In Port Said, where riots in 2012 exposed the weakness of then-president Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians voting in this week's election were eager for the stern leadership offered by former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Few voters entered or exited the Port Said Girls Junior High School. To the left of the entrance sat an army officer wearing tan fatigues and sunglasses. To the right stood a DJ, his equipment stamped with the words “LOVE STORY.” His speakers blared pop and classical patriotic songs. “Orders,” the officer said when asked why the music was playing. “The governor’s.”
A minute later, the DJ played ‘Bushret Kheir’ (A Good Omen), a catchy jingle urging Egyptians to participate in the presidential election. “You can take photos of citizens. Don’t take photos of the music,” the officer also said.
Released less than two weeks ago, ‘Bushret Kheir’ has swept Egypt in recent days, racking up more than nine million hits on YouTube. The song is written by Emirati composer Amr Mostafa, who is known for backing Egypt’s overthrown president Hosni Mubarak and calling the 2011 uprising against him a foreign conspiracy backed by the Coca-Cola and Pepsi corporations. The song could be heard throughout Port Said on Monday, the first of two days of voting in Egypt’s presidential election. The tune blasted from passing cars, from speakers mounted on trucks, and from sound systems placed outside at least two other polling stations.
Everywhere the face of one man stared down on the city. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military chief who last July toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Throughout the city, Sisi loomed down from huge banners hanging from lampposts, many of the signs printed by private companies. His likeness was plastered to the hoods of cars and shop windows.
Sisi’s victory is widely regarded as inevitable. Following Morsi’s ouster and arrest, Sisi became the presumed strongman of an interim government that launched an immense crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other political opponents, banning unsanctioned protests, shuttering key Islamist media, killing more than a thousand and jailing more than 20,000 others. With most Islamists removed from the formal political process, Sisi’s promise of stability and economic recovery has resonated with voters exhausted after more than three years of unrest. Sisi also enjoys the overwhelming support of Egypt’s media and rockstar-like popularity among large sections of the public demanding law and order.
“To tell you the truth, Sisi doesn’t even need to campaign. He’s very popular,” said Ahmed Ayad, 45, a member of the Sisi Youth Committee in Cairo. Sisi’s de facto campaign has been organized by small parties and independent groups. The Youth Committee is one such group, headquartered in a yellow two-story villa guarded by armed private security men in the suburban Cairo district of Heliopolis. Sisi’s popularity, said Ayad, “reflects a hope for a better future that is organized and assertive.”
Nowhere is the yearning for stability more palpable than in Port Said, a city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez Canal. Since the 2011 uprising, the city has convulsed with more than its share of unrest. In Feb. 2012, a riot following a match between Port Said’s football clubal-Masry and the popular Cairo team al-Ahly left more than 70 dead. A year later, a court in Cairo sentenced 21 Port Said fans to death, catalyzing another round of protests which killed more than 40 others. With the police unable to regain control of the city, Morsi declared a state of emergency and, in a moment of foreboding, deployed the army to Port Said and two other cities along the Suez Canal.
The months of instability, and the economic toll they wrought, still sting in the minds of Port Said residents. During Monday’s election, voters brimmed with elation at voting for Sisi, a man who they said represented their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future.
Adjacent to the stadium where the 2012 riots took place, voters filed into a polling station set up inside the Port Said Sporting Club. A group of women holding Sisi posters and waving Egyptian flags cheered and danced along to ‘Bushret Kheir’. “Egypt is my mother and Sisi is my father!” shouted one woman, her hands smeared purple from the ink used to identify those who had already voted. Standing beside the cheering women was Tarek Ammar, the chairman of the club and a retired police major general. He said he was neutral in the election. “The citizens of Port Said, do not want anything like the events that took place in the stadium,” He said. “The solution to this problem is the state.”
In a nearby neighborhood, soldiers and police in full riot gear held back throngs of women pressing to enter the Port Said Girls High School. Parting the crowd on the way out of the polling station, a student named Rana Muhamad, 19, escorted her mother, Wafaa Ahmed Khalil, 44, a French teacher who traveled from Cairo to vote, in spite of a broken ankle in a cast. “I love him,” she said. “Basically, he’s a gentleman.” Khalil said he backs Sisi “because of safety and security, and also foreign relations. He’s a respected face from the military. Everything will be good.”
Every voter interviewed at seven polling stations in Port Said proclaimed support for Sisi. But not everyone is happy with the former field marshal’s ascent to the presidency. The proprietor of a fish restaurant facing the Mediterranean offered, along with sea bass and shrimp, “grilled Sisi, God willing.” The man asked not to be named. “After we talk, I’ll be arrested,” he said, crossing his wrists to signal handcuffs. In the 2012 election, he said he voted for moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the first round, and reluctantly backed Morsi in the second round. He is boycotting the current election. “There is repression now,” he said, “and I’m afraid of what’s coming next.”