Sisi campaign poster in Talaab Harb Square, Cairo. Sisi poses as teacher, engineer, doctor and judge. (Photo by the author.)
He's the hands-down favorite to become Egypt's next president. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army general, has already claimed 94.5% of votes cast from Egyptians abroad; similar numbers are expected across Egypt in the coming days. But his dramatic rise to power from virtual obscurity only ten months ago is little comfort to the young revolutionaries who spearheaded the 2011 uprising that toppled Egypt's former strongman, Hosni Mubarak. In recent months, more than 1000 protesters have been killed and up to 20,000 people have been detained.
Ahmed Harara is a former dentist who lost sight in both eyes after being shot twice during the 2011 uprising. To him, Sisi is just another version of Mubarak and the military leaders who came before him. Harara concedes the demands of the revolution are yet to be realised. 'We came to tear down the system, it's the system that we're against', he said. Despite his blindness Ahmed remains surprisingly upbeat. He insists it was worth it. 'We're getting to know who the real enemy is', he said. Before the revolution, Ahmed says, the army was mostly seen as the protector. Now, that's changing.
A career military man, Sisi's campaign has been tightly controlled and disciplined. For fear of assassination the former army general has not appeared in public. Instead he reaches voters via satellite, though a handful of television interviews repeated regularly on both state and private media. In them, Sisi speaks in vague visionary parables. His core message seems to be, 'trust me, I will fix Egypt's many chronic problems.' Yet there is scant detail on the 'how'. Nor is there any reference to the demands of the revolution, namely social justice, an end to police brutality and state corruption.
Instead, Sisi's tone is at times condescending; he often refers to the Egyptian people in a father and son metaphor, presenting himself as a morally superior father figure responsible for correcting the nation's wrongs. In an interview with Reuters, Sisi dismisses the aspirations of the revolution. 'During two revolutions they were aspiring for bread, freedom, social justice. The Egyptians wanted to love this. I need to give them security and stability and complete development.'
For those involved in the 2011 uprising, Sisi's vision translates to a return to Egypt's brutal police state. And according to those I spoke to, this time it's worse.
Mohammed Kamal is a leader of the now banned April 6 Youth Movement, which he says is Egypt's largest civil political organisation other than the Muslim Brotherhood. He jokes about the Mukhabarat, Egypt's intelligence police, who are assigned to monitor him. He tells me he once recognised a Mukhabarat officer disguised as a beggar outside his home. Kamal gave him an Egyptian pound and asked him up for dinner.
Yet underneath his confident and affable exterior, Kamal is tense. He draws deeply on his cigarette and constantly looks over his shoulder. He tells me he moved out of his house six weeks ago because he didn't want his wife and two children to witness the ugly scenes should he be arrested or killed. 'You know they break in, beat you and drag you out', he said. Alongside his day job, Kamal will continue his April 6 work. Given the official ban on April 6, it’s a dangerous choice. Kamal says in the next six months he'll either be alive and heavily monitored, arrested or killed. 'We live a very different life'.
So what becomes of the revolutionaries and their demands? It's safe to say they have learned much about the machinations of power in the past three years.
Moheb Doss is a young lawyer and one of the founders of the Tamarod movement, the group that led the protests that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood last year. Doss says 'we were naïve'. That’s an understatement. In the weeks before Mohammed Morsi was ousted, Doss and his Tamarod group were organising protests in an effort to get the demands of the revolution back on track. Doss noticed some Tamarod members began taking meetings with Egypt's interior ministry and even with Sisi himself, then the military chief. Lured by power and money, three of Tamarod's members were coerced; the interior ministry provided logistical, financial and tactical support to Tamarod and in return, Tamarod would act as the civilian face encouraging protesters onto the streets. And protest they did, in their millions. Within hours Sisi stepped in and suspended the constitution while Morsi was taken to a secret location. The army was back in control.
A presenter on national television that night read a statement supposedly by Doss. It called for the army to step in and protect the people from 'brute aggression' by terrorists during potentially turbulent days. Doss says he was in shock. While he did prepare a statement it was nothing like the one read aloud on TV. He says he advocated for a peaceful transition toward a democratic path.
Despite his startling revelation Doss stops short of calling the ousting of President Morsi a coup. He says it’s more like a 'variation on the 2011 uprising'.
Doss has now split with the Tamarod founders who he says 'sold their ethics for personal gain', and after the election he will launch a new movement. This time he says it will be different. Instead of being 'destructive', with the single goal of bringing the regime down, he wants to lead a 'constructive' movement, working with the government.
His approach differs from the other revolutionaries who, despite the serious risks, have vowed to continue to protest. Only hours after I spoke with Ahmed Harara I spotted him at an unauthorised protest for Mahienour El-Masry, a young female activist who along with eight others had been sentenced to two years in prison. Harara could easily be thrown in prison for attending, but he doesn’t seem to care. When I asked he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, 'it would be an experience'. Harara has no doubt another mass uprising will happen when Sisi fails to deliver on the economic miracle he's promising. He says there is no one leader of the revolution; it’s an idea that cannot be contained. 'Twelve million people marched to overthrow Mubarak, you cannot take that experience away. Now they want to eat but they will march again, I know it', he said.
Each person I spoke to from the 2011 uprising is boycotting this election. They see it as 'a play' whereby voting would legitimise the army’s veneer of democracy.
By and large, it's a one-horse race, even though Sisi does have a challenger, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran a surprising third in the 2012 presidential election. Sabahi also concedes the demands of the uprising have mostly vanished, but he believes continued engagement in politics is the best way of preserving what remains. Sure, he has no real chance of winning but instead of taking an executive position in Sisi's government he’s committed to forming an opposition when he loses. In the last days of his campaign, Sabahi has reached out to the boycotters. He fears they risk ceding all political space to the counter-revolution. In time, he may be proved right.