the candidate represents the counter-revolution—a reversion to a pre-2011, Mubarak-style regime founded on a forceful personality and domineering military.
Al-Sisi’s opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, announced his platform in a televised address on April 30, drawing a reprimand from the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) for beginning to campaign before the official May 3 launch date. Taking up the causes of social justice, democracy, and national independence, Sabahi presents himself as the candidate of the January 2011 revolution. Sabahi said he plans to fulfill the demands made famous in the Tahrir Square protests—“bread, freedom, and social justice.”
Like Al-Sisi, Sabahi spoke to the need to fight terrorism, and to improve healthcare and education. Unlike Al-Sisi, he promised to overturn Egypt’s anti-protest law and to release prisoners arrested for peacefully demonstrating. He asked for the support of all youth “who care about their country.” Despite his direct appeal, both candidates face an uphill battle to win substantial support from a skeptical younger generation.