Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By Alessandra Bajec
The Egyptian election has shown the divide within the country.
Egyptians went to the polls in a presidential race that former army chief Al-Sisi is expected to win. The election comes less than a year after the military-backed ouster of President Morsi and three years after the revolution whose promise has not materialized.
A noticeably high female turnout marked the first day of voting amid a festive atmosphere in downtown Cairo. The streets were buzzing with the lyrics of ''Boshret Kheir'' — a new anthem aimed to encourage Egyptians to vote, as women chanted, held up pictures of Sisi, and waved Egyptian flags.
“Security is Number 1, then Jobs and Education,” voters shouted out.
Two women queuing at a polling station in Abdeen said they were voting for Sisi because he’s a strong man for the country, and there should be no place for the Muslim Brotherhood.
One man noted that some businesses run by Muslim Brothers stayed closed on the election days because staff didn’t feel safe in an overwhelmingly Sisi sympathetic environment.
"Tell Obama to leave Egypt in peace,” more than one voter in Sayeda Zeinab requested.
By the entrance of another poll in Abdeen, a small gathering of women expressed full support for the ex-military chief, confident that he would fulfill their expectations.
“We believe he’s the one who can change Egypt,’’ said Faiza. “Everybody will stand by Sisi. We asked him to be our president.’’
Outside a cafe near Abdeen, one woman and her brother, who voted for Sisi, said they knew of few people not voting, most of them unhappy during Mubarak’s time and frustrated after they saw no change under Morsi.
Sitting on chair in downtown alley, Ali Yousef argued that Sisi is the best-placed person to do the job, in this period of chaos, denouncing the state of terrorism created by the Brotherhood.
“The will of Egyptians is his magic wand,’’ the elder man stated, quoting Sisi himself. “Through our hard work, we will help him to build the country.”
Standing in the voting queue, in front of downtown Mohamed Farid School, 21-year old Asghad said she would vote for Sisi’s opponent, Hamdeen Sabahy, because the country needs to move on towards a civil state. Most of her friends didn’t bother heading to the polls since they knew who would most likely be elected. For Asghad, Sabahy is a brave man as he decided to run for presidency despite the little chance to win over Sisi.
At the core of Sisi’s manifesto, published only few days before the voting, are security, stability and development, encompassing education, health and food security.
In the second part of a televised interview, Sisi spoke of redividing Egypt into 33 governorates, improving infrastructure reclaiming over 4 million acres for agriculture, boosting irrigation, and facilitating wider ownership for Egyptians working the land. His plans include reform of the educational system and the health care in Egypt.
He promised better life for Egyptians within two years.
‘’Sisi relies on the backing of the majority,” Tamarod’s Ramy Salah, Cairo coordinator of Sisi’s campaign, said. “The people will help him to make Egypt a better country.”
Sabahy’s electoral program focused on social justice, the fight against poverty, improving education, and redistributing wealth in favor of the poor.
Lobna Monieb, a spokesperson in Sabahy’s campaign, said he would support small and medium enterprises, revive public factories to generate job opportunities, reclaim 3 million acres to allocate to the needy, and provide a legal framework for investment to attract more businesses.
He also favored setting price control policies, improving the health service, providing social insurance, offering affordable health care, and providing free education for everyone.
Both candidates promised to reform subsidies so that the rich benefit less. Both would also maintain a ban on the Brotherhood and keep its leaders in jail.
On the role of the military, Sisi stated the army would not be involved in political life, but would continue to help in implementing developmental projects. Sabahy, instead, repeatedly said the army’s role is to secure Egypt, not to interfere in politics. He also stated that there would be parliamentary supervision of the army budget.
Al-Sisi said he would not change the protest law, which punishes violators with up to three years in jail and fines for protesting without police permits. Sabahy vowed to amend the current law adding that he would pardon innocent activists and protesters arrested and imprisoned because of that law.
A shop assistant in Mohandiseen said she wouldn't go to vote. She didn't feel there was a good candidate to vote for. She voted for Morsi in the last election.
As the first election day passed, Sabahy’s campaign reported violations such as arrests of campaign delegates, difficulty in officially documenting violations, acts of campaigning inside the polling stations premises and directing voters.
A statement issued by the National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy praised the Egyptians’ “wide response to calls for a boycott in the initial stages of a bloody presidential charade.”
A lower turnout was observed on the second voting day. A few polls off Ahmad Orabi Street hardly had any voters outside. One Brotherhood supporter said he had walked past six polling stations from Giza Square without seeing anyone.
Another guy showed the four-finger Rabaa sign with a smile, saying no he was not going to vote.
For Sherif, who’s calling for Morsi’s return, the two candidates are after their own interests, not the good of the country. Although he voted for Sabahy in the last election, he wouldn’t vote for him this time due to his turn against Morsi.
Hannae admitted she wouldn’t give her vote to any of the candidates. In her view, Sabahy would not be able to do what he plans while Sisi doesn’t have an actual program to stick to in order to rule.
In the current polarized environment, it’s rather daring to envisage a smooth path toward a civil, democratic state in Egypt.