CAIRO — A few thousand men, women and children gathered on a sprawling lawn in the Egyptian capital on Saturday night, cheering, singing and dancing in support of the nation’s leading presidential candidate.
It was Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s first big campaign rally, three weeks ahead of an election that he is almost sure to win.
And, among Sissi’s supporters, the certainty of his imminent victory was so great that it mattered little to them that the man himself never showed up.
“It’s not necessary,” said Afaf Ghazi, a government bureaucrat and member of the campaign staff. “We’re just here to support the campaign and say his name,” she said, clutching a picture of the candidate.
Sissi, who ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president in a coup last summer, kicked off his presidential campaign last week with a two-part prime time television interview, in which he promised to restore security and get this embattled Arab state back on its feet. In the months since the coup, Egyptian security forces have battled a deadly insurgency and waged one of the harshest political crackdowns in Egyptian history.
Sissi was a no-show at his first rally probably for “security” reasons, his supporters concluded. But he also doesn’t need to do much campaigning. Sissi has mass popular appeal across Egypt, his supporters said, as well as the support of the state itself.
On the grounds of a national conference center once used by former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Sissi’s supporters wore pictures of the military man’s face around their necks on Saturday night, as retired military men, politicians and a priest lauded the candidate who many already assumed had won. Egypt’s government press center had sent out invitations to the rally, and the man who served as the nation’s supreme religious authority under Mubarak stood onstage and prayed for Sissi’s success.
Music tailored to the campaign blasted through mounted speakers at eardrum-shattering volume. Singers crooned Sissi’s name and heaped praise on the military. Whirling dervishes spun to the beat of drums, and children raced across the grass, where thousands of chairs had been laid out in rows.
It was unclear whether the state had allowed the Sissi campaign to hold its function here for free. But no one in the audience believed that Sissi’s rival candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, could do the same.
This month’s election campaign has been a radical departure from the country’s first democratic presidential race in 2012, when a dozen candidates took to the streets across the nation — waving from buses, speaking in rural town squares and stumping for votes from the Mediterranean coast to the southern Nile Valley.
“Those events would have had a quarter of this number of people,” said Fathi Hassan, 54, who attended several campaign events that year. “They were a lot weaker.”
But Hassan said a club in the coastal city of Alexandria had bused him and his nephew to Saturday’s event, along with “five thousand” other people.
Salah al-Husseini Zordak, the secretary general of a small political party, said his party bused other supporters in from the Nile Delta. And a group of older men, all bankers in beige summer business attire, said the Sissi campaign had paid their way from a city northeast of Cairo.
“People from the campaign invited us — future members of the People’s Assembly,” one 62-year-old man said wryly. “Old National Democratic Party members,” he added, referring to Mubarak’s party. They had been promised dinner, too, he said.
For the bankers, the event signified a shift away from the typical routines of democratic politics.
“Have you ever seen a campaign event that’s just singing and dancing?” asked one of the bank employees, Sayed Ibrahim Mohamed, 57. “We came here to hear his positions.”
He and his colleagues were confident that Sissi wouldn’t show up.
“But he should — so that I can vote for him,” said the 62-year-old bank manager. “I need to know what his program is. He can’t keep himself apart from the people.”
And yet, for many in the crowd, it really didn’t matter.
“We are all Sissi. The Egyptian people already live his ideas,” said one supporter, Hassan Ibrahim, who added that he was 59, “the same age as Sissi.”