Jailing General On Track for Egypt's Next President


Sand bags are piled up outside polling booths, balaclava-clad special forces and white-uniformed police are on hand to assist the elderly, and Egyptians are queuing patiently for their turn to post a ballot.

After 11 long months of speculation and analysis, Egypt's presidential election finally arrived on Monday to weigh leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi against Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

But Australian expat Susan Milbank, 51, laughs at the idea of a Sabahi win, saying all her friends and family will be ticking the Sisi box during the two days of voting.

"My maid went off this morning to vote for Sisi, she’s very happy. Off she goes. Bilo (Susan's partner) walked in and asked ‘who are you voting for?’ and she said ‘Sisi, of course’,” Milbank told New Matilda.

Susan Milbank. Photo: Rachel Williamson

Milbank knows well the mood of her adopted compatriots: she's lived almost across the road from the pyramids in Giza for 32 years. She arrived a year after Mubarak began to rule, got married and divorced, and now has a 24-year-old son, Tamer, and runs an Australian pie shop called Yum in the once-upmarket suburb of Mohandiseen.

In the alleyway alcove outside the shop, away from the cacophony of celebratory car horns but prey to the demands of an endearing stray kitten, Milbank said she hoped Sisi could fix the economic mess left by three years of political turmoil.

"I do believe that a really strong hand is needed and I don’t know that Sisi’s the right one, but I think he’s the only one at the moment that could do something," she told NM. "I believe the people want him… Given the simple fact that the people are fed up, and they know that they need somebody like him. They may regret their choice later on… but we need somebody like him."

From the other side of the world in, Mohsen Henen, a 57-year-old Egyptian expat living in Brisbane, shouted his support for Sisi down a crackly Skype line.

Twenty-six years in Australia have not dulled his opinions on Egypt. He listed three key challenges for the new president; the economy, the Renaissance Dam being built on the Nile in Ethiopia, and, as he's a Coptic Christian, religious divisions between Christians and Muslims.

Henen was in Egypt in February to visit his sister, mother and aunt, who live near the Christian dominated suburb of Shubra, and was disappointed by the dirt and chaos.

The people were just as warm and friendly but, "I found dirt everywhere, that was very sad. I lived in Heliopolis for a long long time. It was very clean, neat."

"There is no law between people and each other. The corruption is everywhere."

His family and friends in Egypt were strongly in support of Sisi.

Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr reported high support for Sisi in Shubra as Christians sided with the military after experiencing a rise in sectarian violence during the months of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Australian Egyptians were among the most enthusiastic overseas supporters of Sisi, joining Italy and Lebanon to hand 96 per cent of their votes to the former military man.

Sisi won 296,628 votes (94.5 per cent) of the total valid ballots cast by Egyptians living overseas, and Sabahi took 5.48 per cent. The overall turnout including invalid votes was 318,825, which the Presidential Elections Committee said was the highest overseas ever for an Egypt election.

But the opposite was true on the first day of voting in Egypt, said Basil Dahb, political editor for English language newspaper Daily News Egypt.

“Turnout was pretty low… I was moving around Cairo today and I came across polling stations… where there were lots of people out front, most were crowds of people singing and dancing, but not too many lines,” he told NM.

During the referendum in January on the draft constitution he’d heard reports of some polling booths being empty and others having long queues. This time Dahb’s colleagues inside and outside Cairo, as well as other sources on social media and elsewhere, were all saying the same thing: no queues.

Dahb said it was hard to tell yet whether the low turnout was due to the election being a foregone conclusion or out of a lack of interest, but Egyptians also tended to come out to vote when they had more of a choice.

During the 2012 presidential election there were 12 candidates, including three Islamists.

Late on Monday the interim government announced a national holiday for the second day of voting. Dahb said given the low turnout so far, the hasty move was most likely to encourage people to get out and vote.

It’s hoped Sisi as president can bring stability and heal wounds inflicted by the Muslim Brotherhood government and the military crackdowns over the last year. But as activist statistics website WikiThawra points out, over 41,000 people have been arrested or imprisoned since Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power on July 3.

Not everyone is pleased with the elections or a Sisi presidency though.

Protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters broke out during the day in cities including Alexandria, Minya — the location of the mass death sentences of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the last three months, and in two eastern Cairo suburbs, according to Egyptian media.

A Revolutionary Socialists spokesman told NM in April the group would support Sabahi, as they wanted to participate in the political process and create a protest vote for the Nasserist and self-styled socialist.

Other groups, such as now-banned revolutionary group 6 April Youth Movement, the Strong Egypt Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s National Alliance to Support Legitimacy boycotted the election, saying the interference of the military meant the vote would not be fair.

Of the international groups monitoring the election, the EU said in a statement that results from its 150 observers won’t be released until two days after the election so as not to make any premature analyses.

After that, it will be time for the new president to get to work, especially on the flailing economy.

Angus Blair, president of Cairo-based think-tank Signet Institute, told NM Sisi was “quite well briefed” on the economic pressures facing the country, but both candidates had failed to outline any decent policies in the campaign period.

Sisi announced a time-worn plan to build new cities in the desert, watered by aquifers, and Sabahi stuck to promises to keep subsidies for the poor and implement an across-the-board minimum wage of US$170/month.

But with subsidies sucking up 29.67 per cent of the budget and only US$17.4 billion foreign currency in the kitty at the end of April, Blair said improving business sentiment would be key.

As for the election, Mohsen says not to judge it by western standards, especially after everything Egypt has gone through in the last three years.

"Personally if you think about the election in the way we do in Australia, definitely it will not be that way (free and fair), definitely not. But don't forget that you are in Egypt. You are in a completely different culture, completely different education, completely different democracy…it will be fair for everyone who lives in this area," he says.

If the vote is inconclusive, Egypt will return to the polls for a second round of voting on June 16-17.

Egyptian presidential election, by the numbers

• 94 million estimate for global Egyptian population in 2014
• 53,909,306 eligible voters
• 16,000 judges monitoring polling stations
• 8,736.28 points is the highest the Egypt stock market has reached since 2008
• 352 main polling stations, 131,000 substations
• 59 per cent of voters are between 18-40 years of age
• 46 arrested by 5.30pm on first day of voting
• 17 felled by heat
• 7th election since the 2011 revolution
• 1 birth at a polling station in Alexandria (according to state media). The baby boy was named Sisi.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.