Sisi's tough love message rings harsh for Egyptians

CAIRO Wed May 28, 2014 12:10pm EDT

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Grilled meat vendor Tarek Fathi planned to support Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt's presidential election, believing the man worshiped in the press could fix all problems: from shabby health care to an energy crisis.

But Sisi's tough love message offered little hope for a brighter future after Fathi's wife died last month in a grimy state hospital. In the end he did not vote for anyone.

Fathi concluded that the former army chief, like so many other leaders from the military before him, had little to offer.

"She died at one of our garbage government hospitals," said the father of two toddlers, sweating at his sandwich shop in a working class district of Cairo.

"I thought I'd go for Sisi, but I realize now that neither candidate is capable of helping me. Why go vote? There's no point."

Sisi, who enjoyed adulation from the media and support from the military, security services and businessmen, is expected to win the election.

But a low turnout has called into question the level of support for the man who gained hero status after toppling President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year.

His only opponent is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.

The nearly empty polling stations could be an early sign of trouble as the career military man prepares to take the helm of a nation where street protests have helped remove two presidents in three years.

Apathy is not the only reason for the low participation in an election that is part of the political road map that Sisi announced when he toppled Egypt's first freely elected president after mass protests against his rule.

In addition to Islamists who reject Mursi's ouster as a coup and have called for a boycott, some liberal youth activists are also staying away. Under Sisi's watch a crackdown against the Brotherhood was extended to secular-minded Egyptians.

Sisi seems to have alienated some Egyptians during television interviews in which he said it was up to ordinary citizens to step up to the plate and work hard.

But trying to impose military discipline on a nation exhausted by three years of political upheaval since a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak may have backfired.

Though many Egyptians interviewed by Reuters in working class districts during this week's election said they wanted a strong president, others quietly explained how Sisi had lost their vote with his "tough love" message.

Billboards in rundown neighborhoods call for austerity: "With work," read the signs, next to Sisi's smiling face. Another sign shows Sisi and the words "hard work is all I have, and all I will ask from you."

Millions of poor Egyptians already juggle several jobs, or can't follow Sisi's message because they are unemployed.

"NOT A SOLUTION"

Sisi's proposals for tackling some of the most pressing challenges ring harsh, critics say, mainly because they seem to place the burden unduly on the poor.

In order to deal with a crippling energy crisis, young people can walk to work or school instead of driving or taking public transport, Sisi suggested in a meeting during his campaign with young Egyptians.

Instead of a person eating one loaf of bread, he can cut it in four so there is more to go around, he said during a television interview where he urged Egyptians to understand the "true reality".

"If money appears in my pocket to pay my bills from working more, okay. But how can I cut a loaf of bread into four? That's not a solution," complained Emad Abdelaela, Fathi's co-worker.

It's not just the poor who seem irritated by Sisi's prescriptions for Egypt's social and economic ills.

In the upper middle class district of Sheikh Zayed, in the Cairo desert suburbs, a Mursi supporter said Sisi would find little help from Egyptians like him.

"We have an electricity crisis, and now he's telling us to conserve," said Mamdouh Ali, 30, an architect.

Sisi's ideas have become the butt of jokes, with satirical videos on YouTube poking fun at him.

The well-known Egyptian blogger known by his social media handle Big Pharaoh described Sisi's approach as "completely absurd".

He said the man who commanded widespread respect in his military uniform and was hailed as a superhero is now being "scolded" by Egyptians boycotting the vote.

"The political apathy is extremely dangerous now," said Big Pharaoh. "What we are seeing now with the youth losing trust and losing faith in the political process. This is not a good thing."

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)

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