CAIRO — In Sayeda Zainab Square a few kilometers from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, dozens of street vendors offer their goods to shoppers and employees working at public sector institutions around the square. Amid this crowd, dozens of banners and posters in support of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi block the view of shop signs and catch the attention of passersby, as the country gears up for presidential election March 26-28. But results seem to be a foregone conclusion, as Sisi's only challenger — Ghad Party head Moussa Mostafa Moussa — is avoiding the spotlight and had even been campaigning for Sisi prior to his 11th-hour registration as a candidate.
During the past few weeks, the proliferation of pro-Sisi banners, most of which include the name of the company, shop or local cafe owner responsible for hanging it, has widely stirred up sarcasm among Egyptians, both offline and online. Social media was rife with comments about the abundance of banners in the streets. Mohamed Abdulkhalid, a social media activist with tens of thousands of followers, wrote on Facebook March 7, “We’re not walking the streets of Egypt; rather, we're in Sisi’s Instagram account.” Another activist, freelance writer Abdalla Essa, posted a photo of a scene in the well-known coffee house from the comedy show "Friends" with a banner in the background reading, “Gunther and all Central Perk staff support Sisi.”
Al-Monitor spoke with a worker at a local koshary restaurant overlooking Sayeda Zainab Square who asked not to be identified because he feared for his personal safety. “Two weeks ago, police and municipality vehicles came to the area and evacuated the square from street vendors by 8 a.m," he said. "Then, large trucks under the supervision of the police hung a number of pro-Sisi posters, some of which were signed with shop owners' names.” With a smirk on his face, the worker added, “I look at the banner in front of my shop and I say, 'I didn’t hang that. The authorities did.'"
“In the following days, hundreds of shops hung pro-Sisi banners,” the restaurant worker continued, as he explained that municipality officials roamed around shops and recommended that they hang pro-Sisi banners, while others hung them without being asked, out of fear that police and municipality would think they don’t want Sisi to be elected for a second term.
He claimed that many shop owners are dissatisfied with the president’s policies, but they don't have another choice. “They know the results of the elections are already known, and they have to show their support to avoid inconveniences the municipality and the police could cause for them" in the event they didn't make their support known, he said.
Meanwhile, former police Brig. Gen. Mohamed Mahfouz, who writes studies and papers about the role of the police in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “It is clear that security agencies, like the police, and municipalities are pressuring shop owners and private institutions to show support for the regime.” He explained, “Sisi’s first presidential term was difficult for shop owners who bore the brunt of the inflation and the free-floating of the Egyptian pound that curbed Egyptians’ purchasing power. Why would they show enthusiastic support for the government and pay over 800 Egyptian pounds ($46) to hang a banner?”
Mahfouz pointed to the influence of security agencies and municipalities under the current regime, especially in residential districts. “They control everything and commit violations without any sort of control or oversight by any of the state’s regulatory authorities.”
He added that shop and cafe owners might face harassment if they don’t comply with the orders of the security agencies and municipalities, as their permits and licenses may be terminated and their properties and decorations in their shops and cafes could be broken during search campaigns. Moreover, health and labor law violations could be used as a pretext to temporarily shut down shops.
Ammar Ali Hassan, a professor of political science at Helwan University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “In general, shop owners express their support for the regime so as to avoid any clash or vindictive consequences by the police and municipality.”
Yet this pressure on Cairo’s shop owners was an opportunity for shops that print advertisements. Ali Mohamed, an employee at a printing house in Ard El Lewa, told Al-Monitor, “About 20 to 25 shop owners visit my printing house every day asking for me to print pro-Sisi banners and posters.” Mohamed added that his establishment prints about 120 square meters per day of banners and posters at the request of shop owners.
“Many of them asked me to print posters with the same design," Mohamed said. "When I asked them about the source of these designs, they all said they were given the poster [design] by the police."
For his part, Taha al-Sayyed, owner of a perfume shop in Sayeda Zainab, said that the banner he hung in front of his shop cost him 800 Egyptian pounds ($46), including printing costs and the wood used to hang it. However, others said their banners cost them about 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($57) or more, depending on the size and quality.
As for local cafes, they were asked to show even more support. The owner of a local cafe on Champollion Street in downtown Cairo who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said that the police asked him to have his employees promote voter turnout. “Police personnel came to the cafe two weeks ago and requested a count of workers," he said. "Then they gave me four T-shirts reading ‘Participate for the sake of Egypt.’ They ordered workers to wear them during working hours.”
A foreign expert at a diplomatic research center in Cairo who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian government reaches out to voters through members of parliament and political parties that have become mouthpieces for the regime, such as Al-Nour Party and the Free Egyptian Party, in addition to the police, district officers appointed by the government and most syndicates.
The expert added, “Everyone is trying to show support for Sisi in order to maintain good relations with authorities. This falls within the best interest of their trade. In Egypt, authorities can easily shut down shops or cafes. Yet despite the propaganda, voter turnout is expected to be embarrassing to the regime.”
On Dec. 24, 2017, the Alashan Tbneeha (So You Can Build It) campaign held a huge conference in a hotel in Cairo under the slogan “Egyptians Forcing Sisi to Run for a Second Presidential Term." Organizers claimed they collected over 12 million signatures to support Sisi’s running again for office.
Helwan University's Hassan argued that despite Sisi’s deteriorating popularity, he still tries to present himself as the people’s candidate, as if his candidacy has been demanded by the people. He said, “Several campaigns have been launched for this purpose — such as Alashan Tbneeha, Yalla Sisi [Come On, Sisi] and Kolina Maak Men Agl Masr [We Support You for Egypt's Sake] — and are indirectly supported by state agencies. However, Sisi’s official campaign remains absent in order to make way for these popular campaigns.”