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May 27, 2014

David Degner from Cairo: On the Sissi Election and Egypt Under the Boot

This Egyptian presidential election will be fair and run by the rules. It will include an opponent. You could call it a transition to democracy, even … what with Germany sending in its election monitors. And Sissi undoubtedly has the support of a large portion of the Egyptians. But how can it be democratic when the largest opposition party has been jailed and supposedly non-political state institutions are supporting Sissi. The Ministry of Information sends out email blasts for the Sisi Campaign, foreign journalists were flown to city of Assiut on a petroleum company jet, the enterprise 70% owned by the government. State television airs Sissi’s speeches while ignoring Sabahi’s.

This election has all the form of democracy and the popular will of the people but it’s not an election of ideas. Sissi’s campaign says his platform is too complex to discuss so the people just have to trust him. And Sabahi, the opponent, has hardly distinguished himself from Sissi. It’s like Sissi and Sissi Jr. Both candidates slogans are similar — posing themselves as saviors, like Nasser.

Of course, the Brotherhood is boycotting, those Morsi supporters, and people who remember the massacre at Rabaa. Their campaign has been relegated to small protests in rural areas and university protests, in which several students are killed every week.

As for the revolution three years ago, the true liberal activists — those who opposed Mubarak’s abuses, and opposed Morsi when he subverted the constitution, then protested the Rabaa massacre, and now are against broad prosecutions of Muslim brotherhood supporters as terrorists — are ending up in jail. They are getting jail terms for protesting. That’s in contrast to the verdict last week in which Mubarak received just a three year sentence for embezzling tens of millions of public funds. The government is cracking down on true liberal activists. The less doctrinaire activists are generally for Sissi. As for the young people that were activists in the revolution, their generation are now concentrating on making a living or they’re leaving Egypt. On the surface, there is wide support for Sissi. But when you dig down — when you sit down and talk to people, they see prosecution of Rabaa and the mass prosecution of activists, and they feel it’s wrong.

That’s the political background for these photos I took last week at one of the rare Sissi campaign rallies.

Few events have been covered because the campaign organizers rarely pick up their phones for foreign journalists. The media coordination has been terrible. This one was an exception. In this case, the Sissi campaign sent out a mass invite to all the emails listed with the government press office. The event was held for the foreign press corps to see. Still, the whole event was a farce size-wise especially considering many of the participants were bussed it. I’m not a number counter but there was probably 2-3000 people. The initial invite said Cairo Stadium. I imagined it would be huge, but actually the numbers were surprisingly small. It was held instead at the Cairo Convention Center — but in a field, off to the side.

As for the the young men in the foreground, unimpressed by the whole deal, they are younger than the activists of three years ago. The new generation of revolution makers, they are the picture of disaffection. The youth have lost their input and the old institutions are back in force. If there is cheering and yelling at events like this, my sense is that most Egyptians are quietly resigned. The future is so predictable from here out. Egyptians have lost their voice again. That’s just my opinion, though. There are other people who feel it’s just the opposite.

The three wire figures show Sissi between the Coptic Pope and the head of al-Azhar, the main institution of Sunni law and learning. The message is that Sissi is uniting the religions again. Morsi and many of his supporters would not put faith in al-Azhar — it was seen as a government stooge. It might look like all four wire figures are connected, by the way, but they’re not. The one, far left, is Sissi also. You notice how different he looks from the other? Either the people who made that wire frame messed up, or the version is old. That’s because of the effort to change Sissi’s public image to that of a civilian. So, the new line is: Sissi is not a military leader. It goes back to main critique for kicking Morsi out; that it was a military coup. So Sissi had to become a civilian.

The photo also touches on the question of the participation of women in the campaign: Sissi has been calling on women to become more active in the revolution. On one side the government often uses female participation as a stamp of legitimacy, and there is almost a cult of Sissi — seeing him as a sex symbol or “the ideal man.”

“I talked to my sister, my daughter and my mother, the women, on July 24, when I asked you to gave me the mandate and the order to combat possible terrorism. The Egyptian woman with all her plainness, took her husband, her children, her food during Ramadan and took (to) the streets, and the world watched her. Take them again and let the world see you again.”

— Remarks by el-Sisi asking Egyptian women to vote on the referendum during a cultural symposium organized by MOD Department of Moral Affairs on 11 January 2014.

Sissi is using and abusing the Western dialectic of democracy, pro-human rights and pro-equality for embracing women’s participation.

Here is “Tank Man” again. If you remember, I photographed and referred to him in this BagNews Originals post back in July dealing with the toppling of the Morsi government. He’s been everywhere. Whenever I see him, I try and talk to him. I want to know what his job is. I want to know what he does when he’s not at protests. But I can’t get past his slogans. “Sissi, the only one who can unite us!” “The brotherhood aren’t real Muslims! They were just using their religion.” So, who he is is still a caricature to me. He is the symbol of Egyptian nationalism without any deep thought or logic. The way people talk about politics right now can be very simple, especially on national TV. He’s the embodiment of that. When I sit down to interview someone, I have to take ten minutes to get through the nationalistic rhetoric to ask a real question.

So the theme is unity. He’s got that same Koran in his right hand. In the other, he’s holding a black cross with Muslim prayer beads hanging from it. The photo at top is the previous pope, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria. Tank Man’s shirt is a huge Egyptian flag. And though photos of Sissi haven’t been abundant, he’s got as many as you can find, along with a few of Nasser and Sadat on that circular piece of wood.

It’s about unity, while holding the armed services in high regard, its a unity that seeks to be under the boot of the military. In previous protests, you will actually see a man walking around with a military boot on his head. It’s quite a switch. Remember when people were waving their shoes at pictures of Mubarak during the revolution as a sign of disrespect to Mubarak? For eighteen days, people were waving the shoes as a symbol of disrespect. Now, people are walking around with boots on their heads, humbling themselves to the military. Now though, it represents complete subjugation.

Religious unity, by the way, is a big talking point — even if there’s little action or policy change behind it. Two months ago, for example, after some Egyptian Christians were killed in Libya, the government made a big show of support. In the spotlight, a brother of one of the victims said he wanted the government to build a church in their honor in their village. He was forcing the government’s hand a little bit.

Lately, I’ve been seeing American flags on lots of young men’s clothes. They started popping up in the past month or two. At first I thought I was going crazy. I thought it was that phenomena where you see something once, and then you can’t help seeing it everywhere. But then, a friend posted something on Facebook about it and other people confirmed it. But this scene at the protest was curious. While America is vilified in the media here, suddenly we have this kid wearing British glasses and an American flag on his shirt, an Egyptian flag on his cheek. (That’s Sissi’s picture on the tag, by the way, with the slogan “tahya masr” – “long live Egypt” or “prosperous Egypt.”)

I’m not sure but I think the presence of the Western symbols say we want to be part of the international community. Partially perhaps, it’s about Egypt adopting a more international profile, and being more Western — vs Islam/Brotherhood facing.

They bussed in so many local officials, and everybody felt they deserved to have a place on stage. I ran into these farmers who were demanding to be up top. What the photo captures is how much people are trying to be on top when they are actually on the bottom. Sadly, just a little while later, a guy actually got pushed off the stage and was seriously hurt. It was pretty chaotic.

Regarding the guy in the uniform, what was noteworthy was that his was the only uniform I saw. Clearly, the campaign doesn’t want to be overt about military and police support. I actually saw more of those men in the red-and-white al-Azhar hats. Many more.

It’s not the last supper but it has that feel to me. Egyptian politics runs on a patronage system. Power is passed down. Loyalists get hired. Under Mubarak, the system was well oiled, and stable, it ran well for 30 years. It was clear who could give jobs, contracts, get your paperwork through an office. This was all built around a party structure, and the National Democratic Party. And then the party was outlawed. Now Sissi is coming to power but without a party of political fixers under him. So, after the president is chosen, that whole system — who populates and runs the political class — is very much up for grabs. It feels like these are the people positioning themselves to occupy those roles. It’s the next big question (since this election is a foregone conclusion): who is going to dominate in the upcoming elections? The old political class is still there and they have a lot of connections. But there is also a decent amount of chaos in the local and ministerial ranks. So, these people, these mid-level pols and aspirants to power, want to be seen so they can find their place in the new hierarchy.

(8:50 am: slightly edited for accuracy)

Photographs and narrative by David Degner.

About the Photographer

David Degner

A photojournalist based in Cairo, Egypt, David Degner looks to cultivate long-term relationships, tell untold stories and give novel analysis. His work has been published in TIME Magazine, The Guardian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is represented by Getty Reportage. You can see all David's posts for BagNews here.

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