If you were looking for a place to understand why Egypt’s younger voters were the least well represented at the presidential polls in May where the choice came down to presidential hopefuls Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabbahi, you could do worse than visiting Mansoura. The bustling Nile delta city, once sharply divided in its loyalties between the Brotherhood and the former regime, is today, on the surface at least, all-Sisi. But lurking just behind the city’s Sisi-festooned walls is a whole community of activists and younger voters who have seen their city more or less taken from them, their politics coopted by the older generation, and the causes they began fighting for in 2011 labeled taboo amidst the country’s mad dash for “stability” at all costs.
While according to official numbers voter turnout was 47 percent, during the vote, low voter turnout – across all demographics but among youth in particular – was a theme nationwide, and it should come as no surprise. This year’s elections were not the heady and uncertain competition of 2012, when a televised debate, multiple competitive candidates, and a certain political satirist freely lampooning all of them, fostered the type of unusually exhilarating atmosphere that only surrounds occasional, inflection point-type political competitions. 2014 was that sort of election’s logical opposite. In Mansoura, and elsewhere across the country, the polls looked more like a referendum for a state simply seeking approval for a project it began after June 30.
Mansoura’s most powerful symbol, and a poignant reminder of what people in its city were voting for, is the city’s security directorate, an imposing structure set along the center of the city’s Nile corniche. A steel scaffolding still clings to its exterior, the result of a powerful bombing that tore off much of its façade last December. The government, providing no evidence, ascribed the attack to the Muslim Brotherhood at the time – despite the militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis taking credit – and used the occasion to officially declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. In this way the building is a memorial to the moment when the Brothers officially became personae non gratae and a symbol for the state’s ongoing war on terror. Like Sisi’s regime, its new façade is almost in place.
In what feels like a prior decade, Mansoura’s security directorate was also once a flashpoint for violent anti-regime protests – it can perhaps be likened to a much smaller-scale version of Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Today activism and protest on this scale is unthinkable. Though a large number of the city’s youth appeared to be boycotting the elections, their inability to organize even a basic boycott campaign is indicative of the city’s floundering activist scene and the state’s success in pushing them underground.
Many of the city’s activists who led opposition movements and protests have, over the last year, succumbed to what they see as the inevitability of the security state. Sentencing has grown markedly harsher in the wake of repressive protest law passed in November, and, according to them, tolerance for even mild opposition has dropped. Mohamed Osama, a former member of the city’s April 6 Movement, recounts how just days before the elections he was arrested while at a silent protest for Mansoura’s more than 1,000 detained university students. Plainclothes officers, he says, arrested him and all fifteen others present.
“I was actually just walking by to say hello to a friend at the protest when it happened,” he says.
Days earlier, Ramy Essam (not the famous singer, also from Mansoura), a 17-year-old student, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison after being arrested at a demonstration.
At its core, activism and opposition organizing require a certain amount of idealism, an at least faint belief that things can, despite all momentum in the opposite direction, be changed in your favor. The absence of activism on a broad scale, as seen in Mansoura, is also symptomatic of a certain kind of hopelessness.
Ahmed Hassan, a once tireless activist who spearheaded the city’s Kazeboon (Liars) campaign against the military council in 2011, says that today he finds demonstrations largely pointless.
“Every day is just getting more oppressive than the last,” he says.
Hassan recounts the grim details of how his family recently bailed him out of a police station, cursed the oppressiveness of the state, and then maintained their support for Sisi. He pauses to consider what this means for his activism:
“There’s no hope when someone is doing something wrong, knows its wrong, and still continues doing it. In this case there’s no hope to convince people to act differently,” he says.
“I’m no longer interested in activist groups. I’m not even interested in what goes on in the country anymore.” “My main priority is to leave, renounce my citizenship, and get a new one,” he says finally. And this response is not totally uncommon.
Galal on the other hand, one of only two members in the city’s once-thriving April 6 Movement, speaks with a tone of idealism that today eludes most of the jaded former activists still hanging around the city. Before he arrives, a friend cynically jokes, “Half of the April 6 Movement is coming to see you today.”
“The prison is complete. There is no more room in Mansoura. They put people in the police station and detain them for twenty-five days at a time,” Galal says, before launching into a speech about increased repression since June 30.
“It’s gotten to the point where they’ll arrest the people giving out the fliers, and those who are reading them too,” he says.
Galal grows annoyed when considering his organization’s inability to make a dent in the situation. He writes their hardships off to a pervasive lack of awareness in society.
Across town and in the back office of his café and cultural center, Ashraf Wagdy, a Sabbahi voter and self-described liberal, explains that “police violations are what distinguished the last year. Society sees terrorism as its enemy, and no one talks about freedom. We traded it for security.”
As the first day of voting wears on, polling stations remain sparsely attended. Talk turns to the increasingly awkward voting demographic, which seems to include almost no youth.
“I was the youngest person there, and I am 50 years old,” says Wagdy. “The people voting were walking in with canes. “Shortly after his comment an election day meme surfaces with a picture of older voters and the caption: “Is this the line for elections or for the nursing home?”
The repressive environment that hangs over Mansoura – which is by no means unique to this city alone – makes it unsurprising that younger voters seemed unsupportive of both Sisi and the elections. It is their cohorts, after all, that disproportionally linger in jails and detentions, and much of the city’s remaining activism stems from its university campus. At the same time, highly repressive security measures have proven successful in deflating oppositional spirit. The same individuals that would have gathered around the security directorate a year earlier, or marched from the university to the city’s main square, were most notable during this election cycle for not doing anything at all.
The animating thesis of the whole election experience is perhaps not one about a boycott, or a low turnout, or even a one-sided victory for Sisi. The listlessness of younger voters sitting on the sidelines is a reflection of how a year of highly repressive measures worked. The state may have taken great pains in the last moments to push voter turnout as high as possible, but in the long-run, if the regime has managed to silence most of its opponents and alienate them from the political process entirely, this implies total victory of a whole different magnitude.
Eric Knecht was a research assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Previously he was a Fulbright grantee in Egypt, and is currently enrolled in the American University in Cairo’s Center for Arabic Study Abroad.