Presidential elections 2014 in Egypt. Photo by Zeinab Mohamed. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Presidential Elections in Egypt: A Sense of Déjà-vu

Egyptians vote for their next president from March 26-28, 2018. According to the National Election Authority, more than 59 million voters are registered for this election. But do they have a choice?

Remember Egypt’s last presidential elections in May 2014 when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi got 97% of all votes? When only one opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, was eventually willing to run against the army’s candidate? While other potential opponents had withdrawn their candidacy at an earlier stage, among them well-known figures such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, Sami Anan and Khaled Ali? When many parties and groups had called for a boycott, and a “climate of pessimism, self-censorship, and fear” hampered the political atmosphere, as Democracy International wrote in their preliminary post-election statement?


Hopes for meaningful elections vanished

Today, on the first day of the three-day presidential elections in Egypt, the situation is even worse. Aboul Fotouh, Anan, Ali and Sadat again considered running against al-Sisi, but while Ali and Sadat withdrew their candidacy early enough, the other two got arrested in January and February this year. Sisi’s only competitor, Moussa Moustafa Moussa from the Ghad Party, did not hesitate to openly support the re-election of al-Sisi. This stands in clear contrast to Hamdeen Sabahi’s candidacy, who repeatedly criticized his opponent in 2014 and warned of the ultimate comeback of the old elites from the Mubarak era. The European Union will not send an official observation mission this year to “what promises to be an uncompetitive presidential election”, as Martin Ronceray and Faten Aggad assessed on ECDPM blog. In 2014, the EU had decided to observe the elections and noted, in diplomatic language, certain “areas of concerns” related to “fundamental freedoms and key political rights” (EOM Final Report, p. 4). However, the sheer existence of this observer mission indicated that the European Union had at least a vanishingly small hope that these elections might have some legitimatory significance – apparently a mistake, as Lars Brozus and Stephan Roll from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs estimated.

Hopes for meaningful elections have largely vanished. Observers agree that al-Sisi will win by a large margin. The only interesting question seems to be: how many Egyptians will ultimately take part and thus give these elections a certain legitimacy?

2014, there weren’t many, despite urgent appeals from the government and like-minded prominent figures, the threat of legal consequences in the event of “treacherous” abstention, the last-minute declaration of the second election day as a holiday and finally the extension of the election period by another third day. To no avail, because despite these efforts even the officially announced turnout rate did not reach more than 47.5 percent; some observers estimated it significantly lower.

The fact that al-Sisi will undoubtedly win these elections does not automatically mean that he actually enjoys broad support among the Egyptians, but rather that the “deep state” has perfected control and manipulation to guarantee the success of its candidate. For many Egyptians, the only possibility to express dissent is abstaining from these elections, which explains why the regime is so keen to increase voter turnout. “We achieved our promise and you have to achieve your promise. As we didn’t abandon you, you should not abandon (us),” al-Sisi said on 15 March 2018, according to a Reuters report.


Number of political prisoners at an all-time high

With regard to the promises he considered to have been fulfilled, al-Sisi particularly referred to the restoration of security and order, in direct comparison with the tenure of Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist president who held Egypt’s highest office for one year from 30 June 2012 until 3 July 2013. Indeed, many Egyptians remember these twelve months as a disturbing experience, marked by chaotic governance and growing problems like frequent power cuts and shortages in gas and fuel supply, with long queues in front of the petrol stations.

However, things have hardly improved for most citizens, neither in terms of security, nor in terms of economic income, and certainly not in terms of political rights. The 2018 Egypt Country Report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) vividly describes the country’s numerous deteriorations between 2015 and 2017: continuing, and partly intensifying attacks on state targets and civilians; a further restriction of basic rights that have never been satisfactorily guaranteed, with the number of political prisoners reportedly reaching an all-time high of around 60,000, as the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) estimated for 2016. The army has engulfed in an arcane battle against insurgents and terrorists particularly in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, debarring independent observers such as journalists and hence making impartial validations of the army’s success statements impossible. Poverty is growing, also caused by a runaway inflation that even affects more and more upper-class Egyptians.


Military-economic empire squeezes the Egyptian economy

Sadly, Egypt under al-Sisi achieves the weakest scores the country ever had in the BTI’s Democracy Status Index, worse than under Hosni Mubarak. Egypt now ranks 98th out of 129 countries, on a par with Pakistan. Even despotically governed countries such as Venezuela, Kazakhstan or Zimbabwe are ranked better.

So, what can be expected from four more years under President al-Sisi? The army will continue to secure its political and economic supremacy, the price will be paid by those who disagree with the government’s policies or suffer from economic deprivation. The military-economic empire drains the remaining wealth of the country’s economy. Being exempted in many cases from paying taxes, complying with environmental regulations and keeping minimum labor standards, often not even paying salaries to the conscripts working in their factories, army-affiliated enterprises squeeze out private business and distort competition.

As a consequence, the country will continue to financially depend on external sources. Egypt under al-Sisi will therefore remain a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia. The government will continue to demonize civil society organizations as “foreign agents” or “enemies to Egypt’s security” and jail democratic activists or anybody who dares to challenge the current government. “No change, many challenges”, Giuseppe Dentice predicts for these elections – a sense of déjà-vu indeed.


Jan Claudius Völkel is Marie Skłodowska Curie Research Fellow at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He is the Regional Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa for the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) and author of the BTI 2018 MENA Regional Report.

For German readers: also consult Jan Völkel’s interview on the Egyptian elections in Süddeutsche Zeitung daily.

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