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Sisi vs Sabahi: This whole thing is boring

In the words of a European diplomat: “This whole thing is boring. No one is going to be able to make Sisi vs Sabahhi sexy.” She’s right.

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

Egypt’s presidential elections are right round the corner. By this time next month, barring some sort of miracle, the former head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be Egypt’s new president.

Three years ago around the same time, some were expecting Egypt’s ‘January 25’ revolutionaries to go to the streets in a second wave of the revolution in order to apply pressure on the then head of the Egyptian military, Hussein Tantawi.

But common to all of this is the realization that, actually, the revolutionary ideals of the 25th of January have been put into suspended animation – at least for the overwhelming majority of the population.

H.A. Hellyer

Protests did materialize, but they never achieved the critical mass that was required. Two years ago, Egypt was getting ready for its presidential elections – and a year ago, the call for early presidential elections was in full swing.

Today, however, there are few that seem to expect much in the way of huge scale mobilization – whether for the milestone that is due to be passed, or against it.

Apathetic voters

When it comes to this presidential election itself, one could try to write something interesting in this particular space. But it would be a foolhardy effort – in the words of a European diplomat: “This whole thing is boring. No one is going to be able to make Sisi vs Sabahhi sexy.” She’s right.

There’s a pattern of sorts emerging in this regard. Last night, Sisi had his first major television interview on two infamous talk-show hosts. Sisi’s fan base would have tuned in, of course. Beyond that admittedly substantial portion of the population, however, feelings of distance and detachment would not have been rare.

The same took place when Sisi had a roundtable with a number of journalists a few days ago – interest from his fan base, but apathy from beyond it.

There are those who characterize this as apathy – a feeling of not really caring one way or the other about what is about to take place. The demographic of non-Sisi fans have generally given up on politics and have decided instead of focus on other things in life.

Egypt is divided in a number of ways – the starkest division being those who have acquiesced to the ouster of Mohammad Mursi, and those that have not. But there are other distinctions to be made as well.

Egypt divided

Among those who acquiesced to the military’s removal of Mursi, there are, of course, those who thoroughly back Sisi’s presidential run. There are those who would have preferred for him not to run, but who do not actively oppose him – at present, anyway.

Many, for example, wanted Ahmad Shafiq to run and are unhappy that Sisi has essentially taken that opportunity away. There are those who actively do oppose Sisi’s presidential run, even if they even passively acquiesced to the military’s removal of Mursi. And they too are split on the subject of Sisi’s presidency.

There will be many who will are pleased to have Sisi run. Their motives are not necessarily going to be entirely gracious towards the former field marshal – for them, his running is a necessary step to his downfall, as they would deem it unthinkable for him to be able to meet the expectations so many have laid at Sisi’s door.

There will be others, on the other hand, who will be worried that his demise will be excessively costly for Egypt – even if they oppose him in the first place.

But common to all of this is the realization that, actually, the revolutionary ideals of the 25th of January have been put into suspended animation – at least for the overwhelming majority of the population.

Revolutionary ideals suspended

On both sides of the main divide, the issue now is a power game – not an effort to fulfill those goals, even while they may cite the 25th of January as a revolutionary milestone. Where does that then leave those who really do want those goals to become a reality?

In short, it leaves them on the margins as a very small minority. Recently, they managed to bring together a small group against the protest law. While they are not all finished, the numbers were low.

Many within that embattled minority are off the streets – not out of apathy, but out of strategic recognition that to do otherwise would play them in a very precarious situation with no likely benefit. Their revolutionary idealism, in that regard, has been replaced by a cold realization that while their time may come again, now is not that time.

Their dreams, one might say, have indeed been shattered – and they are rebuilt. And then they are shattered again – and rebuilt again. That trend seems to have this stubborn impression that the future belongs to them and their generation – or even the generation after them.

They seem equally convinced that the future does not belong to this current generation that lead the main two sides in Egypt right now. They are probably right – but this generation can do a lot more damage before they’re forced by life’s mortal coil to hand over.

And what seems so bizarre is that a large amount of damage may be carried out with the support of a critical mass of the population.

For perhaps the first time, those who first popularized the protest are on the sidelines of mobilization – and those that opposed it are trying to use mobilization as a tool that can be used for their own power games. Sisi’s presidency will come on the back of that dynamic – but the future of that presidency may also learn to judge mobilization in a very different way.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.