January 30, 2014
When an uprising toppled Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, men such as Ahmed Saif who helped run his vast patronage network melted away.
But three years later, Mr 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 Morsi, and is expected to become president.
Although Field Marshal 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 Mr Saif, who served in parliament under Mubarak. His money and connections give him huge sway in rural Egypt, where people usually vote for whoever distributes jobs or cash.
Mr 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 farmland north of Cairo.
“If one is preparing himself to run for elections, he must give services to the people,” he said in an interview this week, while greeting two men who wanted money to repair their mosque.
With many of Morsi’s followers in jail or driven underground, and liberal parties unable to challenge Field Marshal Sisi, there are few forces in a position to overhaul the system.
Field Marshal Sisi 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.
HA Hellyer, an Egypt expert and fellow at American think-tank the Brookings Institution, said: “Without the rural areas and the population outside the large cities, no government can hope to establish a political mass of support.
“If you only have Cairo, you can’t hope to hold on forever.”
Well before Mr Saif was elected to parliament in 2005, he was doling out cash to residents of his hometown. The community service helped him establish his position as what Harvard University associate 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,” Dr Masoud said.
After Mubarak’s fall, Mr Saif took a backseat politically and watched Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood – now banned once more – dominate elections.
Mr 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 for a campaign calling for early elections. Anti-Brotherhood activists said Mr Saif then began donating supplies to them for protests begun ahead of 30 June, the date set for nationwide demonstrations. He had a platform built, a sound system installed and arranged for free meals to be delivered daily.
Days later, Field Marshal Sisi toppled Morsi.
As the state began a security crackdown on the Brotherhood, Mr Saif reprised a role he had honed during Mubarak’s rule.
He provided 10,000 meals during 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, Mr Saif held “conferences” where nationalistic songs blared out, and drinks and food were provided.
The approval of the constitution by 98 per cent of voters this month paved the way for Field Marshal Sisi to declare his candidacy for president and Mr Saif is ready to help.
“Sisi is a patriotic man. He saved the country,” Mr Saif said.