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Sisi’s camouflage campaign

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the likely next president of Egypt, is campaigning by not campaigning.
Presidential candidate and Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talks during a television interview broadcast on CBC and ONTV, in Cairo,  May 6, 2014. Sisi, who is expected to win a presidential election this month, said in a television interview broadcast on Tuesday that costly energy subsidies could not be lifted quickly. REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) EGYPT OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN EGYPT - RTR3OCAH

With the Egyptian presidential elections less than three weeks away, it is expected that both presidential candidates should be discussing their platforms and starting a debate on the direction they intend to take this troubled country. The campaigns should be at full bore, with events, public appearances and TV interviews to rally voter support. So far, of the two candidates running, only Hamdeen Sabahi is doing that, while his opponent, and the likely next president, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been running the most curious campaign in the history of all political campaigns by simply not campaigning at all.

After never appearing on Egyptian television in any format other than delivering a speech, Sisi finally made his first TV interview this week, and it was not an on-air interview, but rather pre-recorded and also allegedly edited by his campaign staff. His absence in the media has been the source of much speculation, with many voices claiming that his handlers are making him avoid the media, as to not let his views affect his widely alleged popularity. Those voices seemed vindicated once the interview was aired: Sisi appeared terse and controlling, unable to engage or nullify his interviewers’ meager attempts to scrutinize him or his views. It didn’t help that until this day the Sisi campaign hasn’t been able to provide his voters with an electoral platform, with one of its members stating to the media that they are doing this intentionally, to avoid “any bickering” over his vision for the country. This would be a fine example of the old Egyptian proverb “an excuse that’s worse than the sin,” but given what has been known through sources about his campaign, it is somehow fitting.

Before delving into the numerous problems that the Sisi campaign is suffering from, a quick recap of its structure would help explain why the problems are occurring. The campaign is made up of a consultative body on top that is handling the strategy, and has people from the 2012 Ahmed Shafiq campaign handling the grassroots work and voter mobilization, with a third separate group of businessmen and military personnel preparing the platform.

The first problem that faced the Sisi campaign was its messages. With Sisi's voters supposedly being an amalgam of various groups, it is impossible to produce political messages that don’t alienate one of them. If Sisi chooses populist messages, the rich will believe that he is truly another Nasser and flee with their money; if he chooses a pro-investment messaging, the poor will believe him beholden to rich businessmen and an extension of the Hosni Mubarak era. If he speaks of rights and freedoms, he will alienate the social conservatives, and if he goes against them he will alienate the liberals. The campaign's solution became to remain vague, produce emotional patriotic messages and keep the man out of the media as much as possible. Once that problem was solved, the problem with the platform reared its ugly head: Sisi explicitly asked for a platform that is nonpolitical and economy-focused, believing that policy and economics can somehow be mutually exclusive. Once the platform arrived, filled with nothing but national projects and investment plans, the consultative body started objecting to the lack of policies regarding women, minority rights and any of the other hundred issues that plague Egyptian society. The platform was immediately sent back to be re-edited, and now it seems to have been shelved altogether.

Then came the structural problems of the campaign itself. The Shafiq campaign heads — who are all Mubarak regime backers — started to fume over the fact that they are not in the consultative body, and were relegated to the groundwork under the command of people like Amr Moussa, Amr al-Shobaki and many others whom they believe to be January 25 Revolution symbols, and therefore shouldn’t even be in charge of the campaign. If that wasn’t problematic enough, the parallel campaigns' fight started as well: Before Sisi nominated himself, a number of “Sisi for president” campaigns (“Fulfill your duty,” “By order of the people” and the hilariously titled “It’s not up to you,” to cite a few) started promoting him for president and calling for him to nominate himself. Once he did, they all started angling to become THE “Sisi for president” campaign, which they attempted to do by collecting letters of agency from voters to fulfill his nomination requirements, and then each attempting to be the campaign to collect all other letters of agency and present them to Sisi themselves. The inevitable result: members of rival “Sisi for president” campaigns beating each other up at notary offices.

All of this infighting is symptomatic of a much greater issue: Who will be the representation of power in Sisi’s Egypt? Given that, unlike former Presidents Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, Sisi has no political party, the only way for those old Mubarak regime backers to hold onto their connection to the state and subsequently to power is to become “Sisi’s men.” It would make them, and not their local political rivals who are also in a support Sisi campaign, part of the new regime, and its representative in their area. The goal they are all aiming for is to be chosen by the campaign as the people onstage at local official “Sisi for president” campaign rallies, especially since Sisi cannot and will not attend any of the rallies due to security concerns.

If you think that angling to become the official representative of a presidential campaign whose candidate will never visit your area or know you by name is strange, then you might be shocked to know that the people running the official Sisi campaign have yet to even meet him once. This whole struggle, as far as Sisi is concerned, might as well be happening in a parallel universe. Some of his most senior campaign people admitted to have seen him speak for the first time during his solitary TV interview, like everyone else in the country. The official Sisi campaign is a headless chicken, a mirage, or as a source close to the campaign put it, a camouflage campaign. It’s there to look like there is a campaign, but there really isn’t anything “real” there.

The question that some might ask is whether Sisi actually needs a campaign at all, given his supposed popularity, and the fact that he is the state’s candidate. The answer is that he does: As our recent history has shown, to win the presidency isn’t the hard part; the hard part is to stay president while enacting the very unpopular decisions that our next president will have to enact. This requires voter buy-in, political capital and support for ideas and proposed policies, which Sisi has yet to even articulate. His interview gave viewers the notion that he is strong, conservative, security-minded but vacant of any realistic solution or assessment of the country’s problems: His solution for the energy crisis and the power cuts was “energy-saving light bulbs.” Unemployment? A thousand grocery cars to be given to young people to sell groceries. The Muslim Brotherhood? Well, according to him, there will be no such thing during his reign. How? No details. We just need to trust him.

His interviewers didn’t even dare to scrutinize any of these answers, unlike what other interviewers were doing to his rival, which further reinforced the idea that this is in no way a real election, but a show aimed to give legitimacy to Egypt’s next dictator, and a spectacular failure of a show at that. To recap, the man has the support of the media, the military, the businessmen, the old regime backers, the Gulf states and has no real opponent, and still can’t put on a good show. Makes one wonder how he will fare once he becomes president. 

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