Sisi's Big Day Is a Bust

The Egyptian election was supposed to bring the former Army chief to office on a massive wave of popular support. So why did so many voters stay home?

CAIRO — Former Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi faced the first setback of his effort to consolidate power in Cairo, as voter turnout in the election that was widely expected to bring him to the presidency was reportedly anemic. Despite widespread reports of empty polling stations throughout the country, the Egyptian government took the unusual step of extending the ballot into a third day in an attempt to drum up more voters.

Sisi has touted the importance of overwhelming public participation as vital to confirming the Egyptian people's endorsement of the new political order that followed President Mohamed Morsi's ouster last summer and to giving the incoming president a mandate to rule. The former Army chief said in an interview aired on Egyptian television that he hoped 40 million people, or roughly 75 percent of registered voters, would go to the polls. Both the Sisi campaign and that of his sole challenger, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, objected to the extension of the vote.

In an email to reporters on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 27, the second day of voting, the Sabahi campaign estimated that turnout stood at between 10 and 15 percent. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, an independent NGO in Cairo, also estimated turnout at 15 percent after the first day of voting. If the turnout is anywhere close to those numbers, it will be far below what Sisi's supporters were hoping for.

"I hope that there will be a majority of voters that will have gone to participate," Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister who serves as an advisor to Sisi, told Foreign Policy on Monday. "It's not a usual period; it's an exceptional one. We have a major, major crisis.… So all citizens should join and participate and contribute."

Over the past two days, the Egyptian government has pulled out all the tricks at its disposal to boost turnout. After the first day of voting, it declared Tuesday to be a national holiday, freeing state employees to head to the ballot box. Egypt's Transport Ministry made the trains free to make it easy for voters to travel to polling stations, and some of Cairo's largest malls shut down early so patrons and employees could go vote. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, meanwhile, threatened to fine registered voters who abstained from casting a vote.

The reason for voter apathy, however, may be inherent in the campaign itself. Sisi's victory has appeared inevitable for months -- he had already been meeting with foreign delegations even before the formality of the election. Moreover, the career military man ran a campaign that was almost completely absent of policy details, giving even voters inclined to support him little idea of how he would govern the country.

"A new Egypt. Back to discipline. Back to production. Back to moving ahead. And an end to chaos," explained Moussa, when asked to describe Sisi's message to voters. "The implementation of the Constitution. Democracy. There are so many messages -- development, social justice."

There are precious few specifics, however, on how to attain those goals. For example, Sisi's 16-point presidential platform, which is drawn from the candidate's promises during his recent TV interviews, fluctuates between exceedingly specific and totally abstract. One point, for example, calls for the construction of 22 new industrial cities and 25 other cities and resorts, without offering any information on how the construction will be funded or where the cities will be built. Another point advocates "offer[ing] material and moral support to the teachers for resolving their problems," without describing what that may mean in practice.

Sisi hinted at this low-profile strategy when he announced his candidacy in March, saying that he would not run a "traditional" campaign. He has more than lived up to that promise. He has not made any public appearances, due to what military officials and his supporters describe as serious security threats presented by the Muslim Brotherhood. He also declined to debate Sabahi, and he oversaw a campaign team that rarely engaged with the public or the media. The campaign is headed by Mahmoud Karem, a former Egyptian ambassador, and has received counsel from Moussa and other political figures -- but it is unclear whether these are the figures whom Sisi will rely on as advisors once, inevitably, in office.

In the absence of a clear ideology, the focus of the Sisi campaign has turned to his personal virtues. His face dots posters across Cairo, sometimes with a lion or the pyramids as a backdrop. "Men who made history," blares a red headline of one banner near downtown Cairo, below a trinity of Egyptian military leaders -- former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, former President Anwar Sadat, and Sisi.

"There is this popular hypnosis about Sisi -- that he's a savior, that he can repair the country, that he's a legendary figure," says Ashraf El-Sherif, a professor of comparative politics at the American University in Cairo. "This idea will be tested very soon, when he comes to power."

Although Sisi is still guaranteed to ascend to the presidency, those personality-centered appeals now appear unsuccessful at generating the overwhelming public mandate that he hoped for. What's more, his persistent vagueness about his plans in office means that it still remains a mystery how exactly he will combat the country's daunting economic and social challenges.

The rhetoric coming from his camp, if not yet his policies, suggests grand changes are afoot. Moussa described Egypt as entering a "Third Republic," distinct both from the reigns of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, as well as from the one-year experiment in Muslim Brotherhood rule.

"In 2011, the goal was to bring the regime down. Now, our task is to establish a new regime," Moussa said. "This time is the time of construction."

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The less-than-overwhelming enthusiasm for the election -- as well as alleged electoral violations committed over the past two days -- could also catalyze opposition from groups that had previously seem prepared to work within the rules of the political game. The Sabahi campaign in particular has increased its criticism of the process, alleging that the state was throwing its weight behind Sisi.

On Monday, the campaign said that it had "monitored systematic violations" by police and Army officers. It cited locations where its delegates were denied access to polling stations or were prevented from filing complaints, and instances where its delegates had witnessed military vehicles being used to campaign for Sisi, or where voters had been directed to cast their ballot for a particular candidate. On Tuesday, the campaign objected to the extension of the vote, which it said "raises logical doubts among the voters regarding the integrity of the whole process."

In contrast to Sisi, Sabahi ran an energetic campaign that crisscrossed the country in an attempt to drum up enthusiasm for his dark-horse candidacy. While many considered his effort a lost cause, he consistently rebutted claims that the state would not let him win.

"We have these three myths that are being propagated by the same people who would benefit from them," he told Foreign Policy last week, while flying on a commercial jet to campaign in the Upper Egypt city of Sohag. "The first one is that the election is predetermined. The second one is that even if Hamdeen has popularity," he said, referring to himself in the third person, "the election will be forged. And the last one is that even if Hamdeen wins, the state institutions won't work with him and he will be a failure."

The candidate cheerily took pictures and chatted with supporters who approached his seat. He gave no indication that he knew he was fighting a losing battle. When complimented on his number of supporters on the plane, he shrugged and smiled: "I am the next president."

While Sabahi admitted that state institutions would be biased in favor of Sisi, he demanded that the election not be tainted by outright forgery. How far he will push his criticisms of the electoral process in light of the past two days will be an important barometer of the government's stability.

For now, Sisi must find a way to energize voters more concerned with their day-to-day struggles than the presidential election. His old Islamist enemies, after all, are down but not out. In Sohag, the capital of a governorate that gave 58 percent of its votes to Morsi in the second round of the last presidential election, the Muslim Brotherhood appeared far from defeated: Faded Morsi posters still line the streets, while hastily scrawled graffiti reads: "Sisi is a killer" and "Egypt is Islamic."

Whether Sisi can heal the divisions implicit in those words and rebuild the country's tattered economy will determine whether he will become the heroic figure his supporters claim him to be or whether he will succumb to the political turmoil that has swept out two presidents in three years. If he fails to inspire Egyptians that he can bring a better future, another leader may well try to step in and fill that role.

"When Morsi was ousted, OK, at least we knew we had the military to replace him," American University in Cairo's Sherif said, miming the action of slapping down a card on the table. "But if the Muslim Brotherhood fails, and then the military fails, who could come next?"

Photo: Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images


After the Revolution Comes Consensus

Forty years ago, the enemy of democracy in Portugal was fascism. Now it's just Europolitics.

LISBON, Portugal -- In late April, the people of Portugal took to the streets to celebrate their freedom and marked the fortieth anniversary of the revolution that toppled the Salazar dictatorship. From early morning until the very end of the night, five generations of Portuguese walked the ancient streets of Lisbon -- streets worn smooth by the millions of feet that have grazed them. Many of the walkers, from the elderly to children in parents' arms, held red carnations, the symbol of the 1974 revolution.

The April 25 holiday celebrates a chain of events that began when a faction of young, left-wing army captains -- calling themselves the Movimento das Forzas Armadas ("Armed Forces Movement," or MFA) -- set in motion a coup they had been planning for months. It was finally time to end an authoritarian regime, the Estado Novo, which much like Francoist Spain justified a program of censorship, social repression, and harassment of political opponents with a moralizing strain of Catholicism. The country clung to its colonies years after England and France had given theirs up, and freedom was encouraged in the sole area of the market economy. The plan for the coup was to mount a sudden and strategic occupation of choke points around the country, cutting the aging regime off before it could react. As the supporters massed at key points of control in Lisbon, some of the young soldiers put carnations into the barrels of their guns to signal their nonviolent intent.

Hearing that the captains were challenging the regime, ordinary citizens -- particularly the country's socialists and communists, who had been harassed and suppressed for decades -- rushed into the streets to support them. Civilians and soldiers stood together peacefully in the Largo do Carmo, outside the military police station where Prime Minister Marcello Caetano was hiding, until he agreed to surrender.

The fall of the regime began a tremendous process of opening Portugal up to the world, to modernity, and to modes of life that the strict social control of fascists had foreclosed. Those April days in 1974 were distinguished by their bloodlessness, and by the cooperation that ultimately emerged between the military and civil society, two sectors not often disposed to cooperating with one another.

To celebrate the anniversary last month, the military held exercises and demonstrations for a civilian audience in Lisbon's Praça do Comercio. Young soldiers wandered the crowd greeting people; a few mothers gave them their young children to hold. A rally on the river-facing Rua do Alecrim, well-worn keffiyahs and a sign denouncing "kleptocracy" found a home, peacefully, in the same space as an army tank. People rehearsed popular chants, including, in Portuguese, the old Latin American slogan of protest: "O povo, unido, jamais será vencido" -- the people, united, will never be defeated.

And yet, two days later, when I ask the eminent Portuguese philosopher José Gil whether his country is free, his answer is an emphatic "no." The decades after the revolution have not played out as many Portuguese had hoped. That sense of the majesty of the people, and of the power of their will -- which, soon after the uprising, would be channeled into the institutions of a democratic state -- have given way to a technocratic reality. Today, much of Lisbon's policy is set in Brussels.

"Internally, there has been a real loss of sovereignty and an erosion of democracy. Externally, there's an increasing dependence on Europe and the global economy. We are far from being able to decide what we want in education policy, in health, in reforms to the state," Gil says, referring to the three years of supervised austerity at the hands of European authorities.

On Sunday, the people of Portugal went to the polls to have their say in the running of the supranational body that has come to mean so much in their daily lives -- whose austerity regime has effectively determined so much of their national policy. The election delivered the expected result: victory to the opposition Socialists, who garnered just over 30 percent of the vote. (The Socialists are generally expected to continue current austerity policies if they gain power in the next national election.) The ruling center-right coalition, Aliança Portugal, followed in a close second. With 12.7 percent, the Communist-Green alliance finished third.

Elsewhere in Europe, euroskeptic parties recorded a series of stunning victories. In France, Marine Le-Pen's right-wing populist Front National won 26 percent of the vote and trounced both the ruling Socialist party and the UMD, the main opposition party. The French, Le-Pen declared to her exultant supporters, "no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and unelected technocrats. They want to be protected from globalization and take back the reins of their destiny." French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the result a political "earthquake," and President François Hollande called an emergency meeting of his ministers to discuss the vote. Meanwhile in Britain, the bombthrower Nigel Farage and his euroskeptic UK Independence Party beat both Labor and the Tories, the first time since 1910 that a national election hasn't been won by one of those two parties.

But don't mistake these results for a sign of a vital democracy. With the European Parliament having little real power -- it is effectively subordinated to the European Council, made up of the heads of state of participating governments, and by extension generally dominated by the region's potencies -- the elections are mainly a way for Portuguese citizens, and Europeans generally, to show discontent with the EU and discomfort with how it has affected their domestic situations. Pro-EU parties still retain a large majority in the parliament, though the increased presence of euroskeptics will surely provide a much greater platform for a political message to which Europe's establishment politicians have struggled to find a response.

Bound as Portugal is the EU by membership and austerity, the elections are unlikely to have a significant impact on its budgetary policies, despite it having met the requirements of its creditors. On May 17, Portugal reached the end of its bailout program, which it entered in the spring of 2011, after the euro crisis forced it to default on its debt and accept a $96 billion emergency loan package. By most accounts, it has done what its lenders -- the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, collectively known here as the "troika" -- asked of it, cutting spending across a variety of social programs and ministries. At the beginning of the month, the country's leaders reported that they would opt for a "clean exit" from the bailout program, forgoing an emergency line of credit from the troika as Portugal returns to world markets.

Practically speaking, the end of the program does not mark the end of austerity, or of external supervision. One day before the revolution's anniversary, the troika announced that Portugal's finances would still be reviewed biannually -- by a new, independent group of analysts, it was emphasized -- until the distant year of 2038.

An unexpected failure to walk the straight and narrow path of austerity -- that is, the sort of sudden turn that sometimes happens in politics -- could see the country punished not just by international markets but also, under the terms of its loans, by the creditors themselves.

In the papers and on the streets, no one expects the regime of austerity to end. Some of the supposedly temporary austerity-era cuts to pensions and to the salaries of public employees, it turns out, will be made permanent, the government said in a presentation of its 2014-2018 "budgetary strategy" on April 30. The anniversary, an occasion of great pride for most Portuguese, came tinged this year with bitter reminders that the freedom won forty years ago is today not absolute.


In a branch of the Livraria Bertrand, a popular chain of bookstores, on the centrally located Rua Garrett, the windows are filled with books written to address the present moment, in Portugal and in Europe. Many are authored by the heads of the lists contesting the parliamentary election, rushed into print, or into new editions, to hit stores in time for the election. In this montage of urgent, red- and black-lettered titles, which variously exhort the Portuguese to leave the euro, to give the European project a little more time, to reclaim their sovereignty -- to worry, to wait, to act with force -- an almost incongruous inclusion is Gil's decade-old book Portugal, Hoje: O Medo de Existir ("Portugal, Today: The Fear of Existing"). The pacifically colored seascape on its jacket conceals a text that diagnoses the tiny country with passivity, with a lack of historical memory, with a meekness bred by decades of authoritarian rule. It was a sensation here at the time of its publication in 2004.

Like many of the books in Livraria Bertrand and many of the editorials in the country's elite newspapers, Gil talks about austerity and about the oversight of Portugal's budget and policies that has accompanied it as a "loss of sovereignty," a term that has come to dominate the debate here. The new mandate -- savings above all -- has led to a regime of cuts: "Firing people, continuing to fire public functionaries, to cut their salaries, cut pensions ... And who recommended that this be done? The troika. That's the loss of sovereignty," Gil told me.

Many economists believe continuing austerity is absolutely critical to the viability of Portugal's economy; many others believe that the cuts already made have made it harder to close the deficit, by further depressing the economy and thinning tax receipts. But no one is celebrating the country's social indicators, which show life becoming increasingly difficult for many Portuguese, especially young people. Unemployment, officially estimated at 15.3 percent, is often said by to be substantially higher, with many unofficial estimates adding an extra five percent.

Vítor Sérgio Ferreira, a sociologist and the deputy head of the Permanent Youth Observatory of Lisbon, describes in an email a "context of continuing shrinking of employment, especially youth employment, and a worsening of the conditions of life for parents. (Many may not be able to keep their children in school, particularly university, given the cost of the annual fees and living expenses for a student in higher education.)" This while a university degree has become central to finding employment.

Even good news comes with a caveat. When the newspaper Público recently reported that the overall percentage of young Portuguese living with their parents had fallen -- from 59 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in 2011 -- one of the sociologists behind the study attributed the drop to levels of emigration not seen since Estado Novo. According to Público, 60,000 Portuguese citizens left the country in 2010. During the dictatorship, in the 1960s, approximately 70,000 emigrated every year.

Those who can't leave, says Ferreira, will increasingly find themselves in a situation that in Britain has come to be known as "NEET" -- not in education, employment, or training. "The paths these young people might take in the course of their lives are winding, unknown," he writes.

More of them will lose their autonomy, choosing to live with parents for years into adulthood -- one consequence of Portugal's culture of what Ferreira calls the "welfare-family." The median age of leaving the house has increased to 28.8 years, from 28.2 in 2004. And despite support from the family, the median age of Portugal's homeless population is falling.

Playing to simmering dissent among those who have stayed, the political left, whose influence in Portugal peaked in the two or three years following the 1974 revolution, is tying anti-austerity sentiment to the spirit of the movement that brought down the Estado Novo. Posters for the alliance between Portugal's communist and green parties feature the phrase "rights, development, sovereignty" above a large image of a red carnation. "Values of April: Defending the People and the Country," a white banner superimposed on the flower reads.

"This is a country that goes toasting its budgetary goals," says Gil, "and Europe and Germany are very happy with Portugal -- ‘Ah, what a good student! Portugal is a good example!' This on the one hand. On the other, we have two million Portuguese near or at the poverty line. Two million in a population of nine million."

"This is all immense. This is a very, very small country, and it can't support all this."

Rui Tavares, a writer, journalist, and a member of the European Parliament heading the ticket of LIVRE, a recently formed leftist party, points out in his book The Irony of the European Project that austerity has been presented in Europe as a fait accompli in part because it is one. As part of the negotiation leading to the common currency, member states in 1997 agreed to a Stability and Growth Pact that set limits for the maximum debt a member state can carry and yearly deficit it can run. A country passing these limits triggers a rescue process and austerity measures. In other words, austerity is written into EU regulations as a foregone conclusion, the product of a compromise agreed to decades earlier, to be implemented technocratically and not lending itself to political deliberation or debate.

Some Portuguese have asked whether, as citizens of a sovereign nation, they should accept this logic, which in great part underlies the current fatalism about austerity. Gil, whom Nouvel Observateur, a favorite magazine of the French intellectual class, honored in 2005 as one of the world's 25 greatest thinkers, paints a portrait of a people who, at least today, are desperate to avoid conflict with their government. "The majority of Portuguese accepted austerity with a fatalistic attitude. And it's true now ... There's a surface plane of resignation, fatalism, apparent acceptance. People are leaving, and never have so many Portuguese left."

"There are people who don't want a confrontation with the government. They're going to make a new life -- young people, above all -- and will stay there forever."

With billions of dollars left to pay back and external supervision set to continue for another quarter of a century, the so-called end of Portugal's time under the troika begins to look like no break with the past at all.

"Twenty years is a lot," says Gil. "It's a life, half of an active life. And if the Portuguese internalize that stagnation will continue for another 20 years, anything could happen from the point of view of perturbations and social movements. Right now, everything takes place within the unions, the political parties -- and because all the movements are bound this way, there are no spontaneous revolts, there are no protests, no fronts."


In honor of the anniversary, the city of Lisbon has scattered free-standing displays of life-sized photos of the revolution across the city, including several in the Largo do Chiado, a heavily touristed area. By April 27, someone had left a paragraph of graffiti beneath an image of two small boys talking to a pair of the rebelling soldiers, as the latter stare down a street along the barrels of their rifles:

Excuse me, my lord, but Portugal already has an owner -- Portugal belongs to the Portuguese. Once it was conquered by the Moors. On this day, the 25th of April, it was conquered again. To the oppressors of my liberty I can write what I feel and what goes on in my soul and heart. On that day I was listening to the radio. I was eleven years old. All the radio stations were playing "Grândola, Vila Morena" [a signal agreed by the MFA to mean they were past the point of no return with their plan] ...

A few weeks later, the words had been scrubbed away, or the panel replaced. At any rate, they were gone.

"On the surface, everything is calm," Gil says. "But people, inside, are fed up. There's an internal revolt that the Portuguese swallow, and swallow."