Egypt’s Presidential Election Shaping Up as a Non-Contest

On January 19, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi formally announced his candidacy for a second term as president, and all indications are that he will win handily. However, his popularity has slipped since his first run for president in 2014, largely because of austerity measures that have particularly hurt the educated but economically stressed middle class. Sisi faces no serious challenger, especially after the former prime minister and air force commander, Ahmed Shafik, and former opposition parliamentarian, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, have both dropped out of the race. Neither will he face a competitor from the military after former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Sami Anan was arrested when he declared his candidacy.

Hence, Egypt is back to Mubarak-era presidential runs where, with the possible exception of the year 2005, the election is a foregone conclusion. For Egyptian politics, this means that authoritarianism has become further entrenched in the country, leaving little room for dissent. The long-term problem for Egypt is that terrorist groups, while not strong enough to overthrow the government, can exploit this situation by signaling to disaffected youth that any effort to work within the system to bring about change is a waste of time. Thus, authoritarianism and terrorism tend to feed off each other to the detriment of democratic development.

What Sisi seems most concerned about at present is a challenge from the military establishment, the only power in the country that could depose him. The fact that the regime reportedly put heavy pressure on Shafik and Anan to drop their presidential bids indicates nervousness on Sisi’s part about possible dissension within the officer corps. But a military coup against him is unlikely in the near term.

Sisi Staying above the Fray, but Sidelining Rivals

Until his January 19 announcement, Sisi was coy about seeking a second term as president, saying only that he would decide to run if the Egyptian people wanted him to do so. In early January, as was his constitutional duty, he named the members of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), according to stipulations in Egypt’s 2014 Constitution. This 10-member body is made up exclusively of establishment figures—two judges from the Court of Cassation, two judges from the Court of Appeals, two deputy heads of the State Council, two deputy heads of the State Cases Authority, and two deputy heads of the Administrative Prosecution Authority. The NEC is charged with preparing voter lists, setting campaign rules, regulating campaign funds and media coverage, facilitating the voting, and announcing the final election results. On January 8, the NEC announced that the presidential elections would take place March 26-28; if no candidate surpassed the 50 percent threshold, runoff elections would take place April 24-26. In addition, prospective candidates were obliged to declare their candidacy before January 29.

Prior to these steps, however, a lot was happening behind the scenes. In late November 2017, former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, who also had served as minister of civil aviation and head of the air force under former President Hosni Mubarak, indicated from his self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that he was interested in running for president. Shafik had narrowly lost to Mohamed Morsi in the presidential election of 2012 and afterward had fled to the UAE, reportedly to escape corruption charges.

Although UAE officials were happy to give Shafik sanctuary in 2012 largely because they opposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood organization, their relations with Shafik became strained when Sisi ascended to the presidency and the UAE became one of Sisi’s chief Gulf Arab backers. On November 28, 2017 Shafik, after he indicated that he was interested in running for president of Egypt, charged that UAE officials had put him under house arrest. In a videotaped address, Shafik said he rejected “interventions into the affairs of my country by preventing me from participating in a constitutional process and a sacred national mission.” His lawyer told the press that intermediaries—allegedly from the UAE government—told him to cancel a trip abroad because “running for president was a bad idea.”

Shortly thereafter, however, Shafik was allowed to leave the UAE, but he was subjected to attacks in the Egyptian government-owned press. While in Paris, on his way to Egypt, he announced the start of his campaign; one pro-government Egyptian intellectual, Abdel-Moneim Said, sarcastically characterized the location of his announcement as misguided because “the overwhelming majority of Egyptians live in Egypt.”

It seems apparent that Sisi, worried that his popularity has slipped because of the imposition of austerity measures and his inability to stamp out terrorism, was concerned that Shafik might be seen by a substantial segment of the electorate as a more effective strongman, especially on the issue of terrorism. Moreover, despite his long association with Mubarak, Shafik also tried to refashion himself as a democratic reformer, possibly to gain the support of other segments of the Egyptian electorate who believe that Sisi has become too authoritarian.

Whether Shafik would have gotten a significant share of the vote became moot when he finally returned to Egypt because he suddenly and mysteriously had a change of heart about running for president. On January 7, he announced that he would “not be the ideal person to lead the state’s affairs during this coming period.” Speculation was rife in Egypt that security officials threatened Shafik with reviving old corruption charges against him if he did not drop his presidential bid, a rumor that was corroborated by his own lawyer.

With Shafik out of the way, another presidential contender with name recognition was Mohamed Anwar Sadat, nephew of Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat, whom many Egyptians still regard fondly. Mohamed Anwar Sadat was an outspoken member of parliament who frequently criticized the government’s human rights record. In February 2017, he was expelled from parliament by an overwhelming majority of members (parliament is dominated by Sisi supporters) allegedly because he gave western embassies drafts of Egypt’s controversial NGO law. Sadat denied the charge, stating that he merely put his objections to the law on his own website.

In subsequent months, Sadat indicated that he wanted to run for president in large part to advance human rights; hence he became one of the government’s chief critics. However, on January 15 he announced he would not do so because he said the government had created an “election environment of fear where state-aligned media had pushed out opposing voices.” Sadat also said he worried for the safety of his supporters who would be campaigning for him in such an environment. He was indirectly referring to the state of emergency, which was renewed by parliament that same month and which curtails certain political freedoms, including the right to hold public assemblies without the permission of the interior ministry. It is not clear whether the government pressured Sadat directly to drop his presidential bid or if he, seeing the restrictive political environment in the country, simply concluded that he would not be treated fairly.

Yet a third contender was Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who had successfully challenged in court Sisi’s decision in 2015 to give two islands in the Straits of Tiran (held by Egypt since 1950) back to Saudi Arabia. Although the islands were eventually returned to Saudi Arabia because another court ruled that parliament had the ultimate say in the matter, the initial court ruling proved to be an embarrassment to Sisi. The government charged Ali with making an obscene gesture in front of a court building and he was sentenced to three months in jail in September 2017—but he is currently free while his case is on appeal. In the end, however, surveying the field of Sisi’s political and popular influence, Ali withdrew from contention on January 23.

Military Dissension?

A wild card in the race was former army chief of staff Sami Anan, who announced on January 11 that he would be running for president. Anan served from 2005 to 2012 as chief of staff of the Egyptian Army, and was deputy head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled Egypt from 2011 to 2012. Anan was forced to retire by then President Morsi, along with then Defense Minister and Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, in August 2012, at which time Sisi, who was head of military intelligence, was elevated by Morsi to the position of defense minister. Anan may have held a grudge against Sisi since that time, but his desire to run for president (he initially did so in 2014 but then pulled out) may have beeen more symbolic than real. According to Article 142 of the Egyptian Constitution, a presidential candidate must have the support of at least 20 members of parliament or obtain the signatures of 25,000 eligible voters from 15 governorates, with at least 1,000 signatures per governorate. It is clear that Anan would not have been likely to get parliamentary support because pro-Sisi legislators dominate the body, and he did not appear to have an extensive political “ground game” to obtain these thousands of necessary signatures. In fact, on January 23 Anan withdrew his candidacy after being detained by the Military Prosecutor’s office in Cairo on dubious charges.

Nonetheless, Anan’s initial decision to throw his hat in the ring, plus the unusual episode this past autumn of an active duty army colonel, Ahmed Konsowa—who had announced that he would be a presidential candidate, only to be court-martialed soon after because active duty military personnel are prohibited from running for office—signals that there may be dissension within the officer corps over Sisi’s leadership. This may explain why Sisi was so eager to discredit Shafik’s presidential bid. Sisi knows from personal experience that the only institution that can mount a challenge to his presidency is the military, so he is undoubtedly keeping a close watch on it.

Shifting the Blame

Perhaps in an effort to divert attention from his own shortcomings in the ability to stop terrorism, in October 2017 Sisi replaced his defense chief, and in mid-January 2018 he replaced his intelligence chief. Such moves may signal to the Egyptian populace that he is holding these officials, and future ones, accountable for the large-scale terrorist attacks that continue to occur in the country. But because such officials have come up through the military ranks, he may also understand that there is a risk in shifting the blame to others, especially as these high-ranking officers presumably have many friends in the military establishment.

Sisi seems a bit paranoid about opposition to his presidency when the election outcome is clearly in his favor. Although he is not as popular as he was in 2014, shortly after crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no one figure at present who can seriously challenge him. Nonetheless, he seems to be of a mindset of “taking no chances,” and the vast majority of parliamentarians, eager to outdo each other by demonstrating their pro-Sisi bona fides, are backing him.

Will Citizens Come Out to Vote?

There is a danger for Sisi, in terms of his legitimacy, if the Egyptian public becomes so cynical that a majority of them simply stay away from the polls during the March election. Sisi wants a large turnout to underscore his popularity; on January 19 when he announced his reelection bid, he said Egyptians should “show the world the size of participation in the election.” He may be in for a disappointment, especially if most Egyptians see the election—now that Shafik, Sadat, Anan, and Ali are no longer in the running—as a foregone conclusion. If this scenario transpires, the regime may inflate the turnout numbers to avoid an embarrassment, but the public would quickly see through it.

Moreover, in the last presidential election, Sisi was only opposed by an ineffectual leftist politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, and won with about 97 percent of the vote—not a real contest. As things stand today, he may be unchallenged and thus win by default. This will not inspire confidence that Egypt is on a democratic path; it will merely replicate the Mubarak era when it was common for former President Hosni Mubarak, in a yes-or-no referendum, to win with the usual “98 percent” of the vote. The only exception to this practice was in 2005, when multi-candidate elections were allowed after the United States put considerable pressure on Egypt, and Mubarak won with 88.6 percent of the vote.

Implications for the United States

US Vice President Mike Pence visited Egypt on January 20 and reportedly praised Sisi and underscored that ties between the two countries “have never been stronger.” For his part, Sisi said Pence’s visit to Egypt, the first stop in his trip to the region, “speaks volumes” about the bilateral relationship. Even with the US image in low esteem in Egypt because of President Trump’s December 6 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Sisi obviously values an affirmation of his presidency by Washington.

Hence, the United States still has some leverage with Egypt. Cairo values the ongoing military aid (though a portion of it has been held up) and cooperation on counterterrorism, but is sensitive about how its political processes are seen overseas. Despite Trump’s preference for the rule of strongmen, the United States should insist, as it has done in the past, that Egypt should allow for free and fair elections and respect opposing voices. Although it is highly unlikely that Sisi will face any major challenger at this point, what is important is that the trappings of democracy are carried out—that is, citizens should be allowed to vote without hindrance, opposing candidates should not be denigrated in the government-owned media and should be given equal air time, and vote counting should be done in a fairway.

In 2022, Egypt will have another presidential election in which Sisi will no longer be on the ballot because the 2014 Constitution stipulates that a person may serve as president only for two terms. Therefore, it is important to lay the groundwork now for fair elections. This would be important because, perhaps the next time around, there may be a real democratic contest—and US policy should be consistent.