Egypt Debates: Does Voter Turnout Reflect on Sisi’s Popularity?

A day before the first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi personally addressed the nation, appealing to “youth, women, workers, and farmers” to vote in big numbers. Sisi’s critics have said the low turnout of 26 percent, which has persisted through the runoffs, is a reflection of his waning popularity. But amid the current atmosphere of deep divisions among Egyptians, there are those who argue vociferously for the opposite.

Cairo University Political Science Professor Hazem Hosni said he hoped that the president would receive the message and reconsider his policies that alienated many Egyptians, especially the youth. “There is a general feeling of frustration among the people. This was clearly a yellow card to the president, to use the language of soccer,” Hosni told EgyptSource. “It is definitely not a red card, but an important warning that many people feel that the promises Sisi made before his election as president were not met, particularly on the social and economic levels,” he added.

Hosni noted that the president started his term with daring decisions that influenced the lives of the majority of impoverished Egyptians—reducing fuel and gas subsidies and increasing taxes and electricity prices in order to shore up a huge budget deficit. “The enthusiasm which the majority of Egyptians felt when Sisi became president is now being replaced with frustration. That’s why they decided not to respond to the president’s emotional appeal in his speech to go vote.” Hosni compares this to a similar request Sisi made in 2013, prior to his election, when he called on people to take to the streets to grant him a mandate to fight terrorism. According to local reports, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square alone, with millions estimated to have heeded the call nationwide.

During his presidential campaign in early 2014, Sisi did not offer a detailed platform, and told Egyptians they should not expect results from his overall development policies for at least his first two years in power. The two year deadline next June is nearing and members of the opposition and public are questioning the validity of his policies: prioritizing the war against terrorism, and concentrating on long term mega projects, such as the expansion of the Suez Canal, reclaiming millions of acres of desert land, and building a new, modern capital. One caller on Amr Adib’s show, al-Qahera al-Youm, said that despite voting for Sisi, she chose not to vote in the parliamentary elections. “I feel I have been fooled, and that is why I didn’t vote,” she explained. “What did we get from the Sharm al-Sheikh economic conference? What did we gain from the Suez Canal? This next parliament will only aim to extend Sisi’s terms in office,” she added.

Tarek Negeida, a lawyer and member of the Popular Current that supported Sisi’s only rival in the presidential elections, Hamdeen Sabahi, lists other reasons why Egyptians didn’t vote in the parliamentary elections. “Egyptians are very smart people,” he told EgyptSource. “When they saw many of the corrupt old faces that belonged to the [now dissolved] National Democratic Party [headed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak] running for elections, they decided to boycott the vote.” According to Negeida, there is also a growing sense of dissatisfaction among January 25 supporters, because of repeated attacks on the revolution in the media.

Negeida noted that when young people were asked why they didn’t vote in the first round the most common response was one of apathy—he said they felt their vote would not make a difference, and that the results were known in advance. The Popular Current, like several other small parties that emerged after the January 25 Revolution, has been critical of laws issued in the past two years including the electoral law governing the current elections. “It was tailored and designed to produce a parliament that will provide 100 percent support for President Sisi. And that’s not something many young people would like to vote for,” Negeida said.

Both Hosny and Negeida, however, do not believe the Brotherhood’s absence in elections was among the key factors that contributed to the low turnout. “Of course their participation in previous elections increased the turnout. But this was not the case this time. We had the Nour Salafist Party, and it did very badly in the elections, even in its own strongholdsm because the public in general has lost faith in political Islamic groups,” said Negeida. The Nour Party was, admittedly, the only Islamist party to support Morsi’s ouster, and likely alienated itself from both its Islamist base and from a public that has rejected political Islamic groups. The Salafi party itself, in the wake of its poor showing in the elections blamed Sisi for the low turnout.

However, supporters of the president flatly reject the arguments made by Sisi’s critics. Presenters of popular television talk shows known for supporting the president were swift to deny the charge that Sisi’s popularity was decreasing. Talk show hosts, including Tamer Amin, Ahmed Moussa, and even one of only four independent candidates to win a seat in the first round of the parliamentary elections, Abdel Rehim Ali, argued instead that, because the majority of Egyptians support Sisi, they feel that there was no need for a parliament. “Egyptians love Sisi and they were worried that widespread reports in the media the next parliament could restrain the president and limit his freedom to take quick decisions,” said Mohamed Attia, a lawyer, who heads the Egypt above All alliance, which was formed to support Sisi. Egypt’s 2014 constitution grants the parliament unprecedented power over the executive branch in allowing the elected members to withdraw confidence from the cabinet formed by the president and his prime minister.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a prominent veteran journalist who met Sisi a few times during his election campaign and after he became president, also sees no link between the low turnout and the president’s popularity. In a television interview on CBC, Heikal, 93, said, “Egyptians are confused and worried, not only because of the difficult situation in Egypt, but in the entire region. Amid such complicated circumstances and the turmoil in the region, parliament elections became a side issue, not the key factor.” He added, however, that the president needs to communicate a detailed vision on how he will run the country in the coming years.

“The contract between Sisi and the people has been based on their appreciation and admiration of what he did on July 3,” he said in reference to Morsi’s ouster. “However, we don’t know what he plans to do for the future. He needs to present a vision and a plan to the people in order to lead,” Heikal added.

He also advised the president to put into practice his earlier promises to give the youth, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, a chance to run the country. “It shouldn’t only be lip service,” he said. “The young people should feel that we are giving them a chance to take part in public life. This is the age of young people. But in Egypt, it seems that the older generation does not want to go.”

Khaled Dawoud is currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the former official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Men cast their votes at a school used as voting centre in Alexandria, Egypt, October 18, 2015. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)