When TIME announced on Thursday that Egypt’s Defense Minister, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, had topped TIME’s 2013 Person of the Year poll with more than 440,000 votes his supporters were triumphant. Ahmed Abu Hashima, an Egyptian steel magnate and Sisi supporter, was one of the first to publicly congratulate Sisi on Twitter. Writing in Arabic, he called the victory an, “appreciation for [Sisi's] national role and the love of Egyptians towards him.”
Sisi’s success reflected the genuine popularity of a man who led what was essentially a military coup in July against the democratically elected government of then President Mohammed Morsi. Sisi remains the most powerful political figure in Egypt. The win was driven by hundreds of thousands of votes from inside Egypt; the country of about 85 million provided more votes than more populous nations like India and the United States. Many of those voters came via websites like Alwafd.org, one of the several Egyptian news portals that drove voters to the poll. These included youm7.com and el-balad.com. These sites tracked the voting throughout the week and informed readers when voting would close and how close the gap was between Sisi and the person who came second, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
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TIME’s Person of the Year is chosen by the magazine’s editors and will be announced on Wednesday, Dec. 11. Part of the Sisi vote may have been driven by a desire among his supporters to sway the editors’ decision. An article earlier this week in El-Balad linked to the online poll page and asked, “Would (the editors) listen to Egyptian votes and select their Defense Minister as the man of the year for 2013 so his picture could be printed on the cover of the world’s most famous magazine in its annual issue?”
Al-Wafd in particular has made no secret of its Sisi cheerleading. The website and newspaper are extensions of the Wafd Party, an opposition party that has been heavily pro-military and critical of Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. Wafd strongly backed Sisi’s ouster of Morsi. Wafd Party president Sayed Al-Badawi has already endorsed the widely-rumored idea of Sisi running for president next year.
“It wasn’t an organized campaign. But the voting did come from certain news outlets. These are all newspapers that back the direction of the country and the secular trend,” said Moustafa Shafiq, managing editor for Al-Wafd. “People feel very strongly and I’m sure there was a lot of repeat voting.”
A survey of the most prominent pro-Sisi Facebook pages in Arabic and English doesn’t reveal a massive organized get-out-the-vote campaign. Most users simply linked to the poll and later noted its results with satisfaction in growing numbers of comments. Months after the military takeover, the results suggest Sisi’s popular support has staying power. “He’s a man who represents the will of the people,” said Shafiq. (The result also suggest that the Internet remains a key factor in Egyptian politics. Social media played a key role in the 2011 revolution that ousted then President Hosni Mubarak.)
Part of the motivation for Sisi voters may also have been a desire among supporters of the military to change the image of the military takeover. Many backers of the military coup have felt misunderstood and unfairly judged by Western governments, human rights organizations and correspondents.
A spokesman for the Egyptian military, speaking on condition that his name not be published, said the Sisi votes were proof of the enduring social support for the military’s actions and Sisi’s leadership in general.
“This doesn’t tell us anything that Egyptians did not already know. But perhaps it is a good time for the whole world to see it clearly,” he said.
In less than a year Sisi has become a household name with his face appearing on T-shirts, banners and chocolates. But the true level of his popularity can only be tested at the voting booth. Speculation as to his intentions has been a media obsession in Egypt for months. The elections are set for sometime in the first half of 2014, pending ratification of a new constitution.