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More than Election Fatigue

Faced with yet another round of voting, some are asking what’s the point?

By Kate Durham

If you only get one chance to make a first impression, democracy in Egypt may be in trouble.

In 2012, with Egypt facing its first Mubarak-free presidential election and 13 candidates, I chatted with anyone who wanted to talk about who they were voting for. And there were plenty who wanted to share: neighbors, cab drivers, co-workers, shopkeepers, tour guides, you name it. This time around ― the second and considerably earlier-than-intended presidential election in two years ― I’ve actually steered clear of casual political conversation. In part, because the results seem like of a fait accompli, if you believe the media. In part because I want to avoid the “You’re American? Coup or revolution?” discussion. And in part because many people haven’t been as chatty about politics lately. But among those that are talking, I’ve heard undertones of disillusionment – not with the candidates, but with the process itself.

Not Al-Hagga, my landlady, of course; she’s as chatty and enthusiastic as always. She’s been a fan of former Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi since June 30, and of course she’s going to vote for him as president. He’s a strong man, she says, just what this country needs right now.

Oddly enough, Al-Hagga asked me if I thought Hamdeen Sabbahy, the only other presidential candidate, would win. All the youth like Sabbahy, she thinks.

Yes, I acknowledged, some of my young co-workers are volunteering with Sabbahy’s campaign. Then I looked over at Al-Hagga’s 20-something daughter and asked, “Who are you voting for?”

Al-Sisi!” she replied immediately. “Sabbahy doesn’t know anything.”

The youth bloc is apparently not as clear-cut as my landlady thinks.

Then there’s Mohamed, a dive guide who had been living in Germany and started a family there but had returned to Egypt a couple of years ago. “In Germany I was no one, but in Egypt I was someone,” he explained. He openly told me he supports the Rabaa cause, which encompasses supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi and critics of the violent dispersal of their month-long sit-in after the ouster. Mohamedsaid his neighbors reported him to the police for his views, but officials in Dahab fortunately did not arrest him.

The dive guidehas been watching events here through a European prism, and he points out that Germany had the exact same problem as Egypt. In 2012, the German constitutional court had declared the parliamentary elections law, specifically how party and individual candidates are elected, was unconstitutional. Mohamed says the German court ordered the government to issue a new law but left the parliament in place. In Egypt, he notes, the Supreme Constitutional Court invalidated the 2011 parliamentary elections law for the same reasons and dissolved the entire People’s Assembly.

Less than a week after we went diving, Mohamed returned to Germany, despite having no professional prospects lined up. “Better a cold country than a cold cell,” he told me, adding he was not going to vote during the expat elections.

Ramadan is a taxi driver from the working-class neighborhood of Boulaq, and somewhere in the stop-and-go of Downtown traffic, our conversation turned to politics. It was storefront that had replaced all its signs with giant ‘vote Al-Sisi’ billboards that sparked it. Unimpressed with the display, Ramadan — quick to assure me that he’s not part of the Muslim Brotherhood — told me he voted for Morsi because he wanted a change from the Mubarak era, represented by Morsi’s opponent Ahmad Shafik.

The taxi driver is openly skeptical of anything the media says about anything right now, but says many people are too believing of what TV tells them. “The Egyptian people are strange,” he said. “They listen and believe, but they don’t go see for themselves.”

I asked Ramadan what he wants from a new president. “Aiysh (bread). Jobs. Good education. Good healthcare,” he said, ticking off the core social issues on his fingers. He’s unimpressed with the presumed front runner’s emphasis on security. “If we have problems with security and terrorism, he should have stay in his place as defense minister.”

But it doesn’t matter what the candidates promise on any of these issues, because Ramadan is not going to the polls this week. He voted in all the elections since Mubarak stepped down – constitutional referendums, parliamentary elections, two rounds of presidential elections. “I went and cast my vote. Each time they threw it in the trash.”

I can’t blame him for thinking that. The Constitutional Declaration approved by voters in March 2011 was amended without a public vote by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in June and again by Morsi in August and December. The People’s Assembly elected in 2011 was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2012. The president elected in 2012 was ousted in 2013.

My random conversations with random people are never meant to pass for a properly conducted poll. So I have no way of knowing how many people have given up on the idea of democracy. According to the state statistics agency CAPMAS, 53 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the presidential election next week. Many millions will vote. Many will actively boycott because they believe Morsi was illegally deposed. Still others will boycott because they see this election validating a return to military rule.

And many think their votes just don’t matter. The turnout of these elections will say much about the people’s faith in the political system. Ramadan, for one, has resigned himself to the seemingly inevitable. “If they want Al-Sisi, fine,” he said with exasperation. “Let them bring Al-Sisi.”

In this taxi driver’s pessimism, though, I see cause for optimism. Considering how little Ramadan trusts the media, his reaction to learning I worked for a magazine surprised me.

Write my words in your article: There is more than just ‘Al-Sisi, Al-Sisi’!” he insisted. “This is my opinion, write it in your paper.”

Ramadan may not think voting will solve anything, but he still wants to be heard. et

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