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Adam Patrick Omar Ramsey is a Saudi-born British journalist. Having graduated from Manchester University he interned at the BBC before then moving to Cairo, Egypt. He focuses on social, political and ecological topics within the Middle East. He blogs at aporamsey.com.

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Adam Patrick Omar Ramsey is a Saudi-born British journalist. Having graduated from Manchester University he interned at the BBC before then moving to Cairo, Egypt. He focuses on social, political and ecological topics within the Middle East. He blogs at aporamsey.com.

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Hobson’s choice for Egyptian voters

As polling booths closed late on Wednesday night, Egyptians ticked off yet another election. This has been the country’s second presidential election in as many years, and the seventh time Egyptians have been sent to the polling booths in just over three years. Democracy by way of the ballot box abounds. Yet the only reason these elections could even be called ‘democratic’ was down to one man, the Nasserist opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Wikipedia

With early results from the elections trickling out, the inevitable looks to be confirmed: ex-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next president with a landslide majority, while his only opposition is left far adrift with just a single-digit percentage of the ballots. Yet while the result itself is as expected, the turnout and build up to the election was anything but.

The idea of campaigning against the man considered by many as the ‘saviour of Egypt’ would be a hard, if not impossible, task. Sisi had, after all, been the ‘hero’ who removed the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi – this was a common sentiment from voters I spoke to. Other potential candidates quickly opted out of the race, either out of reverence for Sisi, or citing the impossibility of competing in what was termed a ‘state of fear’.

Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year, hundreds of his supporters have been killed. Over 1,000 more have been sentenced to death in the courts. Journalists have been targeted and harassed. Activists and members of youth groups have been imprisoned after the passing of a draconian protest law. The message was clear: dissent and opposition will not be tolerated, and the same seemed to apply with the elections.

Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year, over 1,000 of his supporters have been sentenced to death in the courts

So when Sabahi announced his candidacy, he was met with accusations of delusion and backroom co-operation from a fragmented opposition bloc. There was no way he could possibly win, and by competing he was simply bestowing a veneer of democracy to what was practically a coronation.

Travelling around Cairo, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one candidate. Sisi’s face beams down from posters and billboards, while Sabahi is apparently neither seen nor heard. Yet out of the two, it was Sabahi who embraced the campaign period with gusto, while Sisi himself eschewed nearly all forms of electioneering. Ostensibly due to security issues, the three-week campaigning period ended without Sisi making a single public appearance.

In the first week of campaigning, Sabahi’s headquarters were abuzz with young volunteers oozing an infectious confidence. The walls were littered with posters of martyrs from the previous three years of political turmoil, in keeping with the image that Sabahi was trying to portray: he was the candidate of the youth and the revolution.

This belief was apparent in his team, and a sole objective was clearly stated. Ehab Ghobashy, an organizer in Sabahi’s ‘Street Committee’ who referred to his candidate only as ‘the President’, held, if anything, a hubristic view as to who would win the elections. ‘You wait and see; our president will win,’ he would say with a smile, reasoning apparently superfluous to his ‘good feeling’.

Further up the campaign echelon, a more pragmatic approach was taken, but the singular hope was still that, with the correct strategy, Sabahi would somehow win. ‘We are targeting the youth [18-39]; they make up 60 per cent of the voting bloc’ explained Hussein Qorshum, head of the communications committee. ‘When we travel, we hit the areas where we know we have support and tailor our speeches to address the needs of the people there. This is how we will win – with our policies. Sisi speaks of energy-saving light bulbs? We talk of solar power!’

However, as the campaign dragged on, the cracks started to show, literally. The campaign was working on a laughably small budget and that much was clear to anyone watching. Midway through the campaigning, Sisi’s team had spent 12 million Egyptian pounds (US$1.68 million) including renting a private jet that purportedly cost them US$12,570. In the same period, Sabahi’s director of advertising stated they had spent just 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,010).

A desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day

It was a picture of forced frugality. Most of their resources were drawn from Sabahi’s failed 2012 presidential bid. Slogans, songs, posters and t-shirts from two years prior were all dusted off and brought back to life. The campaign team didn’t even have a security officer, as, according to the secretary of their political relations committee, they ‘can’t afford one’.

The young team of volunteers found themselves harassed, assaulted, arrested and impeded in their work by both pro-Sisi civilians and police officers. ‘Just two days ago, we had trouble in Mahalla,’ said Ahmed Dowayik, a 22-year-old volunteer with Sabahi. ‘They tried to stop our bus and pull us out but we just quickly drove out.’ He shrugs when asked who they were. ‘They were dressed like civilians, but you never know. The police just watched it all happen and did nothing.’

As the campaigning neared its end, it was noticeable that Sabahi’s team were trying to shift the goalposts. The main objective remained the triumph of their candidate, but another aim suddenly came to carry great importance too. ‘What’s most important for us is the spirit of youth,’ said Mohamed Aziz, a prominent organizer with the campaign.

As one of the co-founders of the Tamarod movement that brought about the fall of Morsi, Aziz knows what a successful campaign feels like, and the day after campaigning was finished, he expertly avoided a straight answer as to possible success in the elections. ‘We’ve gained some ground and we’ve trained a lot of the youth in the democratic way. The thousands that volunteered for us, work with us, the spirit of hope for a young crowd that believes in a democratic state, for me this is the most important thing.’

Yet on the day, the brutal reality in the turnout of the elections would have left both candidates disappointed. While Sabahi had hoped for some success among the younger voters, Sisi had called for record voter participation, thus providing proof of his popular mandate. The first day’s showing was so poor that it prompted an angry reproach from local television personalities. The youth were particularly conspicuous in their absence.

On the second, and what should have been the final, day’s voting, the turnout was hardly better, despite the best efforts of the state. Non-voters were threatened with fines (voting is mandatory in Egypt, but this is never observed); a popular shopping mall was closed early; and the day was proclaimed a national holiday. One research centre put the turnout over the two days at a staggeringly low 7.5 per cent. Then, late on Tuesday, a desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day. The latest state figures now put the overall turnout at between 38 and 59 per cent of voters.

The events of the polling period seemed to exactly mirror an earlier episode during the elections. On a trip to Benha, a group of Sabahi volunteers careened around corners in their campaign minibus, blasting songs and handing out posters. The occasional onlooker smiled; another gave a thumbs down, but the vast majority watched on with complete indifference, instead returning to whatever they were doing, as if nothing had happened. As if nothing had changed.

Egypt: what happened to democracy, freedom, stability?

2013-07-02-egypt-tahrir-590.jpg

Anti-Morsi protest in downtown Cairo Gigi Ibrahim under a Creative Commons Licence

The day before Mohamed Morsi was sworn into power as Egypt’s first civilian President in 2012, he came to a packed Tahrir Square and opened his jacket to show the jubilant crowd that he was wearing no body armour. A ‘man of the people’, he promised them ‘a new life of absolute freedom, a genuine democracy, and stability’.

His one-year anniversary as president, 30 June, was a date that many had marked in their calendars, but not as one of celebration, with talk of a ‘second revolution’ to overthrow the ‘illegitimate’ president. Egyptians began stocking up on food and fuel, wary of the possibility of an even more turbulent phase in the coming weeks, perhaps months.  

As it happened, the date itself drew an unprecedented number of Egyptians into the streets. Numbers in a group can be difficult to judge, but when ‘millions’ seems a safe estimate, you know you are witnessing something historic.

For now, the main opposition groups, themselves an amalgamation of uneasy alliances, have managed to rally around the ‘Tamarod’ (Rebel) campaign’s call for mass protests.

Angry at his mishandling of the economy; his November declaration; and his inability to establish security, they are asking for Morsi to step down and for early elections to be called. In two months they managed to gather 22 million signatories (although this figure is impossible to verify) – 9 million more than voted for Morsi in last year’s elections.  

But statements from the Tamarod campaign have caused confusion as to the level of support it actually has. The movement’s willingness to apply the maxim ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to its full potential has alienated many Egyptians who don’t suffer from such short-term memory loss.

While walls still bear graffiti with sentiments such as ‘Fuck SCAF’ (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) and ‘Down with the military rule’, the Tamarod campaign has been fawning over the military and, incredibly, the much-hated Interior Ministry.

Seas of red cards have been waved around in places like Tahrir. One side reads ‘Red card for Mohamed Morsi. Leave’; the other proclaims: ‘The army, the people and the Interior Ministry are one hand.’ This is a sentiment that leaves many of my Egyptian friends exasperated.

Nevertheless, that so many people are willing to overlook the historically disastrous and often deadly relationship between the army and the Interior Ministry speaks volumes as to how much ire Morsi has managed to inspire in his first year of premiership. ‘As long as Morsi leaves, I am happy. He must leave, for Egypt[‘s sake], that is the most important thing right now,’ says Mohamed Sharif, a protester in Tahrir Square.

Meanwhile, the pro-Morsi, pro-Muslim brotherhood camp is incensed at the idea that early elections could ever be called for. Although many that once voted for him have now become part of the opposition, the majority of his support base see it that Morsi won a fair election and is thus guaranteed four years in office. If the opposition forces manage to annul this constitutionally bound law, then it sets a troubling precedent that may portend a never-ending cycle of constant calls of illegitimacy for succeeding presidents – a point made by Morsi himself.

Were Morsi to stand down and call for early elections, however unlikely that currently is, then a backlash would be almost certain. A very sizeable group, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, would feel aggrieved. Having spent the vast majority of their existence in persecution, they would see this as yet another example of unjust discrimination.

Many of the anti-Morsi groups are wary of calling for military intervention, a scenario that the army has not ruled out. Still others would be happy to see it happen, if only because it seems the only plausible way that Morsi would heed the calls of early elections.

At the time of writing, at least 10 people have been killed and over 500 injured since 30 June. The deaths occurred within Cairo and south of Cairo in the cities of Beni Suef and Assiut, but the overall level of violence, particularly when the numbers are borne in mind, are much smaller than many had anticipated.   

For now, the unexpectedly high turnout for the 30 June protests has inspired the Tamarod campaign to send President Morsi an ultimatum: resign by Tuesday, or face a mass campaign of civil disobedience.

Late on Sunday evening the Presidential spokesperson asserted that the only way out of the current political impasse would be dialogue. Inviting all the major opposition parties, he said that ‘dialogue is the only way to reach a consensus’, adding: ‘The presidency aims to reach serious national reconciliation to pull the country out of its current state of polarisation.’ The problem with this route is that calls for national dialogue have been rejected again and again and again in the past.  

Then, on 1 July, the head of Egypt’s armed forces, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, took everyone by surprise and issued his own 48-hour ultimatum. Choosing his words carefully (he never said Morsi had to go), he said that the ‘unprecedented turnout’ signalled that the parties must come together to ‘meet the people’s demands’ or face a military-imposed roadmap for the country’s political future.

Morsi was quick to rebuff this statement and labelled it an effective coup d’état that would never succeed without the backing of the Americans. However, as time passes, it seems that Morsi’s future has crossed a Rubicon and those out protesting know it.  

Five ministers have now resigned following the protests, including the Foreign Minister. Pro and anti-Morsi groups have met this breaking news with anger and delight respectively so now, as each side becomes more desperate, more clashes seem likely. It seems beyond doubt that the next few weeks will be momentous for Egypt’s future.

Tensions over Egypt’s referendum result


The official results of the referendum are due on 24 December. Photo: Kodak Agfa, under a CC License.

On the evening of 22 December 2012, Egypt watched the primary results begin to trickle in after the divisive voting process of its constitutional referendum. Early figures indicate the ‘yes’ vote,  in support of the new charter, received around 64 per cent of the final result.  Only 3 of Egypt’s 27 governorates came out as ‘no’ victories, one of which was Cairo.

The referendum had been staggered over two consecutive Saturdays after a large number of judges refused to supervise the voting process in protest at President Mohamed Morsi’s 22 November Constitutional Decrees. They claimed Morsi’s self designated ‘immunity’ to them was an affront to the independence of their judicial branch of power.

Egypt’s provisional constitution mandates that members of the judiciary must oversee referendums and elections. The lack of judicial administration was a major worry for the president as it threatened any result’s legitimacy, but eventually 8,800 judges agreed to supervise.

Nonetheless, there have been accusations of voting improprieties during both rounds of the referendum: from vote rigging, to delays in opening polling stations, to absent judges.

The umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front (NSF), claimed to have witnessed ‘unprecedented rigging’ , including 750 violations across all 10 governorates in the first round. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) referred some 350 complaints from the first round to the Supreme Electoral Commission.

Despite the questions raised, the result itself will come as little surprise to most.  The opposition forces have long been divided on how to approach this referendum and perhaps it was this discord that cost them.

The ideologically inclined were pushing for a boycott on what they see as a wholly illegitimate process, whilst the more pragmatic implored a vote no. Even the NSF were unable to decide where they stood until just three days before the first round of the referendum, when they finally called on the people of Egypt to vote no.

Early reports on turnout indicate around 32 to34 per cent of the electorate, the numbers are incredibly low. To put this into perspective, the UK’s lethargic ‘Alternative Vote’ referendum in 2011 managed to get 42 per cent of the electorate to take part.

Political ennui and fatigue are sure to have contributed somewhat to Egypt’s poor turnout, but once you consider the ubiquity of the constitution in local media and the heated discussions that always seem to arise once the topic is brought up, it seems implausible to put too much weight on apathy.

The problem is that, by definition, boycotts are impossible to tally up, thus the extent to which this may have affected the final results are unknowable, especially given that thre were debates within the opposition about strategies right up until the final day’s voting.

An Egyptian man who wished to remain anonymous stated, ‘If you boycotted this referendum, then don’t come crying to us [the ‘no’ voters] about the state of this country... What do you achieve by boycotting? Nothing! You had to vote no to confront Morsi’. The man has been camping in Tahrir Square for the past three weeks and proudly states he will stay there and protest ‘until I die’ if necessary.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi have the opportunity to capitalize on this victory.  They need to desperately turn their attention to softening the rhetoric, halting the ridiculous talk of conspiratorial coups and in so doing, hopefully slow the expanding disparity between the two sides.

Morsi recently postponed the implementation of his economic reforms in order to run a ‘social dialogue’ but with the NSF having refused every invitation to a national dialogue so far, it seems like the divisions of the past month, between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the secular and liberal opposition, is likely to continue.

Morsi condemned as the new Mubarak

On Thursday 22 November 2012, Egypt’s President Morsi issued new constitutional declarations; then all hell broke loose.  

The stock market had plunged a staggering 9.57 percentage points by the following Sunday. The fighting between the Central Security Forces (CSF) and protesters intensified. Judges around Egypt went on strike. Twenty-two Egyptian rights organizations unequivocally rejected the declarations in a joint statement; 18 political parties and groups called on Morsi to rescind the declarations. Yet more members of the constituent assembly resigned. Three protesters died. Then, demonstrations swept through the governorates as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians made it clear that they were not indifferent to the matter.

Morsi’s declarations resulted in the removal of the despised prosecutor general; the retrial of anyone convicted, from the revolution to his appointment as president, with regards to protester deaths; the immunity of the Shura council (the upper house of parliament) from dissolution; the immunity of the constituent assembly from dissolution; the authority for the President to take any measures he sees fit in order to ‘preserve and safeguard the revolution’; and the immunity of any decree made by the President from any body, judicial or otherwise.

From a man that already held executive and absolute legislative authority, this attack on the judiciary has raised eyebrows and a fair few tempers too. ‘The balance and separation of powers in Egypt has been utterly demolished,’ says a joint statement by 22 Egyptian rights organizations which was released last weekend. The organizations assert that Morsi has contravened the goal of the revolution – democratization – and that the arrogation of these unparalleled powers portends a ‘bleak future for Egyptian rights and liberties’.

Morsi defended his decision by saying he would give the powers back once a constitution and people’s assembly (lower house of parliament) was in place. In a statement he reiterated ‘the temporary nature of those measures, which are not intended to concentrate power, but to avoid… attempts to undermine democratically elected bodies and preserve the impartiality of the judiciary’. Many were less than convinced. Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and head of the Constitution Party, cautioned that Morsi had appointed himself ‘Egypt’s new pharaoh’.

Eighteen political opposition parties and groups joined together to form a ‘National Front’ tasked with opposing the declarations. Among their members are ElBaradei and ex-presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa. On Monday, they called on Morsi to annul the declaration, refusing to have any dialogue with him until he has done so. The opposition parties called for a massive demonstration to be held in Tahrir Square on Tuesday; the people duly delivered, with the square as full as it has ever been.

Tahrir SquareTents were set up in the middle of Tahrir Square as soon as Morsi’s declarations were made, with people promising a sit-in protest until the decision was overturned. One of the first to arrive was 79-year-old Khaled Hamza, a playwright and outspoken communist – Hamza spent five years in prison during Nasser and Sadat’s premierships due to his activism. ‘Mohamed Morsi-Mubarak is a dictator now, but he has even more power than a dictator,’ said Hamza, his insistence on referring to Morsi as ‘Morsi-Mubarak’ emphasizing this view.

Beside banners saying ‘Egypt for all Egyptians’ (perhaps an allusion to the Islamist-heavy make up of the controversial Constituent Assembly) and while the crowd chanted ‘One Hand’,Hamza explained the aura of unity he felt: ‘Today we are united in our anger at Morsi-Mubarak; nobody would care if I told them I am a communist now.’  

By evening the Square was completely packed; chants of the initial revolution were now being directed at their incumbent president: ‘Down with the regime!’. But there were newer ones, too: ‘Morsi is Mubarak’, ‘Morsi is the new Pharaoh’.  

Fighting with the CSF has been constant in central Cairo since the one-year anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes on 19 November. Some 267 people have been detained in connection with the anniversary clashes and three have died during the recent protests. Another large concrete wall has been erected – a not unusual sight in downtown Cairo – blocking off Kasr El Aini Street to stop the fighting; instead it has just moved to Simon Boulevard.

It’s very clear that Morsi has to deal with this soon, before it gets out of hand. The masses are angry and the people are united. They realize that even if Morsi is honestly trying to speed Egypt into a new era of freedom and democracy, using dictatorial powers seems a slightly perverse way to get there.

Adam Ramsey is a freelance journalist living in Egypt. He has worked for the Daily News Egypt newspaper, contributed to Atlantic Media’s Quartz magazine and written for New Statesman magazine.