Waiting for a chartered jet at Cairo Airport earlier this month, brothers Mostafa and Mahmoud Bakry schmoozed with a 50-odd crowd of journalists, entertainers, businessmen and campaigners for presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
As she passed by, a star-struck member of the custodial staff shouted out Sisi’s campaign slogan: “Long live Egypt!”
The group was headed to Assiut for a campaign trip. No one seemed to be able to say who was underwriting the campaign event. Answers varied – from the official Sisi campaign, to the Popular Campaign to upport Sisi, to the Masr Belady Front, an umbrella group made up of regime stalwarts and security figures.
The Bakry brothers are a pair of pro-regime journalists who run and manage the strident tabloid Al-Osbou. Mostafa is a rabble-rousing media commentator and a former parliamentarian who is close to the army and security establishment. The term “feloul” has entered into parlance to refer to these stalwarts – “remnants” of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and its allies.
A more common word on the streets of Egypt in the run-up to the presidential election, though, is “mahsouma” (settled). Most consider the results of the elections as foregone conclusion, and that Sisi will become president after running a campaign has been called untraditional. While the candidate himself has made limited and tightly stage-managed media appearances, a vast network of so-called popular campaigns – whose relationship to the official campaign is often ambiguous – have spread posters and held rallies across the country.
It begs the question of what is the point of campaigning or even voting for a candidate who is sure to win. Campaigners say their goal is a high turnout, to maximize Sisi’s political mandate. Multiple groups have lined up behind the former defense minister.
“We have many friends in many campaigns, but we are all different,” says Essam Nizami, who is a member of the Popular Campaign to Support Sisi. Nizami is a doctor who served on an advisory committee for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
His group is one of many that, under the banner of support for Sisi and opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, are helping create the new political network and alliances that Sisi will have to rely on for legislative and institutional support when he officially governs. The campaign events they have sponsored are a way for patronage seekers to make their allegiance known.
The groups headed by “feloul” politicians and movements, created in the aftermath of the mass protests on June 30, have seized on the presidential contest as an opportunity to sharpen their swords ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Shortly after arriving in Assiut, singers, politicians, and journalists were treated to a lavish dinner – featuring pigeons and a roasted lamb – alongside local senior police officers on a luxury riverboat. A violin player weaved through the tables as diners got up for seconds.
Refai Nasrallah, the founder of Kammel Gemeelak, a group that sought to draft Sisi for the presidency since June 30, said that the trip was sponsored by Sisi’s official campaign. The invitation to the junket was addressed from Mahmoud Bakry, who is a member of both the Popular Campaign to Support Sisi and the official campaign. How much official and unofficial campaigns overlap is up for debate.
There is coordination between them, says Mahmoud Nafady, who runs an umbrella group of 36 organizations backing Sisi, the People of Egypt Campaign.
Sisi’s official campaign relies on targeted media appearances with key figures and demographics, which the People of Egypt Campaign assists in supplying. When Sisi wanted to meet with a number of athletes, Nafady’s campaign brought some, and did the same with delegations of women and Sufis.
Nafady wasn’t in Assiut, but he is seemingly at the nexus of a number of initiatives by Mubarak-era figures. He was a spokesperson of Egyptian National Movement Party, a political party to succeed defeated presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign organization, and a founder of the We Are Egypt Party, alongside 270 other former members of parliament. A busy man, he is also the media spokesperson for the Masr Belady Front.
The Assiut rally’s keynote speaker, Mostafa Bakry, is a member of the front, alongside former state Mufti Ali Gomaa, former interior Minister Ahmed Gamal Eddin, former NDP apparatchik Mostafa al-Fiqqi, and former intelligence chief Mourad Mowafy.
The front also claims to be negotiating with other non-Islamist parties to join, hoping to form what secretary general Qadry Abou Hussein called “the largest patriotic entity in Egypt.” Shehab Waguih, a spokesperson for the secular Free Egyptians Party, founded by billionaire Naguib Sawiris, said that the party had been approached but would not decide on joining until after the elections law was issued.
The political future of the front is still up in the air. It was planning on registering as a political party, but delayed its decision.
Whether Sisi’s allies form a loose coalition or a big-tent party could affect the distribution of patronage and the resolution of regime fractures, which were exposed in the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster.
“We saw that parties are present and thought it was possible to act through We Are Egypt as the political wing of Masr Belady,” Nefady explained at a downtown cafe he frequents. The group could also join an electoral alliance composed of several parties, he said.
At a meeting of the heads of supportive political parties and movements, Sisi said he would prefer that they unite into one or two strong parties rather than a number of smaller ones, according to Nasrallah, the Kammel Gemeelak founder, who attended the meeting.
Joshua Stacher, assistant professor of political science at Kent State University and a specialist on authoritarianism in Egypt, notes that a less cohesive structure has advantages in many ways.
Having several parties “would allow the incumbent, Sisi in this case, to play them off each other,” says Stacher.
Even before Mubarak was ousted, in the 2010 parliamentary elections, competition between NDP candidates sometimes turned violent. Ahmed Shafiq, the regime candidate in the 2012 elections, has still not returned to Egypt, and in a recording alleged to be of him, the former air force general expresses reservations about Sisi’s candidacy. Shafiq’s National Movement Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even if Sisi’s supporters remain fragmented, “it’s not going to be multi-partyism,” says Stacher. “The way I have explained Egypt is that it’s a team effort, but it’s an uncoordinated team effort, where people see which way things are going,” and position themselves to gain advantage.
Nafady, for example, said the field marshal’s lack of a political platform is a non-issue. “I’m one of the millions who’s behind him; his words don’t matter,” he declared.
On the way to the Assiut rally, the roads were lined with posters and banners supporting Sisi’s candidacy. They also prominently displayed the name of the local figures and businessmen who paid for them. One of the event’s main local sponsors, Salah Abou Donqal, financed not only several banners but t-shirts for the participants.
The rally of a few hundred people was held directly opposite Khaled al-Fakir’s motorcycle shop. He had bought his own poster, for LE50, but decided against putting his name on it.
“I didn’t want to write my name. Some do,” said Fakir, explaining that the signed messages of support were a way of currying favor with the new candidate. “I don’t want anything from Sisi, just his love.”