Election posters for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cover Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, and with Egypt going to the polls on Monday, Mr Sisi’s face also dominates the rest of the city. Although once the epicentre of the Arab Spring uprisings that deposed President Hosni Mubarak and preached a hopeful message for Egypt, the banners in the square today profess a much more conformist vision for the future: “Sisi for stability.”
The same cannot be said, however, for his nominal opponent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, a largely unknown politician who has himself publicly expressed support for the President. Theirs are the only two names on the ballot; all other challengers have been arrested or pressured into dropping out.
A former colonel general, Mr Sisi ran on the same “stability” platform in 2014, promising to be a steady hand on the tiller after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in a popular but bloody coup. Mr Sisi’s first term, however, has been anything but stable. Double-digit inflation, a 25 per cent increase in poverty in two years, and a growing Islamist insurgency both in the Sinai peninsula and the mainland have plagued the country. Repression of political dissent is at an all-time high.
Yet, despite the country’s economic and security problems, the President maintains a solid base of supporters. Mohamed Salah Amin, a 67-year-old Cairo pensioner, is typical of them. “He just needs more time,” he said. Mr Amin voted for Mr Sisi back in 2014, when his removal of Mr Morsi formed the base for a cult of personality as the strongman who would defend Egypt from the post-revolutionary fate of its neighbours Libya and Syria. His message struck a chord with older voters keen to return to the days of certainty before the uprising. “He was sent by God to rid us of the Brotherhood,” said Mr Amin.
Since then, support for Mr Sisi seems to have declined. However, with no real polling available in Egypt, it’s impossible to measure the President’s popularity with any certainty, but there are signs, according to Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “There’s been a lot of discontent over the economy, prices skyrocketing and a lack of clarity of when this is going to end, ” he said. A sharply devalued currency has contributed to a cost-of-living crisis, leaving Egyptians trying to make ends meet and Mr Sisi struggling to keep their support.
“He’s just like Mubarak,” said a bitter Tarek Al Sawy, a 35-year-old public prosecutor from Giza. “Egypt has had the same problems for 30 years and he’s doing nothing to solve them; if anything, it’s worse now.”
Yet, dissenting voices like Mr Sawy’s are arguably in the minority, while many Egyptians maintain belief in the President. Mohamed Salem, a 29-year-old employee for a clothing manufacturer, said that after the revolution he voted for the Muslim Brotherhood but has since jumped ship and now backs Mr Sisi’s military regime. “He’s the only man for the job right now,” said Mr Salem, “we need to let him finish what he’s started.” That said, Mr Salem realises that his meagre 2,400 Egyptian pounds (just under £100) a month is now worth considerably less now that it was when Mr Sisi came to power, and he’s begun looking for a second job to subsidise his income. Nonetheless, Mr Salem maintains that “under Sisi, things will get better soon.”
It’s a common refrain among the President’s supporters. “There’s more forgiveness of the difficulties under Sisi,” according to Mr Kaldas, in comparison to Mr Mubarak. “There’s a sense that this is for some sort of purpose. Under Mubarak it was assumed that all hardship was because he was corrupt.” Mr Sisi, on the other hand, has carefully cultivated an image of self-sacrifice and incorruptibility. “He’s made himself out to be some sort of saviour for Egypt,” said Mr Kaldas.
To this end, Mr Sisi has enjoyed the gushing support of the Egyptian press. Both state-owned and private media outlets regularly put out unwavering endorsements of the regime and leave no room for dissent. “You can’t publicly criticise Sisi,” said Mr Kaldas. And for the first time, Mr Sisi has also extended the censorship of the mainstream media to the internet, with around 500 websites seen to be critical of the state now blocked in Egypt.
And according to James Lynch, deputy director of Transparency International, there is much to criticise about Mr Sisi’s first term in office. For instance, despite publicly professing to stamp out corruption, not much has changed since the time of Mubarak. “When we assess what’s taken place and the laws that have been changed under President Sisi, particularly the Army’s business interest, it is clear to see that the same corruption risks are there,” Mr Lynch said. In 2015, the country’s top auditor told reporters that the country had lost 600 billion Egyptian pounds to corruption in the past three years. He was subsequently fired and charged with “spreading false news”.
Questions also exist around the government’s handling of the radical insurgency in the Sinai peninsula. During his first year in office, a militant Bedouin movement declared allegiance to Isis and has since carried out numerous attacks, including one on a mosque in November in which over 300 worshippers were killed. Despite launching a massive campaign against the group this year, Mr Lynch argues that the army “doesn’t look to be equipped or properly capable of fighting that insurgency and has lost a lot of people”.
Yet, there currently seems no question that Mr Sisi will stay in power for another term, and although he has publicly claimed to the contrary, there is also growing speculation that he intends to amend the constitution to allow himself more than the current maximum of two terms.
“Even the fact that it’s rumoured that this might happen, that’s a huge problem,” Mr Lynch said. If and how this will happen is still speculation, but with no opposition and an absence of critical voices, Mr Lynch added, it is now “very difficult for Egyptians to hold their government to account”.