Desperate Egyptians see El Sisi as their last hope

Election win for former military chief would make him the latest leader tasked with solving massive unemployment, rising prices and widespread corruption.

Gamal Sayed, 43, says he works 18 hours a day to support himself and his seven-year-old daughter and hopes former military chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi wins the presidential election and does something to improve life for Egyptians like him. David Degner for The National
Powered by automated translation

CAIRO // Egyptians vote on Monday and Tuesday to elect a president for the second time since the 2011 uprising still plagued by the problems that ended both Hosni Mubabak’s 30 years in power and the short tenure of the Islamist who followed.

In the Cairo slum of Saft El Leban, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, poverty and corruption found across the Arab world’s most populous nation are all too acute. For the residents, the hope of change that came with the Arab Spring has failed to materialise. If anything, things have become worse and people are desperate for the next president to improve things.

“We’re choking here,” said Gamal Sayed, a mechanic and father of one, as he stood in his oil-covered overalls at his garage, which repairs the rickshaws sputtering along the neighbourhood’s rubbish-lined roads.

Like most Egyptians, he has no doubt that the election will be won Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former military commander who last summer played a leading role in ousting Mohammed Morsi from the presidency after unprecedented protests against his one year in power.

“Of course, Sisi will be the next president of Egypt,” said Mr Sayed, who has lived his entire life amid this densely packed warren of dilapidated high-rises.

He and other residents spoke bitterly about a government rife with a culture of bribery that extends from hospital employees to policemen.

Backed by sympathetic media coverage, Mr El Sisi is expected to resoundingly defeat the only other candidate in the election, Hamdeen Sabahi. The 59-year-old Mr El Sisi also has been buoyed by a vast advertising campaign that has lined most boulevards in the capital with banners bearing his visage and such slogans as “Long live Egypt”.

But the intensity of enthusiasm for the Sisi campaign feels less pronounced here in Saft El Laban, located close to Cairo University.

His backing here does not seem to be driven by confidence in his economic and reform policies, which residents struggled to define. It is rooted more in a desperate hope for someone to seriously address the sort of grievances, such as widespread corruption, grinding poverty and an unofficial employment that exceeds 20 per cent, that many of Egypt’s 85 million citizens share.

“We need a powerful military man like Sisi to fix the problem,” said Mr Sayed, who added he had no plans to go to the polls.

“I’m too poor to afford to leave work to vote,” he said, adding that he had to work 18 hours a day just to earn Dh1,500 every month. It is barely enough to support himself and his seven-year-old daughter.

Mr El Sisi’s popularity is largely an issue of alternatives, said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Centre for Middle East Policy.

“People don’t love Sisi because he has a concrete plan. They love him because they still respect the military and because all other alternatives have been discredited and so there’s nobody left,” he said.

“The political class is bankrupt. The Brotherhood is a non-starter. The revolutionaries were of course too naive to propose a political solution — they just know how to protest. So what’s left? The only alternative that Egyptians have is the military, which is embodied in this one man.”

Amid Egypt’s revolutionary atmosphere, that sort of support may evaporate quickly, said Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, professor of political science at Cairo University. The next president will be faced with difficult and unpopular tasks such as scaling back the country’s expensive energy subsidies.

“Will the new president succeed in satisfying the people and the need for employment, social justice?” he said. “The amount of patience that the Egyptian people are willing to tolerate until these goals are achieved is very limited, and this is a challenging moment for the future president.”

Back in Saft El Leban, not everyone was supportive of Mr El Sisi.

One of Mr Sayed’s brothers who also works at the garage expressed anger over the military’s toppling of Mr Morsi, the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and its designation as a terrorist organisation and the crackdown that has killed hundreds of its members.

“That’s not how you act in a democracy,” said the brother.

But Mr Sayed shot back at his brother, arguing that the military’s intervention and subsequent control of the political system was needed for stability, which trumped democracy.

“The military is our brothers and sons,” he said. “They know the needs of the people, and that’s why the people support Sisi.”