Egypt’s Presidential Elections and the Challenges Ahead

The presidential election in Egypt will take place March 26-28, and it is widely understood that the serving president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, will be the winner. In the midst of an ongoing crackdown on opposition and an absence of opponents—save for one candidate, a little-known politician who was persuaded to run at the last minute despite his own support of Sisi—the outcome has been a foregone conclusion for some time. Perhaps the only remaining element of suspense is whether Sisi can equal or top the 96.1 percent share of the vote he scored in 2014, a higher percentage than Bashar al-Assad received in the Syrian presidential election earlier that year (88.7 percent).

In the absence of a truly competitive political environment, Sisi must show that democratic forms are at least being observed.

Even though the outcome of the election is clear, the answers to other important questions are not. For one thing, will Sisi’s showing be enough to quiet rumors of opposition within the security services? Will a new four-year mandate set Egypt on a path to solving its most relentless problems? Will Sisi ease up on political opponents and activists, or will human rights abuses continue unchecked? And will the United States give Sisi a blank check or push back against his authoritarian policies?

Worsening Human Rights Record

The election takes place against a backdrop of a deteriorating human rights picture. Egypt now scores 6 out of 7 on the scale of the Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” rankings (7 being the least free), with an aggregate score of 26 out of 100 (100 being the most free). The data show a steady decline in rights beginning with ex-President Mohamed Morsi’s single year in office, in the course of which Freedom House downgraded Egypt from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.”

The Sisi years have featured an erosion of Egypt’s human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch, police and security forces “routinely used torture and enforced disappearances against both criminal suspects and perceived political opponents with near impunity. In North Sinai, the military has committed serious abuses, likely including extrajudicial killings, in its campaign against an affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State…Prosecutions, travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders, in addition to repressive new legislation, threaten to effectively eradicate independent civil society.”

The pre-election months have seen intensified abuses aimed at stifling political opposition and intimidating or arresting virtually all prospective presidential candidates, particularly those who could have credibly challenged Sisi; there has been an uptick in arrests of opponents and critics of the president. The most recent victim was Abd al-Moniem Abu al-Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate, who was arrested in February along with other leaders of his Strong Egypt Party and placed on Egypt’s terrorism list. According to an Interior Ministry statement, Abu al-Fotouh was detained because of contacts with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, part of a scheme aimed at “stirring chaos and instability” and “bringing down the political and legal state’s legitimacy.” His vocal calls for an election boycott likely constituted his real crime.

Sisi increasingly appears weakened both in terms of public approval and regarding his base in the “deep state” of bureaucracy and military and security institutions.

By doubling down on repression and preemptively rendering the elections a nullity, Sisi and the regime that backs him are simply responding to what they believe is the most important lesson of 2011 and its aftermath: that political liberalization leads to chaos, instability, and the potential overthrow of the deeply entrenched military-industrial interests that really run the country. With stakes that high, almost no level of repression would seem to be too much.

In That Case, Why Bother?

In 2005, under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt held its first-ever multiparty election with a number of candidates for president (“elections” previously consisted of yes-or-no referendums on the continuation of Mubarak’s presidency). That was a tacit acknowledgment that expectations were changing among Egypt’s electorate although a foreordained outcome was known. Indeed, Mubarak’s exercises in elections were marred by the absence of strong political parties and riddled with fraud, intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and other forms of chicanery. Thus the act of voting itself had become a valued means of registering opinions. Perhaps more important, regular presidential elections with some semblance of open competition reflected what international patrons, donors, and civil society had come to expect: incremental steps toward widening the political space as the price of continued support.

In Egypt, as in other authoritarian states, elections matter for another reason: they are an opportunity, however contrived, to reinforce the legitimacy of the ruling order and to demonstrate the personal popularity and strength of the president. In a sense, the more repressive the system, the more it requires ostensibly democratic elections with broad turnout to validate its mandate and policies (Russia in its just-held presidential election is a case in point). Thus, in the absence of a truly competitive political backdrop, Sisi must show that democratic forms are at least being observed.

The Challenge of the 2018 Election

Sisi came into office riding a wave of popularity after overthrowing the autocratic and incompetent Mohamed Morsi, and he was widely regarded as the strong hand Egypt needed to reverse the economic chaos and political turmoil churned up by the 2011 revolution against Mubarak. Sisi himself carefully cultivated his can-do image, trading on the military’s solid reputation for competence and its image as the steadfast defender of the nation’s sovereignty and stability. In a June 2015 poll conducted by the independent research organization Baseera, Sisi’s approval rating stood at 90 percent.

Continued failure to bring extremist violence under control raises the risk of further instability and political dissent.

Another Baseera poll in October 2016—the most recent available, conducted a little over a year after the last one—indicated that Sisi’s approval rating, while still substantial at 68 percent, had declined significantly from earlier highs. The percentage of those willing to vote for him “if the elections were held tomorrow,” 59 percent, marked a significant drop from the 81 percent who said they would do so four months earlier, at the end of the president’s second year in office.

While these poll numbers would be the envy of any western politician, the steady erosion of Sisi’s popularity is clearly a cause for concern for the regime. So are the reasons. According to the poll, the chief grounds for disapproval included high prices, unemployment, lack of improvements in the country’s conditions, deterioration in the country’s economic status, and the lack of social justice, suggesting that many of the root causes of the 2011 uprising remain deeply entrenched.

All this suggests an Egyptian president who is something other than the hard-charging strongman he portrays himself to be. Rather, Sisi increasingly appears weakened both in terms of public approval (one reason why polling is officially discouraged nowadays) and regarding his base in the “deep state” of bureaucracy and military and security institutions. While meaningful electoral politics are hardly to be found in public, that is not the case within the regime itself, particularly among the security services, where real power lies. The fact that several candidates with a military background who might have mounted a credible challenge to Sisi (like former army general, prime minister, and presidential contender Ahmed Shafiq, and former Chief of Staff General Sami Enan) even came forward suggests that some powerful actors wanted to throw a scare into Sisi. Although there are no signs right now of fissures within the military, there are certainly tensions between the intelligence services and the army, as Sisi’s ouster of the general intelligence director in January suggests. The prospect of further problems cannot be ruled out.

Thus, with one eye on potential opponents within the security state and another on the poor optics of a rigged election, Sisi must at least ensure a respectable turnout, given that voter apathy or outright boycotts would undermine the narrative of a functioning modern republic, not to mention Sisi’s image as a strong and popular president. Hence the campaign to silence any political figures who call for a boycott, and a drive to raise turnout above the 47.5 percent of Egyptians who voted in 2014. This also explains the effort to encourage a challenger, any challenger, to file for election. After a tense few weeks when it appeared no other candidate would even be able to qualify for the ballot, let alone agree to run (the security services having done their job all too well), a politician by the name of Moussa Mustafa Moussa was pressed into service. The head of the Ghad party, Moussa had been a strong supporter of Sisi. Aside from allowing his name to appear on the ballot, he has declined to run even a nominal campaign, telling state television he’s “not here to challenge the president…I will not cause any problems.”

The Hard Part Begins

With the rigged process in place and the outcome in no doubt, attention is turning to the aftermath of the election. Having claimed a second term with what will doubtless be portrayed as an overwhelming mandate, Sisi will be hard-pressed to make good on his pledges to address the many problems the country faces today.

Washington can pledge its support in resolving Egypt’s many economic and political problems if the Sisi government commits to a more democratic path.

The economy has made certain strides, as reforms mandated by the $12 billion loan agreement Egypt signed with the IMF in 2016 have kicked in. These include floating the Egyptian pound, reducing government expenditures, increasing taxes, instituting changes to business regulations, and other structural reforms. The deal was expected to unlock additional loans from the World Bank and other international donors. Still, lack of job creation, corruption, poverty, and inequality remain endemic. The military’s control of as much as 40 percent of the economy has vitiated the effect of the reforms; it also disadvantages the private sector and harms investor confidence. A stultifying bureaucracy, overregulation, and a lack of transparency in overall economic decision-making also continue to hold Egypt back. Unpopular reforms, while necessary, have added to Sisi’s political problems; cuts to food subsidies, for example, led to bread riots a year ago.

On the security front, Sisi faces a withering challenge from the Islamic State-inspired terrorist insurgency in Sinai, which, in addition to turning parts of the region into a war zone, has struck in several parts of Egypt proper, including both civilian and military targets in Cairo and the Nile Valley. Efforts to quell the insurgency through “brute force,” which Sisi demanded last November, have so far failed in their purpose, while heavy civilian casualties have been inflicted through air strikes and other counterterrorism operations. In addition, untold human rights abuses have taken place, including torture and collective punishment. Continued failure to bring the violence under control raises the risk of further instability and political dissent as well as damage to the reputation of Sisi and the military.

For the last several years, Egypt has supported the regional government of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, based in Benghazi in the eastern part of the country (the UN-recognized government sits in Tripoli). Cairo has repeatedly struck targets in Libya and clashed repeatedly with militants in Egypt’s Western Desert, where terrorists and arms smugglers from Libya have made frequent forays across the border and attacks have claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, tourists, foreign petroleum workers, and Egyptian security forces. Tens of thousands of Egyptian troops have been deployed to the region and Egypt now considers Libya the main threat to its security. The army’s inability to quell the arms smuggling and persistent terrorist attacks emanating from Libya resulted in the replacement of the army chief of staff last fall. The ongoing threat poses serious security risks, and not just in the Western Desert; it could tempt Egypt into escalating involvement in Libya’s protracted civil war.

What the United States Can Do

With the many unresolved problems facing Egypt, the United States will have challenges of its own as it moves forward with the Sisi government in the aftermath of a deeply flawed election. The first order of business will be for the administration to react appropriately. It would do well to avoid any appearance of rubber-stamping the results with an unthinking show of support—congratulating Sisi or, worse yet, the Egyptian people, who have no say in the outcome. Instead, when acknowledging the results of the election, the administration would be wise to take note of the problematic process and urge the regime to use what it might call a mandate to open political space and improve the human rights picture going forward. Washington can also pledge its support in resolving Egypt’s many economic and political problems if the Sisi government commits to a more democratic path. The United States has remained largely silent while the Egyptian government bulldozed any potential opposition or competing candidates in the run-up to election; Washington must not make the same mistake in its aftermath.

In particular, the United States must make itself heard during the post-election period when Sisi might venture into redrafting Egypt’s 2014 constitution, which is likely to mean a consolidation of authoritarian rule; at the same time, it may give liberals the chance to push back against the harshest abuses and perhaps open some protected political space. Washington should also push for the repeal or scaling-back of some of the worst legislative attacks on human rights, including the highly restrictive protest law and the law on associations ratified in May 2017 that essentially criminalizes NGO activities. In this connection, the United States must keep up both public and private pressure on Cairo to drop Case 173, the so-called “foreign funding” case of 2011 in which 43 individuals of international NGOs conducting pro-democracy work were convicted and sentenced—a proceeding recognized by the US and European governments as a politically motivated travesty.

The Egyptian government’s efforts to maintain power through repression and the criminalization of politics may be a sound defensive strategy in the short run, but it carries risks of its own:  damaging Egypt’s reputation, alarming international donors, and scaring off foreign investors are among them. But the real risk may be internal. The business of the 2011 revolution is largely unfinished, and many of its grievances have not been rectified. Heedless repression, especially if economic progress is scant and the security situation remains unsettled, can lay the groundwork for new social and political unrest.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC