By Joseph Hammond
LUXOR, Egypt — No one doubted that Egyptian President Abdul Fateh Sissi would be re-elected in a landslide last week, winning over 97% of the vote in a race where his only opponent had been a Sissi loyalist.
The real question Egyptians are asking is whether Sissi will decide to become president for life. Though term limits in the Egyptian constitution bar him from seeking a third-term in 2022, he has left open the possibility of remaining if “the people’s will” support him doing so.
With leaders from China’s Xi Jinping to Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad removing term limits and others, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, finding different means for achieving unfettered power, many Egyptians feel it is only a matter of time before their leader becomes a de facto monarch.
“The elections don’t matter now,” says Mohammed, a mechanic who lives in Luxor, and insisted that his last name not be used. “I didn’t vote for him but, the freely-elected president of the country is Mohammed Morsi [whom Sis deposed in a 2013 coup], he is in jail sure but, he’s the president ask anyone.”
Like Xi Jinping, Sissi’s hold on power is rooted not just in force but success. The economy is moving in the right direction after Sissi dramatically devalued the Egyptian pound which has spurred investment – particularly in real estate. Tourism, an important source of hard currency, is making a gradual comeback. Egypt will likely see more visitors this year, according to early figures, than at any time since 2011
Below the surface, however, there is discontent.
For Egyptians opposed to Sissi, the memory of the 2013 Rabaa massacre, in which the Egyptian military violently cracked down on a protest led by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains fresh. At least 817 civilians were killed at Rabaa Square in 2013 according to Human Rights Watch with roughly 4,000 injured.
The Muslim Brotherhood is now banned, and Egypt has cracked down on civil society groups. The government accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of supporting terrorist groups like Hissm and Liwaa’ El Thawra. Egypt’s military is also facing a more serious insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula led by a local offshoot of ISIL.
“The problem is there is no freedom, and without freedom, only the army can drive things and this will not last,” says Mansur Abdul Rahman, a cab driver, who sits with his fiancé and her sister along the Nile in the Marina Café in Luxor. The city is an important destination for tourists. Once Luxor boasted scores of Nile front cafes but, most went bankrupt after 2011.
The Marina Café where Abdul Rahman speaks opened a few months ago and locals insist it tied to the military. If it is would not be surprising. Egypt’s military dominates the economy directly or indirectly as much as 60% of the economy according to Transparency International.
Nevertheless, Abdul Rahman feels free enough to discuss politics and his upcoming wedding while sipping sweetened fruit juice as the sun sets on the Nile. He worries about the future of his new family in Egypt. Abdul Rahman says that text messages were sent offering payments of less than 2 dollars for votes. One of his sisters who works in a public school in Egypt was told her supervisor would be checking the fingers of those who vote for the tell-tale ink stains. Another who works in a private school was informed by her principal that a vehicle would be available should any staff want to go to the polls during the three-day voting period. A third sister, however, who also works for a public school was told by her principal that he considered voting an individual decision and that he would handle any repercussions for not voting.
Turnout has been a key issue in the election. Roughly 40% of the electorate cast ballots – less than Sissi’s first presidential campaign in 2014.
Another sign of discontent was the electoral strength of Mohammed Salah, the Egyptian soccer star who plays for Liverpool in the United Kingdom. Salah was not an official candidate but a write-in candidate whose votes were discarded. Nevertheless, he received over a million votes more than those cast for Sissi’s official opponent Moussa Mostafa Moussa.
In Cairo ahead of the election shop windows and microbuses contained stickers with “Salah 2018,” which was explicitly a reference to Egypt’s upcoming appearance in the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia but, was often also meant as an implicit protest campaign.
Salah sports a hipster beard that wouldn’t be noteworthy in Liverpool. But, on the streets of Cairo, many wonder if the beard has a hidden meaning – such as support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Politics and sport have often mixed in Egypt. In 2013, an Egyptian soccer star was banned from the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup after making a four fingered gesture used to commemorate the Rabaa massacre. Conversely, Salah has avoided making political statements. He enjoys near universal respect in Egypt for his stellar play and often discrete charity efforts.
Elsewhere in Africa, the former soccer star George Weah won the presidency of Liberia earlier this year. In Pakistan, Imran Khan, a former star cricket player, has emerged as an important political figure. However, the current Egyptian constitution requires the president to be at least 40 years of age, and thus Salah wouldn’t be eligible to run for Egypt’s presidency until the mid-2030s.
Many upper-class Egyptian’s seemed resigned to that fate of Sissi clinging to power as long as he sees fit.
“We are not ready for democracy, “ says Murat Farag, a college student sitting in an upscale Italian cafe in New Cairo City – a new development on the edge of the Cairo governorate. “We learned in 2013 that we are not ready to accept opinions different than our own. That is one of the most important building blocks of democracy.” Farag is attending a party at the restaurant where alcohol flows as freely as the pizza. The trendy cafe would not feel out of place in an American strip-mall.
“I don’t know if Sissi will run for president again in 2022 it’s up to him,” he says. As the DJ spins American hip-hop music passersby glance inside the cafe. Soon its patrons begin to dance to the music. At one point a woman in a hijab headscarf stops to stare through the door at the bar tables inside. Murat takes a sip of Egyptian beer and stares back. She turns and disappears into the night.