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Behind sweeping landslide, a generational divide in Egypt

  • Boys walk by a donkey cart used by a scrap collector making his rounds in Cairo's neighborhood of Dar el-Salam, Egypt, Thursday, May 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Bakkar)

CAIRO: “Sisi will leave no one wanting!” the 50-year-old shopkeeper in a Cairo slum barked when a younger man criticized the landslide victor of Egypt’s presidential election, former army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Their heated argument – even though both voted for Sisi – shows the stormy public sentiment the retired field marshal will confront, even after winning nearly 93 percent of the vote in this week’s election. Sisi faces not only opposition from Islamists, but also a generational divide.

Many older voters embrace him. But among the young, ambitions for change have been unleashed since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and their expectations are low that another military man in power will fulfill them.

Sisi’s Islamist foes, furious over his removal last summer of President Mohammad Morsi, boycotted the election, as did more secular revolutionary youth groups. Many balked at voting when the outcome seemed certain. The government managed to boost turnout to 46 percent by threatening fines for nonvoters and by abruptly extending the vote to a third day.

Some young voters backed Sisi, but with a sense of resignation and gloom over the future that could quickly turn to opposition.

In Abdel-Hakim Fathi’s tiny fishing supply shop in Cairo’s impoverished Dar al-Salam slum, this reality was on display. Ahmad al-Nabawi, 36, argued that while Sisi may be able to restore some stability, it will be at the cost of increased police abuses, corruption and injustice, all under the mantle of “fighting terrorism.”

“It may look OK at the start, but once the ball gets rolling, it will be back to good old days!” he said, referring to the Mubarak era. “The police will be worse than they used to be.”

Despite his skepticism, Nabawi voted for Sisi, hoping the career officer – backed by Egypt’s military and rich Gulf Arab states – can improve the economy enough so that he can pay off his taxi, sell it and buy a newer one. If that doesn’t happen, he said, he’ll oppose the president.

“You are being selfish,” Fathi shouted. “The army never said a word without delivering.”

“If you do nothing wrong and mind your business, no one will come after you,” he added, dismissing concerns over a police state. “I have been around 50 years and nothing happened to me.”

More than 1 million people live in Dar al-Salam and the adjoining Hadaiq al-Maadi neighborhood, crammed into an area smaller than Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Here, narrow, broken streets are lined with squalid apartment buildings. Rickety buses maneuver through mounds of garbage and construction work. The area is emblematic of the poverty most of Egypt’s 90 million people live in – and which has only worsened in the three years since Mubarak’s ouster.

The argument in Fathi’s shop, which pitted the shopkeeper and a man in his 60s against the younger Nabawi, illustrated the old world vs. new world attitudes among Egypt’s electorate.

An older generation, which brags about fighting in past wars and remembers a time of political repression but less chaos, is more welcoming of a new president from the military. A younger generation – the 32 million voters between the ages of 18 and 40 out of an electorate of 54 million – is no longer patient with restrictions on human rights, social mobility and basic freedoms.

“The military is a respectable institution,” Fathi lectured the younger man. “Does it have thieves? Yes it does. I’m ready for them to rob me – but just provide me with security as well.”

It’s true, he said, some younger voters stayed away from the polls because they saw friends killed in police crackdowns or had their own dreams dashed. But, he said, Egypt is facing an “international conspiracy” to destabilize it, led by Morsi’s Brotherhood, so the country needs Sisi.

“No one else will be able to put up with what is coming,” he said, adding that it was good the state extended voting to a third day to get out more voters to give Sisi a stronger mandate.

“No!” Nabawi shouted. “We looked worse this way. You were begging people to vote for him.”

“People didn’t go out because they didn’t want the control of the police and army again,” he added.

Other young people who voted for Sisi said they also had low expectations. “I am expecting failure,” said Walid Tharwat, a 37-year-old computer engineer. “The only reason I voted for him is security.”

He opposed the 2011 revolt against Mubarak, he said, not because he liked the ruler of 29 years, but because he expected the chaos that has ensued. When he was in his teens, Tharwat added, the Brotherhood tried to recruit him as a youth leader, but he became disillusioned with the group’s controlling ways and he quit. He was happy to see Morsi go, he said.

But he is sure Sisi won’t improve people’s lives, and he expects the new president to clamp down after seeing two predecessors fall.

“The one in charge now has learned the lesson. He will keep control of all the levers. Not even five or six people will be able to gather again,” Tharwat said. “These are our last elections.”

Nesrine Mahmoud, a 34-year-old housewife in Dar al-Salam, said she backed Sisi after his ouster of Morsi, but during the election campaign, she didn’t like the way he lectured about morality, as if he would take over educating the young from their mothers.

“I don’t have to be Brotherhood to be against him. I just didn’t like the way he talked,” said the veiled woman, after casting her ballot for Sisi’s sole opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.

Sitting on a bench in a narrow alley where drug dealers operated nearby, Khaled Mohammad said he gave up on politics after 2012 and didn’t bother to vote this time. That year, the 34-year voted for Morsi, not because he is an Islamist but because he thought the Brotherhood would end the corrupt hold on power of Mubarak’s cronies.

After Morsi’s year in power, he said, he believes the Islamists are no better than any other politicians.

Drawing deep on a cigarette, he said that Egypt is divided not on ideological lines, but between haves and have-nots, and Sisi won’t change that.

“He will step over three-quarters of the people for the sake of that other quarter,” Mohammad said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 31, 2014, on page 12.
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Summary

"Sisi will leave no one wanting!" the 50-year-old shopkeeper in a Cairo slum barked when a younger man criticized the landslide victor of Egypt's presidential election, former army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Their heated argument – even though both voted for Sisi – shows the stormy public sentiment the retired field marshal will confront, even after winning nearly 93 percent of the vote in this week's election. Sisi faces not only opposition from Islamists, but also a generational divide.

The area is emblematic of the poverty most of Egypt's 90 million people live in – and which has only worsened in the three years since Mubarak's ouster.

Other young people who voted for Sisi said they also had low expectations.

He was happy to see Morsi go, he said.

But he is sure Sisi won't improve people's lives, and he expects the new president to clamp down after seeing two predecessors fall.

That year, the 34-year voted for Morsi, not because he is an Islamist but because he thought the Brotherhood would end the corrupt hold on power of Mubarak's cronies.


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