Keeping in the spirit of the great deities, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hasn’t been seen in the flesh at a single live event during this campaign, and that is because he doesn’t need to make himself manifest. The good news of his presidency has spread by what feels like osmosis. His image has saturated Cairo and it is now impossible to move without seeing his middle distance stare leering out from one of several million banners adorning the city’s streets. A song, “Boshret Kheir” (Good Omen), is the campaign’s unofficial theme tune and its insistently cheerful notes attack the senses at every turn like a cloud of crazed bees. Switch on the television and there he is, making promises and threats behind the screen like Oz’s wizard.
There is a marked difference between the Sisi campaign and that of his rival, Hamdeen Sabbahi, mostly because the two men are selling different things. It has already been established in the popular consciousness that Sisi pulled Egypt back from the brink of a Muslim Brotherhood quagmire. He is regarded as a savior, and saviors generally don’t have to get their fingers dirty on the campaign trail, or even have a political program of any kind. His job is to retain the mystique for as long as possible, to not dull the shine off his godly status by making terrestrial cock-ups, to rigorously control light exposure to the delicate flower of his infallibility through carefully orchestrated television appearances.
Sabbahi’s campaign has been far more plebeian, and if he earned points for miles covered he would have earned enough by now to claim a small yacht. So vigorously has he rubbed shoulders with the common man it is a wonder that he has any shoulders left. His campaign caravan has traveled the length and breadth of the country and wheeled out Sabbahi in rural backwaters so that he can bellow about justice and the revolution and freeing unjustly detained prisoners. He did this on the last day of official campaigning in Abdeen, Cairo, mostly preaching to a small crowd of the converted, a bunch of excitable teenagers who lit flares and chanted and banged drums next to more sedate Dostour Party members and non-aligned citizens. The mood felt very 2011, what with all the talk about the martyrs and the revolution and social justice.
Both Sisi and Sabbahi invoke the past, but to differing effect and success. Sisi predictably focuses on June 30, while Sabbahi attempts to present January 25 and June 30 as being on some kind of continuum (the popular view is that June 30 “corrected” a January 25 gone awry).
As for the future, Sabbahi is in the unenviable position of trying to sell a dream, while Sisi has already given voters theirs. And, in any case, Sabbahi’s branding is entirely wrong — he is attempting to market a product that went out of fashion in 2012, with his big talk of rights and freedoms and justice and bread for the poor. He is a romantic and full of whimsy, talking about feeding people when the country is fighting a war against terrorists. And who cares about the martyrs when new ones are being created every day? And, in any case, the old martyrs died for a spurious cause, that bad business that happened in 2011.
Sisi, meanwhile, hasn’t bothered to articulate solutions for Egypt’s problems other than a repeated insistence that the Egyptian people help him to reach a solution; there is an implicit suggestion that they are part of the problem. It is a sort of false agency that he markets, that of a child helping his father with DIY at the weekend, but who ultimately has no claim to the final item constructed and who is secretly resented for existing at all.
It is often said (by some Egyptians themselves) that the Egyptian general public crave a strongman, and that they like, and have to, be kept in line with a whip. This, it is suggested, explains why Hosni Mubarak was tolerated for so long: he kept the unruly Egyptian nation together through the necessary brutality of his regime. I don’t think there’s any people on earth who enjoy violence and repression directed at them, but general publics are more often than not cowards and bullies who are partial to a bit of schadenfreude, especially when they have been promised that the misfortune of some other group will ensure their own wellbeing — a tried and tested formula.
Added to this, there is a touch of “any club that I can join is not good enough for me” about Egyptian society, a mix of fatalism, snobbery, hierarchy worship and entrenched social stratification that puts the kibosh on social mobility and puts those in authority beyond questioning by the serfs. It is particularly pronounced at the moment, as society recovers from the 2011 experiment in people power that brought the Brotherhood and its calamities on our heads.
And this is why Sabbahi’s slogan “one of us” is so very off target. Since July 2013, the Egyptian public has stated unambiguously that it decidedly does not want one of its own to be at Egypt’s helm. Sisi represents the exact opposite of the Egyptian revolution in every way, including the fantastical notion that a civilian can effectively run — or rather control — Egypt. He is establishment, army, old regime, brought up in the military, a secret society within Egyptian society, one of them, not us, with access to knowledge about how Egypt should be run that a layman can never hope to possess. And, on top of that, he has gently rocked voters into a reverie with his counter-terrorism lullaby.
How can ordinary citizen Sabbahi, with his romantic promises of a better tomorrow couched in language anathema to the vast majority of a general public obsessed with the past, hope to compete?