One of the rules of competitive journalism is that one must “advance the story.” This means any day’s big story that is part of an ongoing running story has to focus on something new, which is certainly not the fact that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has won by an overwhelming majority in a landslide victory against his opponent Hamdeen Sabahi: that’s what Egyptian pundits , journalists and TV talk show hosts have been predicting for months.
So, today’s news is old news, and the new news is that the total turnout was low, far lower than that called for by Sisi. Low turnouts were already the topic of evening talk shows on the first of what was to have been two days of voting.
When the turnout continued to be low, if not even lower on the second day (Tuesday), foreign correspondents and their distant editors as well as human rights activists - so many of whom have developed a curious fondness for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from the moment the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi was deposed as president some ten months ago - have now leaped to the conclusion that this relatively low turnout vindicated the MB and its call for a boycott.
Today’s news is old news, and the new news is that the total turnout was low, far lower than that called for by SisiAbdallah Schleifer
Somehow, free and fair democratic elections in Egypt in 2012 magically transformed the then victorious Muslim Brotherhood into a force for democracy. And that has seemed even more so over the past ten months since Mursi was deposed.
And who reads history anymore? Despite participating in a free and fair election in Sudan in 1983 in which the dominant faction of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, operating as the National Islamic Front, had full freedom to campaign (and came in a sorry third); despite having full freedom to publish newspapers and magazines and hold public rallies, the MB officers cell under the leadership of Omar Bashir staged a coup d’etat in 1989 and arrested Sudan’s democratically elected Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi along with the leaders of the three rival parties and over the next few years crushed the trade unions and those of the professional classes opposed to the NIF/MB and established an Islamist dictatorship.
There is a critical difference between Sudan in 1985 and Egypt in 2012. In Sudan, the MB’s rivals – three leading political parties as well as a vigorous trade union movement - had decades of experience and maintained grass roots organizations operating from the period of a uniquely enlightened British colonial rule which ended in the mid-1950s, the very moment when Egypt’s political parties were being dissolved by Gamal Abdul Nasr. Only the MB with its semi-clandestine internal structure would survive, despite repression and the exile of MB leaders
When free democratic elections, first for parliament and then for the presidency, were held in Egypt some 60 years later, and not long after the overthrow of former President Mubarak, there was only one well organized political movement here in the elections of 2012 (in contrast to Sudan) with a mass membership and veteran cadres throughout the country. And that was the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet the MB had so overplayed its hand once in power that by the end of June 2013, millions of Egyptians took to the streets denouncing then President Mursi and returned again to the streets in massive numbers in ecstatic support of then Sisi who had led the intervention by the armed forces that had deposed Mursi. Public opinion polls quickly established that there was a groundswell of massive support for Sisi to run for office – proposition opposed only by MB cadre organizing protest demonstrations and marches, and the far less numerous revolutionary socialist and liberal intellectuals who opposed Mursi but also opposed Sisi as symbol of the looming specter of renewed military rule.
The low turnout
Then, what about the low turnout? What the critics ignore is that while only half the number of the voters in the 2012 presidential election turned out this time, according to the Presidential Election Committee, Sisi will still end up with far more votes than Mursi received two years ago. But since the Sisi campaign had predicted an even greater victory in this election than Mursi had achieved in the previous voting, “advancing the story” has meant turning what still constitutes a landslide victory for Sisi into a media projection of some sort of rebuff bordering on defeat.
So, who stayed at home? Besides those openly boycotting, hard core but still significant numbers of MB supporters – perhaps 15 or 20 percent of the total potential electorate.
There were the far less significant liberal and leftist forces that opposed Mursi and took to the streets on June 30, 2013 demanding that Mursi step down and call new elections, but they are also opposed to the military intervention led by Sisi when Mursi refused to step down.
When this latest election was organized by the transitional government installed by Sisi, many of the Left and Liberal forces also called for a boycott—which resonated with many of the youth, rather than advancing their own candidate or rallying to Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist socialist and sole candidate to run against Sisi. Sabahi has revolutionary anti-Mubarak credentials as good as and often better than any of the other Leftist or Liberal leaders who were present along with Sabahi in Tahrir. He had done better than all the other Liberal and Left candidates running in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. So, for all of their quite sincere opposition to Mursi and the MB, to boycott this election and ignore the Sabahi candidacy was effectively, if not consciously, to aid and support the MB. At work was the same political naiveté that had prevented the dozens of Left and Liberal parties that sprung up after the fall of Mubarak from coalescing then into just one liberal party and one leftist party to contest the MB.
Also at work among still more voters than those directly influenced by the Left/Liberal call for boycott was the effect of the clandestine campaign waged by the remaining MB cadre that Sisi was the candidate of the Coptic Church, a pawn of the Christians and an agent also of the Jews and thus an infidel. Well before the fall of Mubarak, this sort of vicious sectarianism gained ground among Egypt’s Muslim masses, far more so than any overt sympathy with the MB. Of course this sort of talk never reaches the ears of foreign correspondents living within the bubble of at least nominally liberal middle and upper class Egyptians, not to mention the human rights activists and editorial writers rushing to judgment in the West thousands of miles away. Sort of like in America where there are far more actual racists than would ever reveal themselves as such in a public opinion survey.
No need to spend hours in the heat
But among the abstainers, far, far greater in number were two other constituencies that actually overlapped into one. A large number of prospective voters who remained pro-Sisi but were convinced that Sisi would win so overwhelmingly, that there was no need for them to spend hours standing in lines to vote. And secondly there were a large number of voters who remained pro-Sisi and anti-MB, but now lacked the passion, after the passage of more than ten months, that had inspired the earlier super enthusiasm. Add to that mix of overconfidence and complacency the unbearable heat wave that swept over Egypt for all three days of voting, but particularly on Tuesday with temperature around 40 C or higher. The voting centers remained open till 9pm but these past few nights the heat wave did not ease up until several hours later in the night. And when the government declared Tuesday a holiday for public sector employees and for the banks, it became a national holiday and few of the many who were over-confident and complacent felt compelled to leave their homes, however modest, to stand in line in the far hotter streets.
The organizers of Sisi’s campaign contributed to this syndrome given their own political naiveté. Vast sums of money were spent on often giant posters of Sisi spread across the cities of Egypt. When the MB underground set them on fire in the early hours of the morning, they were quickly replaced. Much of that money could have been more effectively used to hire air conditioned buses - available given the absence of tourists - to take Sisi supporters to the polling places, to have provided food for the people when campaigning in poor neighborhoods, and to have repeated over and over again Sisi’s pledge to initiate massive public works like his plan to build one million apartments for low income Egyptians – a project that has already gained funding in the billions from the UAE. This project alone will result in jobs for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. Instead, the focus was on scenes of Sisi photo-ops, of Sisi exercising on a bike or meeting with celebrities. It seems the MB still remains the only seriously organized political movement in Egypt.
In urban neighborhoods and villages that remained historic MB strongholds—particularly in Upper Egypt - the threat of violent retribution for all the known opponents of the MB who would dare to show their faces at deserted voting centers was another factor. Even on the outskirts of Cairo in the pro-MB village of Kerdessa, a young campaigner for Sisi from the village was shot dead on the first day of voting and two bombs were set off in Cairo in the early morning hours on Monday and Tuesday. The bombs, placed by radical Islamists, did not kill, but they certainly intimidated.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.