SHEBIN EL KOM, Egypt (Reuters) - When an uprising toppled Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, men like Ahmed Saif who helped run his vast patronage network melted away.
Three years later, Saif and other former members of Mubarak’s party are back in action in the populous countryside, offering everything from refrigerators for newlyweds to welfare-like stipends to the poor in exchange for votes.
This time, the slick political machine is drumming up support for army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled Egypt’s first freely-elected leader, Islamist Mohamed Mursi, and is expected to become president.
Their return casts fresh doubts about the stumbling political transition in the biggest Arab state.
Although Sisi is expected to win by a landslide, the backing these wealthy local kingpins are offering suggests he could entrench his rule much the same way Mubarak did.
The 2011 revolt was meant to rid the political landscape of operators like Saif, who served in parliament under Mubarak. His money and connections give him immense sway in rural Egypt, where people usually vote for whoever distributes jobs or funds.
Saif’s door is always open for anyone in the Nile Delta town of Shebin El Kom, a collection of cinderblock apartment buildings on a tributary of the Nile that winds through the country’s most productive farmland, north of Cairo.
“Sit down,” he said, twirling prayer beads as he sipped tea in his parlor above his nationwide tour company and greeted two men who wanted money to repair their mosque.
“If one is preparing himself to run for elections, he must give services to the people.”
In the West, politicians turn to sophisticated public relations companies during electoral campaigns. Here, they look to players like Saif, who sit in their offices listening to constituents and offer solutions by opening their wallets.
Analysts say the nature of Egyptian politics means that the influence of local notables over voting habits, especially in rural towns and villages, where most people live, is likely to remain widespread for years to come.
With many of Mursi’s followers in jail or driven underground, and liberal parties unable to challenge Sisi, there are few forces in a position to overhaul the system.
Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which was banned after the 2011 uprising, was never ideological, like the Communist parties in Eastern Europe. Instead the party was an efficient vehicle for distributing patronage.
Sisi, whose image hangs on posters across Shebin El Kom, may
have to depend in the long-term on local politicians who can secure a level of consent from the population that cannot be achieved by force alone.
To keep his popularity intact, Sisi would have to work the strategic countryside, just like Mubarak did.
“Without the rural areas and the population outside the large cities, no government can hope to establish a political mass of support,” said H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If you only have Cairo, you can’t hope to hold on forever.”
Well before Saif was elected to parliament in 2005, he was doling out cash to residents of his hometown. The community service helped Saif establish his position as what Harvard University professor Tarek Masoud calls a “local notable”.
The term describes “someone with a ready-made vote bank: somebody with a non-negligible number of people who are going to vote for him no matter what,” Masoud said.
After Mubarak’s ouster, Saif took a backseat politically and watched Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood dominate elections.
Saif saw his opportunity to get back into the game last spring, as anger built over the Brotherhood’s rule.
First, he paid to have petitions printed locally for a signature campaign that called for early elections.
Anti-Brotherhood activists told Reuters that Saif began donating supplies to them for protests that they began ahead of June 30, the date set for nationwide demonstrations. He had a platform built, a sound system and tents installed and arranged for free meals to be delivered daily.
Days later, Sisi toppled Mursi and unveiled a political roadmap he promised would bring free and fair elections.
As the state began a security crackdown on the Brotherhood, Saif reprised a role he had honed during Mubarak’s rule.
He provided 10,000 meals during the holy month of Ramadan to anti-Brotherhood citizens and bought toys for children. He also kept in close touch with the new army-backed interim government.
After attending a meeting in December with interim President Adly Mansour on a new constitution, Saif held what he called “conferences” where he blared nationalistic songs, and provided people who showed up with drinks and food.
The approval of the constitution by 98 percent of voters this month paved the way for Sisi to declare his candidacy for president and Saif is ready to help.
“Sisi is a patriotic man. He saved the country,” he said.
The government in Cairo is eager to cast both the Brotherhood and Mubarak loyalists as enemies of the nation.
“There will be no return to the pre-January 25 practices because Egyptians will not allow the return of those who had a role in the arrival of things that led to (that) revolution,” said Mostafa Hegazy, adviser to interim president Adly Mansour.
Still, critics say that the resurgence of such a network of support under Sisi could limit the prospect of disentangling economic policy and state finances from the ruling political elite--features of Mubarak’s rule that critics say stifled Egypt’s economy.
The army-backed administration says the high support for the constitution will offer an opportunity to break with the past.
But the re-emergence of people dismissed by a liberal minority as “feloul” or “remnants” from the Mubarak era suggests to analysts that Sisi can count on a potentially long rule supported by many of the people who backed Mubarak.
In the province of Menoufia, home to Saif and the birthplace of Mubarak, some residents interviewed by Reuters were uneasy about the return of Mubarak-era politicians.
A 28-year-old woman who gave her name as Marwa said she had lost hope in politics since the 2011 uprising and didn’t plan to vote in the next elections.
“I don’t think it’d be a good thing if they came back into politics,” she said.
Still, many others are again gravitating to “feloul” like Saif -- people who guarantee an economic lifeline to the central government in Cairo, or at the very least help in a pinch.
Just across town, there is further evidence that masters of the patronage system are again dominating local politics.
Back in 2010, Samer El-Tellawy, who inherited a factory that produces a tobacco brand used in water pipes around Egypt, won a seat in parliament in polls considered so widely rigged they brought on the 2011 revolt.
Involved early on as a youth leader in the local branch of Mubarak’s ruling party, Tellawy’s status as the wealthy scion of a well-connected family made him a natural candidate for office.
His cattle farm and the Arabian horses his brother raises at stables near the Pyramids of Giza speak volumes about the wealth amassed by Mubarak supporters.
Tellawy’s factory employs around 2,600 people, a reality that makes him popular in Egypt’s tough economic times.
Thousands of factories have shut since the 2011 uprising, swelling by hundreds of thousands the ranks of unemployed in a nation where two-fifths live on or around the poverty line.
When the Brotherhood came to power, a member of the Islamist group took Tellawy’s seat in the 2011 elections.
“They targeted me, they attacked me,” Tellawy, 36, said. “They had a problem with my popularity.”
Yet his political star is rising once more. Like Saif, he sees Sisi as the answer to Egypt’s myriad problems.
“June 30 was a popular revolution and the people made Sisi the leader of it. So for that reason it was successful,” said Tellawy, referring to the protests which prompted the army chief to oust Mursi.
The well-dressed businessman provides services to poor citizens through his family-run charity which gives out monthly stipends to some 350 families, helps the blind, and also provides newlyweds with appliances like washing machines.
Although Tellawy would not divulge his political plans, many expect him to run for office.
“He has a big chance of winning,” said high school student Mostafa Ashraf of Tellawy, reflecting the local mood.
Perhaps sensitive to the stigma against members of his former party, Tellawy has for the past three years focused on running his factory and his charity - activities, nevertheless, that boost his local cache among voters.
Masoud of Harvard University said the return of “local kingpins” to elected office would raise questions about Egyptian democracy, adding the patronage system is “not ideal.”
“Now in Egypt you are a long way from the ideal anyway, so what you want is some regular electoral process in which people who want to have power accept the legitimacy of elections as a means to getting power,” Masoud said.
“If we can just have a few free and fair elections that are not abrogated ... maybe that’s the best you can hope for in Egypt right now.”
Additional reporting by Marwa Fadel; Editing by Michael Georgy and Anna Willard