“I will not vote again. I don’t want to get deceived again,” Ahmed, a low-income Egyptian doorman in his early 20’s, told me when I asked him about the political situation and the looming presidential election. “Every time I voted, it turned out I had been deceived. Morsi gave us hope at first, then it turned out he was an idiot. Can you imagine he promised to fix everything in only 100 days? He made promises that he was never able to live up to.”
In these few sentences, Ahmed may have summed up the principal problem facing Egypt’s leaders over the past three years—the spread of expectations of the government. The January 25 uprising sparked great aspirations for the future of Egypt, a country that had been mired in corruption for years. Prior to 2011, 40 percent of Egyptians had been suffering from poverty, and a considerable segment felt that the lives of Egyptians had been seen as cheap in the eyes of the country’s negligent rulers. Many hoped that the revolution would bring their woes to an end. It didn’t. A Mubarak-appointed military council took over from the ousted president and perpetuated the same policies and practices of the old regime. Then, free parliamentary and presidential elections brought to power a new elite—Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. New promises of reform, prosperity, and the eradication of corruption were made; new hopes spread. However, Morsi’s government was marked by weakness, mis-governance, stubbornness, failure to resolve continuous crises, and a desire to stay in power no matter what the cost. Ultimately, Morsi was ousted on July 3.
Now, Egypt’s former Defense Minister, de facto ruler, and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been making big promises as well. “Egypt … will be as big as the world,” he declared in a speech in August 2013. Back then, Sisi seemed to be more popular than he is now. In the eyes of his supporters, he put his own life at risk by leading “Egypt’s armed forces, our armed forces” to defy the will of Morsi and “save the country from the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted to destroy it.” These quoted phrases are not meant to be linked to a single person—rather, they are representative of the speech typically employed by Sisi’s supporters in the wake of July 3. Similar rhetoric can still be heard in the private media, which is largely owned by businessmen allied to the regime, and among those calling upon Sisi to run for presidency. It is no longer obvious, however, that such voices constitute a majority.
As time has passed, the ruling regime’s popularity appears to have declined; this may be a reason why Sisi had appeared reluctant to announce his intention to run for the presidency. Of course, he is still expected to win the election, but such a victory will not necessarily reflect overwhelming support from among the Egyptian population. Egyptian voters, who have cast their ballots four futile times so far, are unlikely to turn out in high numbers for yet another election. It is primarily Sisi’s devout supporters who are expected to show up at the polling stations, and this would guarantee him a win. However, given that there is a segment of Egyptians who believe in the post-Morsi political process but who do not see Sisi and the military as the best rulers for the country, Sisi’s win might not be as comfortable as it was initially expected to be.
Although Morsi’s ouster was accompanied by much hope among the masses who had marched against his rule on June 30, every day of the post-Morsi era has brought more frustration. One incident after another—one failure of the regime after another—has demonstrated that Sisi and the army are far from infallible, with many beginning to question their true capacity to govern.
For example, only a couple weeks ago (March 10 and 11), 40 Egyptians were killed in two separate traffic collisions. Regarding Egypt’s ever-present road accidents, blame is often laid on the authorities for poor road maintenance and for failure to enforce traffic laws (in the context of a wider absence of the rule of law across different aspects of life in Egypt). A few days earlier, clashes resumed on university campuses following the return of students after a mid-year holiday prolonged by a desperate government that has demonstrated impotence in the face of student protests. Behind all of this, the widespread power cuts that had stirred popular anger during Morsi’s rule remain ubiquitous, revealing a “deep state” that may be more incapable than it is malicious.
One particular failure of the regime that has had a significant effect on the opinions of many Egyptian youths was the Saint Catherine tragedy this past February. Four young men and women froze to death after a blizzard hit the area where they were hiking. Although hundreds of Egyptian youths have died and been mourned by their peers over the past three years, the deaths of Hagar, Khaled, Ahmed, and Mohamed have brought sadness to many in ways beyond that of many other deaths. Unlike other young victims, the four hikers were purely seeking life, not consciously risking death; they had set off in pursuit of the joy of adventure rather than the potential sacrifice of martyrdom to a cause. According to survivors, had the authorities moved faster, the hikers would have survived the blizzard.
Along with other incidents that have involved youth, such as the killing of an engineering student on Cairo University’s campus amid clashes between the riot police and pro-Morsi protesters, the St. Catherine tragedy has caused more young Egyptians to question the regime’s competence. Consequently, they tend to conclude that the government under Sisi is no less negligent toward Egyptians’ lives than Mubarak and Morsi were.
Many of the youth who sought to oust Mubarak’s regime in 2011 are realizing that the actual regime has not yet fallen—that there has been no achievement of “bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity.” To the contrary, “three years on, wide-scale repression continues unabated” according to an Amnesty International report on Egypt published this January. “[T]he demands of the ‘25 January Revolution’ for dignity and human rights seem further away than ever. Several of its architects are behind bars, and repression and impunity are the order of the day,” the report stated.
The youth’s growing disillusionment became particularly evident following their low turnout for the 2014 constitutional referendum. Their absence from the polling stations was so complete that Interim President Adly Mansour was compelled to acknowledge the fact in a speech he gave on January 19, a few days after the referendum: “Build your future and participate in political life through enriching partisan action. You should be sure that your efforts will bear fruit,” he said.
They may or may not take Mansour’s call seriously. Regardless, Sisi remains widely expected to win the upcoming election. But even upon becoming president, it will be difficult for Sisi to maintain the level of popularity the he currently enjoys among a broad segment of Egyptians. He and the army will no longer be able to evade responsibility for the country’s deteriorating situation by hiding behind the pretext that the country is not under military rule but is instead run by civilians (as the army’s supporters currently argue).
Worryingly, the country’s situation is expected to further deteriorate overall, especially with the soaring energy shortage pointed out in an important Reuters story, a development that could “sink Sisi.” This story also mentioned the negative implications of the country’s widespread corruption, a problem that cannot be eradicated as long as the military remains a state within a state, its budget and economic empire immune from transparency measures and from all external forms of accountability.
There are strong reasons for concern now, given that the military, which has maintained sweeping powers and an economic empire behind the scenes since 1952, is consolidating its powers in more obvious ways. For example, Dubai’s largest construction firm, Arabtec, recently announced that it has reached an agreement with the Egyptian army to build one million houses in a project worth $40.23 billion; the firm’s chief executive, Hassan Ismail, told Reuters that the project will be built on 160 million square meters (61.8 square miles) of land offered for free by the Ministry of Defense. Ambiguity surrounds both the project and the particular roles of the Egyptian military and the UAE government. The project raises questions as to the military’s unjustified control of the country’s land and its involvement in the economy. The fact that the military granted the project a vast amount of land for free poses the question of why the military holds land that it does not need for military-related purposes (like military training). If it could easily give up 160 million square meters, then clearly it had no real use for the land. The incident also calls to mind stories from the past about Mubarak-appointed governments offering land and projects to certain businessmen without any public tendering. Lately, the military itself was awarded a number of projects by the cabinet’s ministries through direct-order tenders.
Corruption was one of the triggers that fueled the January 25 revolution that toppled Mubarak in 2011. It is naturally tied to a lack of the rule of law and transparency—conditions that inevitably breed incompetence and misgovernance. If corruption, incompetence and negligence towards Egyptians’ lives persist—and there is no reason to believe that they will not, given that the military is toughening its already undemocratic and hegemonic role—then the military’s image and popularity will not go untainted.
In the meantime, a group of pro-Sisi/pro-military Egyptians will continue to defend the ruling regime and offer justifications for its failures and incompetence, couched in the language of a “war on terror:” an army fighting terror in Sinai must be excused for whatever mistakes it may make, and anyway, we have no choice but to support the state institutions in their fight against terror or else the country will fall apart.
It should not be surprising how the war on terror has hardened the hearts of some pro-Sisi Egyptians so that they fail to sympathize with four youths freezing to death or scores of youths dying during protests. After all, less than a year earlier, the supporters of then-President Morsi used to offer justifications for every casualty that occurred during his rule, whether during protests (such as the death of youth protesters Jika and Kristy) or simply during everyday life (like in the possibly avoidable deaths of 50 children in a bus crash).
The justifications that were offered by Morsi’s supporters did not help him then, and the justifications that are now being offered by the military’s supporters will not help it to maintain its virtually sacrosanct position into the future—at least, not for long.