Mohamed*, a 53-year-old taxi driver, roams the streets of Dokki on the second day of Egypt’s presidential election, cringing every time a pick-up truck drives by blasting songs produced especially to support current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he runs for a second term in office. The excitement with which Egyptians took to polling stations after the 2011 revolution seems a distant memory to Mohamed as he weighs his options: to participate in an election he considers a farce in order to express his disapproval, or to abstain from voting and lose his chance at voicing his opinion.
Mohamed insisted on voting even before the revolution, in former President Hosni Mubarak’s rigged elections, in hopes that change would come. However, he now struggles to find the motivation to head to the polling stations.
“I feel that it won’t make a difference whether I vote or not,” he says.
As the polls opened on March 26, the atmosphere in Egypt was a far cry from the festive scene apparent during the constitutional referendum of March 2011, the first vote after the 18-day revolt in January of that year that toppled Mubarak. At the time, the excitement was not about the constitutional amendments as much as it was about voters celebrating their right to finally participate in a poll they believed would make a difference.
The situation was drastically different this time, with Sisi’s supporters and opposition alike agreeing on one thing: the results of this election were predetermined. However, government supporters considered their participation to be a duty of sorts, a symbolic gesture for the president as they responded to one of his many requests for demonstrations of popular support.
Following the 2011 revolution, there were several elections in the path to build the post-January 25 state. In the seven years afterward, the enthusiasm of Egyptians has steadily waned from the elation of the 2011 constitutional referendum through to the parliamentary elections that same year, followed by a presidential election and two more constitutional referendums, before reaching the indifference that washed over the 2014 presidential election and the 2015 parliamentary ones.
“In the 2011 and 2012 elections, people were very keen on participation,” 37-year-old Salma says. “Many were voting for the first time. People were serious about elections and had big hopes for change.”
Elections in Egypt have been through several transformations in the past few years: From the pre-revolution parliamentary elections in 2010, in which the ruling National Democratic Party won a sweeping majority amid flagrant vote-rigging, to the fierce competition witnessed in the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential elections, and back to elections with predictable results for the 2014 presidential vote, in which Sisi won by a landslide against his only competitor, Hamdeen Sabbahi. Then came the 2018 presidential bid, in which competition was completely eliminated, featuring one little-known Sisi supporter who ran at the last minute in an apparent effort to ensure that the election did not turn into a referendum.
Voter turnout soared during the 2011 parliamentary elections at 66.5 percent, and remained high at 51.8 percent during the second round of the 2012 presidential elections, before falling to under 50 percent in all votes that followed.
Akram Ismail, an architect and leftist activist, did not participate in the 2018 presidential elections despite his general conviction that electoral participation lays the groundwork for all political action.
Ismail finds the polarization that has dominated Egypt’s politics since 2011 to be one of the main motivations for people’s participation. However, while this polarization created political zeal, it also came at a price, he says.
Participation in elections has been driven by fear of the alternative, according to Ismail, like fear of Muslim Brotherhood rule or the return of the old regime.
“A lot of the time, elections didn’t seem like a democratic practice with multiple choices as much as it was about threats,” he says. “The Brotherhood participated with their followers, those who are against the Islamist current participated as well. In the end, it wasn’t a democratic battle where everybody agreed on essential principles — it was a vote to establish the political leanings of the new state.”
However, Ismail sees the high turnout of the early post-revolution years as a positive indication. In the 2012 presidential elections, the first competitive presidential elections in Egypt’s history, powerful political figures representing important political currents competed, including Strong Egypt Party founder Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, lawyer Khaled Ali, besides Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who reached the second round.
For Ismail, elections are a mirror for societal development and an indicator of political climate. Elections are also where political currents develop and engage with the public, he says, arguing that the absence of fair and free voting aborts the opportunity for the development of a political practice.
With the 2018 presidential elections taking place during a crackdown on media and on all types of popular movements, Ismail says that these measures have led to the current state of public apathy and the death of politics altogether.
In an attempt to display public support for elections, the state and its supporters have worked hard to recreate the jubilant scenes outside polling stations that were a common sight during the 2014 presidential election.
Mada Masr found calls posted on Facebook groups for women to stand outside of polling stations for LE150. We attempted to register two of our journalists to observe, but the opportunity wasn’t open for just anyone — the organizer requested images of those who wanted to participate, but they were apparently not up to par and other women were chosen, presumably those who were better capable of inspiring voters’ enthusiasm.
On the second day of elections, at the Rod Al-Farag youth center, speakers blasted nationalist songs, including one where Sisi’s line, “Don’t listen to anyone but me,” was looped to the background of the national anthem.
About a dozen women gathered at the youth center after voting, most of whom were between 70 and 80 years old.
They listed the reasons why it was important for them to vote: “[Sisi] is the one protecting us and protecting the country;” “The countries around us were destroyed, but Egypt hasn’t been;” “It doesn’t matter if prices go up or down, the important thing is security.”
Although one woman acknowledged that Sisi did not really need her vote to win, she said that voting for her was a “national duty,” and that failing to do so should be punished. “Sisi will win anyway. Those who want to vote, great; but there’s only one appropriate thing for those who don’t: Prisons.”
Dancing outside polling stations was not the only method deployed by the state to mobilize voters. Efforts to mobilize using financial incentives and promises of improved services were documented throughout the elections.
A generational aspect has made itself clear in these elections as well, where, contrary to previous votes, older generations were more visible at the polls in 2018.
In one Mada journalist’s family, the active voters this year were two generations older than in previous elections.
While in 2011, the family’s younger generation would urge their parents to vote, in this election, the grandmother was the main actor, making a round of phone calls to her children and grandchildren to make sure that each one participated. Although she had no political interests in the past, she has been very vigilant about ensuring that the family supports all spectacles of state support since Sisi took power. She considers the president’s directive to participate in the elections, like all his instructions to the people, as missions in the war against terrorism. This year, each family member was instructed to send her a picture with their inked finger to prove that they had voted.
Despite most members of the family being Sisi supporters who did indeed vote for him in this round of elections, the absurdities of the process were not lost on them; they exchanged jokes about the state’s exaggerated attempts to show popular support for the president and its orchestration of elections void of any real competition.
Another taxi driver was not swayed by the festive mood in the streets on election day. “Cars giving away meat, dancing women — how much more of a joke do they want to make out of us?”
Government supporters were not the only ones who felt an obligation to vote, although they constituted the large majority of voters. Salma says that she insists on her right to vote, as she has over the last seven years, despite the dissipation of enthusiasm. She goes to the polls to make sure that her vote is not rigged, she says, believing that her physical presence helps guarantee the democratic process.
Despite being disenchanted by the options and the general political atmosphere, she considers her participation, by invalidating her vote, a positive way of underscoring her discontent.
“Maybe it won’t make a big difference, but it gives me peace of mind to feel that I have participated and tried to deliver the message that I’m not satisfied.”
In January, political groups and public figures called for a boycott of the elections after the state eliminated all competition. However, Salma was not convinced by the idea, arguing that she is not against boycotting per se, but only if it is part of an organized campaign so that it can deliver a clear message.
Egyptian-French journalist Alexandre Buccianti agrees with her, saying that calls for boycotts in Egypt in the past have not succeeded. “When voter turnout was low in the past, it wasn’t because of organized boycotts.”
Buccianti recalls with amusement two people who invalidated their votes by writing the name of football player Mohamed Salah on the ballot this year.
The journalist believes in the symbolic power of invalidated votes and votes going to Sisi’s “competitor.”
“I prefer to participate and express my discontent even in the current circumstances and even if the results are expected.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.