Sisi or Sisi's supporter? Egypt's presidential dilemma

Sisi or Sisi's supporter? Egypt's presidential dilemma
5 min read
03 February, 2018
Analysis: After the alarming sidelining of any serious challengers to Sisi in upcoming presidential elections, Émile Taalab asks: will Egyptians still go to the polls?
An alliance of opposition parties has called on Egyptians to boycott the upcoming elections [Getty]
After days of alarming developments including arrests and withdrawals of potential candidates, the last-minute challenger to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is… a supporter of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

To secure a second term in office, the Egyptian president is depriving the country of a fair and transparent ballot, and opposition leaders have called for an election boycott. 

The election should have been "a model of freedom and transparency… characterised by equal opportunities between candidates". Sisi's words, spoken as he announced live on state television that he would run for a second term, seem far away today.

The regime was still trying to keep up appearances at the time, concerned about its image on the international stage. But in the span of 20 January to 29 January, when the National Elections Authority closed presidential candidate applications, the true nature of the upcoming election revealed itself: a vote without opposition or debate.

Two potential opponents were barred from entering the race in December: Armed Forces Colonel Ahmed Konsawa, arrested a few days after he announced his intention to run, and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq who quit upon his forced return to Egypt from the United Arab Emirates. 

Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of the assassinated Egyptian president, also backed out later in January. But the arrest of retired General Sami Anan on January 23, less than a week before the filing deadline for candidates, put the regime on the spot.

One day later, lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Ali also backed out - leaving Sisi the only contender.

People make fun of this election; they don't take it seriously

President Sisi and his entourage turned to regime supporters to run as puppet candidates. The Wafd party refused. Moussa Mostafa Moussa, leader of the Ghad party, however, put the costume on. Sisi now had an officially regime-sanctioned patsy as an "opponent".

Back to 'political apathy'

"People make fun of this election; they don't take it seriously," asserts journalist and political analyst Hisham Kassem. As a reflection of a candidate who fools no one, Moussa Mostafa Moussa's cover photo on his Facebook page featured his beloved president even after he declared his intention to stand against him. 

"I don't see why people would queue to vote for a single candidate, el-Sisi," Hisham Kassem continues. "When people went there to stand in lines in 2014, this was a sort of a social contract. These people said: "Yes, we want to move forward and we want to make Abdel Fattah el-Sisi our president." Then, four years later, you give them no choice. So it is really the breach of a social contract that was created at the time."

Sisi won the 2014 election with 96.9 percent of the vote. With a relatively high voter turnout of 47.4 percent, or 25.5 million people, Egyptians went en masse to the polls - despite the fact their voices were not respected only a year earlier, when a military coup on July 3, 2013, ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

"After the 2013 coup, the meaning of voting changed," said one political researcher in Egypt who asked to remain anonymous for his security. 

"People don't go to the polls to choose a political programme anymore, they go to express their support or otherwise to a single candidate," he continued. "This is a sort of plebiscite. This is not a vote in terms of political choices as we observed in the short period of time that followed the revolution."

The coming elections will establish the death of politics, the death of public space, and the death of debate

The upcoming presidential election will send Egyptian voters into a "political apathy" as in the Mubarak era, says Kassem. Under Mubarak, voter turnout never exceeded seven million.

But according to our political researcher, this "failure" had grown by the 2015 parliamentary elections. "It has been a process, the coming elections will establish the death of politics, the death of public space, and the death of debate. But overall it establishes the lack of political competence of the new leaders." 

During this year's campaign, the regime let a series of army candidates take over, which in turn revealed a lack of preparation as divisions inside the military were exposed publicly.

'People don't want another revolution'

"It is clear that the Egyptian authorities are hell-bent on arresting and harassing anyone who stands against President el-Sisi," said Najia Bounaim, North Africa campaigns director at Amnesty International, in response to the arrest of Sami Anan.

The arrest of Anan, Mubarak's military chief of staff, was "another brazen attack on the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of expression and political participation", said Bounaim. 

These attacks have left Egyptians indifferent towards an election in which they feel their vote means very little. 

"Everybody knows it is rigged," a young Cairo resodent admits, already sure he will not vote. "But people don't want another revolution," he adds. While the election is a foregone conclusion, massive abstention remains the last threat to President Sisi, who faces an increasingly exhausted population due to harsh austerity measures and security failures.

[Sisi] is from the army and without him the Muslim Brotherhood would be controlling the country

"It is true that the people are tired. We are speaking about food and living standards - but there is a plan being put forward for the youth to have better chance to find work," argues a 70-year-old retired man, who voted for Sisi in 2014 and vows to vote for him again in March. 

"He is from the army and without him the Muslim Brotherhood would be controlling the country."

The chaos in Libya, Syria and Yemen - combined with post-revolution turmoil and a sluggish economy have contributed to a desire among some Egyptians for nothing more than the status-quo. "There is a need for order," says the political researcher. "This is the ground on which the regime's legitimacy is based."

Call for boycott

The Civil Democratic Movement, an alliance of opposition parties, called on Egyptians to boycott the upcoming elections, joining another call issued by two former candidates in the 2012 presidential election.

They condemn the absence of "any fair competition in the upcoming elections". In response, Egypt's president threatened an anti-opposition crackdown, a signal that the regime will tolerate no questioning of the legitimacy of the vote.

Sisi even made a rare reference to the 2011 revolution: "What happened seven or eight years ago will not be repeated… You seem not to know me well enough. No, by God, the price of Egypt's stability and security is my life and the life of the army."

Hazem Hosny is a political science professor at Cairo University, Sami Anan's spokesperson and a signatory of the boycott.

"Change through elections is becoming impossible and change through revolution is not really realistic these days," he says. 

"Our call is a statement to the regime to tell them that we did not surrender or give up. We take this election as the start of a new period of struggle against this dictatorship."