CAIRO — In a surreal scene from the 2001 film “Vanilla Sky,” Tom Cruise runs through a deserted Times Square before screaming in despair. In a satirical version widely shared in Egypt, the square is filled with campaign billboards for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Open your eyes anywhere in Egypt these days, and you’ll see billboards, banners and posters hailing the general-turned-president, who will stand for re-election next week against a little-known politician who has made no effort to challenge him.
The outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion, so the advertising blitz appears aimed at encouraging turnout to try and bolster the vote’s legitimacy.
In the meantime, the displays have provoked a wave of grim satire on social media, one of the last remaining avenues for dissent amid a sweeping crackdown that has escalated in the lead-up to the March 26-28 vote.
A still photo cropped from the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” shows Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet seated on the doomed ship’s deck with an el-Sissi banner in the background. Another shows the stars of “Friends” gathered at their favorite cafe, with a sign outside saying: “Gunther and the rest of the staff at Central Perk support Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.”
The real banners are paid for by individuals and entities from all walks of life, from private businesses and loyal political groups to lawmakers, trade unions and state-owned companies. Even a small tea house or grocery store might hang a banner out front.
“You alone are our beloved,” swoons one banner, sponsored by a private company in the Sinai Peninsula. Another, with the image of a child, says “Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa supports Grandpa el-Sissi.”
Autocratic rulers across the Middle East have enjoyed similar displays of public adulation for decades. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi stared down from ubiquitous signs and billboards — until joyous crowds tore them down when the longtime dictators were overthrown.
During Egypt’s 2011 uprising, crowds tore down portraits of Hosni Mubarak and changed the name of a central metro station from Mubarak to Martyrs. When they took over Cairo’s Tahrir Square they transformed it into a sprawling gallery of opposition banners, artwork and revolutionary graffiti.
Egypt’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, was widely mocked, both online and off, during his divisive year in power, before being overthrown by the military on el-Sissi’s orders. Since then, the government has silenced its critics, arresting thousands of Islamists as well as prominent secular activists, and blocking hundreds of independent and critical websites.
Imad Hussein, the pro-government editor of the independent Al-Shorouk daily, says the proliferation of banners in support of el-Sissi is part of Egyptian culture.
“It’s like a traditional Egyptian wedding when the guests try to outdo each other with how much money they give the newly-wed couple to help them start their life together,” he told The Associated Press.
Others see the banners, and the election itself, as the latest evidence of Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism. A string of potentially serious candidates withdrew from the race under pressure or were arrested, and the resulting vote strongly resembles the one-man referendums held by Arab autocrats going back to the 1950s.
“Most of these banners are made by people as a means of self-preservation or as part of their pursuit of personal gain,” said Ibrahim Awad, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “The satire and sarcasm on social media show that a large segment of the population, especially activists, is not taking the elections seriously.”
A collage posted online has an elderly man waking up in his bed, shocked at the sight of an el-Sissi banner smiling down at him. Another has a statue of a nude Aphrodite with an el-Sissi sticker pasted on it. With her hand on her chest, she seems to plead with a passing museum visitor, saying: “Enough with the posters already.”
“The master of darkness and all death eaters support Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi,” declares a banner hung over a scene from a “Harry Potter” movie with the staff and students of Hogwarts seated around a conference table.
The banners have inspired other jokes that are circulating the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth. There’s the one about the voter who can’t decide between the two candidates — el-Sissi looking to his left or el-Sissi looking to his right.