Hope for strongman fuels Egypt's el-Sissi campaign

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2014 2:23 PM
Hope for strongman fuels Egypt's el-Sissi campaign

CAIRO (AP) — Posters of former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hang everywhere on the streets of Egypt. In Cairo, his face lines highways and bridges and towers over city squares. In Alexandria, loudspeakers blast down the Mediterranean seaside road with songs praising him as the next president and a gift to Egypt after years of turmoil.

The campaign for next week's presidential election looks a lot like Egypt 2005. That was last presidential election under Hosni Mubarak, when the longtime autocrat agreed for the first time to allow candidates to run against him. After a campaign in which his opponents' faces were rarely seen in the streets or media, Mubarak swept with an official 88 percent of the vote.

Like Mubarak then, retired Field Marshal el-Sissi is a certain winner, though few think the vote will be plagued with fraud allegations like the 2005 one.

El-Sissi enjoys a massive mobilization of media and business interests supporting the man who last summer ousted Egypt's first democratically elected leader, Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Almost universally, newspapers and TV stations hail el-Sissi as the only one capable of guiding the country through a crippling economic crisis and violence by Islamic militants. His only opponent in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, has had little such enthusiasm.

The tone of the campaign reflects how, after the turmoil since Mubarak's 2011 ouster, many exhausted Egyptians are going full circle to embrace a strongman who can bring stability no matter what the worries over the future for democracy. The sector of society hailing el-Sissi — crossing rural-urban and rich-poor divides — has embraced the fierce crackdown on Islamist protesters that has killed hundreds and arrested thousands, welcomed the increased prominence of the once-hated police forces and had no problem with a broader clamp-down on other dissenters.

"People want a military man. We have already seen that a civilian president can't do much," Shaimaa Abdel-Hamid, a 26-year-old woman at a pro-el-Sissi rally in downtown Cairo this week. Unabashedly, she said she cried when Mubarak was toppled.

"We want security. Sure, health and education and all. But we want security first," she said.

Behind the media fervor, however, the country is deeply divided. A poll released Thursday the U.S.-based Pew Center showed a slim majority of 54 percent view el-Sissi favorably, and 45 percent unfavorably, with comparable figures on views for Morsi's ouster. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood was viewed favorably only by 38 percent — suggesting that the dislike of el-Sissi goes beyond the hardcore backers of the Islamic movement.

Pew's poll was based on face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults conducted in April, with a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points

The divisions may not thwart a strong el-Sissi victory. But they could diminish his other aim, an overwhelming turnout, which his backers seek in order to make the case that Morsi's overthrow reflected the people's will.

The 2012 election that Morsi won saw fierce competition among 13 candidates in a spirited campaign. This time the mood is one of resignation.

Sameh Abdel-Khaleq, a 42-year old accountant from Port Said, has thrown in the towel. He counts himself among Egypt's revolutionaries: The past three years, he has backed protests, spoke out against authorities, and donated from his own pocket to pay for banners and legal costs for detained activists.

Now he says he'll vote for el-Sissi because he'll win anyway.

"We will go back to the Mubarak days," Abdel-Khaleq said. He listed the woes of the revolutionary movement: Activists have been arrested or intimidated into shutting up, a new draconian anti-protest law bans political gatherings without a police permit. Most of all, he says, the public is hostile to revolutionaries, more concerned with affording food.

"I won't be able to stand up to this storm. It will break me. I should bend, let it pass," he said — adding that after a few years he and other activists might try to start an opposition party.

El-Sissi has run on a vague platform, saying genuine democracy must wait and the priority now is stability. He has lectured the media not to push freedom of speech demands or criticism of the government and insists protests must stop.

In return, he promises to bring military-style efficiency to solve the country's mounting woes, from unemployment and lack of housing to electricity shortages and crippling government debt.

He has made no street campaign appearances. Instead, he gives media interviews and holds tightly organized, indoor meetings with various interest groups — and lets others hit the streets for him.

Independent of his official campaign, a string of support groups have sprung up with names like "Egypt, my country" and "Egypt's Future," holding rallies in neighborhoods around the country. Some of the organizers include former top officers from the security forces and military and mid-level figures from Mubarak's regime.

Many of the ubiquitous el-Sissi posters are emblazoned with endorsements by former officials and lawmakers from Mubarak's ruling party. Former ruling party members often lead pro-el-Sissi street events, even handing out free high-efficiency light bulbs to residents, after el-Sissi advocated the bulbs as a way to ease Egypt's worsening power shortages.

A pro-el-Sissi campaigner in Alexandria, Ayman Khaled, acknowledged Mubarak-era officials have used the candidacy to resurface, but he said the support groups try to keep them out.

At a recent rally organized by "Egypt's Future" in a crowded tent outside a presidential palace in Cairo, a song blared praising the interior minister, who is in charge of police forces. Two women by the loudspeakers danced and sang along.

The rally's guest star was Abdel-Hakim Nasser, son of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the president in the 1950s and 1960s who was a nationalist icon after leading the 1953 coup against the monarchy. Many of el-Sissi's supporters tout him as the new Abdel-Nasser.

The son said the June 30 ouster of Morsi sprang from the failures of the uprising against Mubarak, which began on Jan. 25, 2011.

"Regrettably, the January 25th revolution didn't bring about any leaders, and it was robbed. June 30 created a leader," he told The Associated Press. "The entire public — a large majority — believe he will realize their aspirations."

But Ramadan Ahmed, retired naval officer in Alexandria whose 16-year old son was killed in anti-Mubarak protests, said el-Sissi-mania is a media phenomenon disguising rising public anger.

"People see differently from what the media show them. They see that Egypt has been divided," he said — and el-Sissi is not the man to unite it.

He anticipates another, more violent revolt — as oppression grows and the poor feel increasingly neglected.

"If el-Sissi makes it, he will not sit on the chair for long."