Egypt: Passive Aggression and Counter-revolution: Voters, Youth Stay Home

By Juan Cole

Voting was abruptly extended from two days to three in Egypt’s presidential election on Tuesday, apparently because of an unexpectedly low turnout. The contest pits Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, until recently minister of defense and a high-ranking general, against leftist warhorse Hamdeen Sabahi. None of the other eligible Egyptian frontrunners agreed to run, since they concluded that the fix is in for al-Sisi.

At the end of voting on Tuesday, the High Electoral Commission declared that turnout was 37%, but outside observers suggested it was as low as 25% in reality. On Tuesday, government workers were suddenly given the day off so as to ensure that they could vote, which may have gotten the numbers up a bit.

Al-Sisi’s camp is likely concerned that their candidate should do better than Muhammad Morsi, the elected president he overthrew on July 3 last year. Morsi recieved 13 million votes and the turnout was about 50 percent. For the electorate to be substantially less enthusiastic about al-Sisi now than it was about Morsi then is a huge embarrassment (Morsi had high negatives because the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as cult-like by many Egyptians).

Disturbingly, there have been some attacks on Hamdeen Sabahi supporters at polling stations. Sabahi filed a suit against the extension of voting by a day, and late Tuesday withdrew his campaign’s observers from the polling stations on the grounds that they were in danger. Rumors swirled that Sabahi might withdraw from the race, but he denied them.

The voters are not uninterested in politics. Some of the low turnout comes from a rule that was implemented that they had to register to vote in their places of origin. For many Egyptians who have come to Cairo or Alexandria in search of work, that is a long and expensive train ride. One has to be suspicious of a rule that rewards long-term urban populations and discriminates against rural labor migrants. The latter are much more likely than the former to support either the banned Muslim Brotherhood or the socialist candidate, Sabahi.

About ten percent of the Egyptian electorate was disenfranchised, some 5 million voters, when the military junta banned the Muslim Brotherhood and disbanded its civil party, the Freedom and Justice Party (many of whose top leaders are in jail and some of whom have been sentenced to death). That 5 percent was specially enthusiastic about going to the polls in 2011-2012, so it is probably more like 20% of likely voters.

The “government” appointed by the junta outlawed protests unless organizers obtained prior secret police approval, and arrested several prominent leaders of the youth movements that overthrew both Hosni Mubarak and Muhammad Morsi. Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth, has been sentenced to 3 years hard labor. The April 6 youth group was then banned by the coup government. Mahinur al-Misri < a href=""> Mahinoor al-Masri was just sentenced to 2 years and hit with a big fine, also for protesting.

So the engaged youth is damned if they are going to come out and vote under these circumstances.

If you take away the Brotherhood and the urban youth movements, you take away a lot of the people who voted in the first round of the presidential election held exactly two years ago. I was in Cairo then, and was struck by the political openness, pluralism and enthusiasm of the public. Everyone you talked to supported a different one of the 13 candidates. They were partisan but tolerant. One leftist told me then that if the Brotherhood won it wasn’t a complete disaster, since there would be other elections.

During my visit to Egypt in March, 2014, I found a completely different atmosphere. People had clammed up and were clearly afraid to talk politics. I started chatting about the presidential race with a waiter, and his colleague came running over and shut him up. “Leave that,” he said, “to the Egyptians!” Rumors of Interior Ministry, i.e. secret police, surveillance were rife. The newspapers were self-censoring and bland. Only al-Shuruq dared interview people in the circle of the Muslim Brotherhood and write stories about their reaction to the government’s measures. But even it ran a piece by a Syrian Baathist about how enlightened dictatorship is a good thing. NGOs were closing up, afraid of government crackdowns on them. They were right to be afraid.

At the same time, public sector unions were striking for a pay raise. When I was there, the postal workers were paralyzing the economy. The tourists stopped coming after the coup. Al-Sisi blamed their absence on the youth demonstrations. But it was his bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood and polarization of the country that scared off the foreigners. The numbers of tourists dropped this spring 2014 from what they had been under the Muslim Brotherhood the year before.

I caught revolutionary singer Muhammad Muhsin performing at the Culture Wheel in Zamalek, and there I found masses of young people full of enthusiasm. Muhsin is disliked by the coup government and was excluded this spring from performing at the Opera House.

So the absence of the youth at the polling booths comes as no surprise to me. And obviously those who think well of political Islam are also absent, with the exception perhaps of the Salafis, hard line fundamentalists who have hitched their wagon (likely on the orders of their patron, Saudi Arabia, to al-Sisi).

It is said that the voters are disproportionately middle aged and older women who are swooning for al-Sisi.

The Carter Center has expressed the gravest reservations about the legitimacy of this election. Given the ban on protests, the interference with campaign workers, the ban on so much as interviewing Brotherhood members, and generally arbitrary and Draconian restrictions, the election does not meet international standards.

So al-Sisi will likely get the presidency he coveted. But it won’t really be worth all that much, since a minority of Egypt’s 53 million eligible voters will have given him their vote. The revolutionary youth hasn’t stood with him. He is the military ogre who ordered virginity tests against protesting young women in 2011, implying that they had come in public just to find boyfriends and tents in which to make love, rather than to overthrow a dictator. In a way, al-Sisi’s coup has been a long series of similar cavity searches for the Egyptian public as a whole. And here’s the conclusion: they aren’t virgins and they aren’t naive or gullible.


Related video:

CCTV Africa: “Egypt’s Economy Under Extreme Pressure Amid Elections”

9 Responses

  1. One has to applaud the Egyptian people for having boycotted the sham election with their low participation. The Egyptian people have voted by not going to the polls. Many Egyptians might have disliked former President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, but they should have been removed through the ballot box not by a bloody military coup. The generals have killed over a thousand protestors since the coup, have sentenced many more thousands to death, and have arrested tens of thousands of Egyptians for holding different political views.

    Should not this humiliatingly low turnout, despite all the intimidation, show US officials that the election is a sham and that the regime that emerges out of it lacks legitimacy and should not be recognized? The American government should officially call the violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government by its proper name, namely a coup, and should stop funding it and cooperating with it. Such policy may anger the military junta and its Saudi backers, but millions of people in Egypt and throughout the Middle East are watching how the United States as the champion of democracy reacts to this travesty of an election. It is inconceivable that after the Arab uprisings the politicized young people who constitute the majority of the populations in the Middle East will put up with military juntas for long. The future belongs to freedom and democracy, and the United States should be on the right side of history.

    • “the US as the champion of democracy…” Amazing how durable and tenacious this notion is, in light of the reality.

      Here’s one discussion of how “we” promote “democracy:” link to

      And another: link to

      But there are whole manuals and guides and handbooks written by policy people who set up huge structures, cloud-cuckoo-castles, devoted to doing just more of the same: link to

      Read carefully, and with a jaundiced eye, to see what is really in play…

  2. Generals with economic interests, whether in ongoing businesses, links to “externlities” like the CIA and Exxon and equivalent, or just the desire to do a little buccaneering for their own accounts, have troops with guns and the habits of obedience, and lots of little and large helpers with Machiavellian skills, to create their own spurious “legitimacy”…

  3. Sabahi should have never bothered participating or at least should have pulled out of this fraud.

    The obvious next crisis will be the parliamentary election. Given the ignominy that Sisi faced in his coronation process, the chances that democratic factions will boycott the parliamentary elections has increased, Additionally, the parliamentary election law, if it remains in its present form, is obviously designed to ensure an anti-democratic parliament emerges. Going to be very hard to drum up turnout and interest for a parliamentary election that is sure to put forward a host of failed elites who plundered Egypt’s economy in the past.

    There is not point in democratic forces trying to penetrate the parliament. The constitutional referendum and presidential election have proven that the regime’s police state tactics will be used in every election. It is very similar to how Mubarak managed his own presidential and parliament elections.

    Turnout in elections is naturally low when there is no choice in the election. Without options, why bother? If your voice is utterly unheeded, there is no point.

    Sisi will pursue his clueless anti-liberty and militarization of the economy policies to his own destruction. This time, the military establishment is going to be brought down by the president’s failure. A confrontation between democratic thought and the military institution was inevitable and had to happen sooner or later. The military’s presence it simply too pervasive, intolerant, and arrogant for any sort of diversity of opinion to exist in governmental bodies.

  4. Egyptian elections will never be free or fair while the state exerts its maximum repressive power against any and all forms of dissent (especially credible types), fanatically backs and touts its own point of view, and monopolizes the electoral and political processes.

    The only way to implement a democratic system is to force the state to be neutral in political matters and entirely remove the military from politics. Constitutional articles clearly separating and eliminating the military from the political system are needed. This will almost certainly require another revolutionary wave to achieve.

  5. Sisi must have disregarded CIA instructions like the US puppet Diem in 1962 South Vietnam, to reduce his “victory” from 92% to a plausible 63% or so. Diem made the further error of negotiating with the insurgency and was assassinated on US request. The US sure does “champion” democracy in public, but the arms and aid go to those who help pay the politicians, i.e., Israel and its champions.

    Merely legislating the military out of politics does not get them out. That is done at their own sufferance, by means of the ethics of the officer corps, once inculcated by civics classes in an established democracy. And that has failed utterly in the US, where the executive branch in general has seized all power. And it is only a quaint first step nowadays: economic power must also be excluded with constitutional provisions limiting funding of elections and mass media to registered individual contributions with full accounting and monitoring. One can have revolutions until doomsday and not get democracy if one does not know how to preserve it against military and economic power. And those are the means of revolution, so it seldom improves much.

  6. Sorry, must call out this bullshit! Youth did NOT stay home. Turnout was excellent. What is wrong with you, Juan? Please follow more closely – photos, comments, opinions OUTSIDE the US media (which has sided from the beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood, or their allies in Apr. 6th). You should be aware that the boycott FAILED, and most Egyptians (thankfully) don’t read English and didn’t know you and others claimed there was low turnout. Sabahy is simply not very popular, especially outside of Cairo and only won in his own district. But his run was important. Other candidates dropped out due to al-Sisi’s popularity.

    • Hi, Sherifa. Well I was glued to Egy sat. t.v. in Arabic, which is not exactly anti-regime, and they kept saying the youth didn’t vote. They were lamenting it. This is plausible because they didn’t vote for the constitution either. Egyptian media also lamented low turnout, and the extension to a third day was obviously a manifestation of that lack of turnout. Sabahi got about 20% of the vote in May 2012 when I was there and took Alexandria away from the Salafis, attracting big middle class and union constituencies as well as many Delta villagers. The reason he didn’t do well this time is that this wasn’t a real election and everybody knew it. It was an authoritarian plebiscite, with youth protesters serving years of hard labor, NGO offices trashed by thugs, heavy media self-censorship, etc., etc. I know you taught al-Sisi and maybe he was a nice young man then, but he has become a sadist and a narcissist and nobody likes those things for very long. Please do also watch your language; it is a family blog.

    • Sherifa Zuhur was a professor at the Army War College and had General al-Sisi as a student there some years ago.

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