Much ado about nothing: Egypt’s inconsequential presidential elections
This week, Egyptian expats will head to the polls set up in their embassies and consulates abroad, to cast their votes in the country’s third presidential election since the 2013 military coup. Their fellow citizens back home will follow suit on 10 December. The results will be declared on 18 December. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will win.
The guaranteed victory of Sisi — the former defense minister who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president 10 years ago — has little to do with popularity or some outstanding economic performance. Sisi will win simply because he controls the executive state institutions and the much-feared security apparatus and has already eliminated any serious contender.
Given that the outcome of the elections is already known, the key question is whether the elections will provide Sisi with renewed legitimacy or a boost that would allow him to overcome the increasing discontent over his economic governance of the country.
This paper argues that the elections will not bring anything new. It discusses how they simply reveal the underlying dynamics of Egypt’s political scene: a crushed opposition that is seeking to test the waters but is not able yet to challenge Sisi in any meaningful way and a nervous president who is worried about any signs of popular mobilization.
A rushed election: business as usual or signs of nervousness?
Although the election was expected to take place sometime in Spring 2024, the regime rushed to organize it earlier than planned. No official explanation was given, but Sisi’s publicists have denied this was an extraordinary move and argued it is in line with the Egyptian Constitution.
Egyptians were left to speculate about the move. One widely held opinion is that Sisi wanted to consolidate his legitimacy before embarking on more currency devaluation and austerity measures, which he has been stalling on for long despite pledges to the IMF and other international donors. According to this view, the elections would provide Sisi with more cover – legal and popular – to then adopt such drastic economic measures that would drive more Egyptians into poverty and might trigger social unrest.
If Sisi is hoping for the elections to bolster his legitimacy and popularity, then his ability to mobilize voters will be key. In the previous two elections, in 2014 and 2018, Sisi was declared a winner with roughly 97% of the vote, in a process engineered by the security services and where state organs were tasked with mobilizing the civil servants and workers to vote for him.
Still, voter turnout has been generally low, and keeps declining one election after the other, reflecting the overall disillusion of the citizens with the regime-sponsored political processes after the coup. For instance, the turnout for the 2014 presidential election was 47%, then went down to 41% in 2018. The last Senate (upper house) election in 2020 witnessed only a 14% turnout, while the parliamentary election in the same year had a turnout of only 28%.
A 2014 law stipulated a fine of LE 500 against eligible voters who fail to show up at the polls, but it was never applied despite repeated warnings by the National Electoral Committee simply because it would be impossible to fine almost half of the population.
The outbreak of the war in Palestine on 7 October, however, may have given Sisi some breathing space on the financial front as international donors increasingly worry about regional stability and Western governments seek Egypt’s collaboration on Gaza. The EU has rushed to Cairo’s autocrat by speeding up its economic development plans for Egypt, while the IMF is “seriously considering” its USD 3 billion loan program.
A battered opposition tests the waters and meets repression
If for Sisi, the elections are about refurbishing his legitimacy, for the opposition, it is a space to test their margin of maneuver. Sisi spent the last decade cracking down on dissent from all shades, under the guise of the “war on terror.” Opposition parties, independent unions, media organizations, student groups, community networks, and human rights NGOs have been either dismantled or crippled.
However, emboldened by the economic crisis and the relative decline in regional backing for the regime, the battered Egyptian opposition has been involved in minor struggles, basically trying to expand gradually the margin for political organizing and reviving street politics.
It is within this context that we can understand Ahmad Tantawi’s aborted presidential bid. Hailing from the northern Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh, Tantawi is a former parliamentarian with the Nasserist-leaning Karama Party. During his time in parliament (2015-2020), he was a thorn in the regime’s side and a critic of Sisi, drawing the latter’s wrath. He lost his seat in the 2020 election, due to reported rigging of the vote.
Under security threats, Tantawi left for Beirut in 2022 for a brief period of exile, from where he announced his intention to run for the presidency. He returned to Egypt in May 2023 to launch his campaign. Tantawi managed to gain the support of several opposition parties, remnants of the 2011 activist groups, some celebrities, and sections of the youth who were not previously involved in politics.
Based on my sources in the activist community that supports Tantawi, none of them had any illusion they could defeat Sisi through the ballot box. The rationale for the dissidents’ support for Tantawi rested primarily on trying to use the opportunity to gain some margin for mobilization and organizing since usually the election period is marked by a relative openness of public space and international media interest.
To contest the election, according to the law, one must either collect 25,000 citizens’ endorsement signatures, approved by the state notary offices, from at least 15 provinces with a minimum of 1,000 signatures in each or get 20 endorsements from parliamentarians. Such nomination procedures are tailored to ensure the state has the final say on who is to run since collecting endorsements from citizens requires campaigning on the ground, which can be obstructed by the security services, while the parliament is dominated by regime loyalists.
Tantawi insisted on collecting signatures from citizens, opting for a grassroots campaign. This took him on a month-long odyssey of repeated security crackdowns on his family and campaigners, attacks by plainclothes thugs against supporters, and bureaucratic obstructions by state notary offices. His iPhone was also targeted, presumably by the Egyptian regime, with Israeli spyware, prompting Apple to deploy a security update to all its products.
One day before the deadline for the submission of endorsement signatures to the National Electoral Committee, Tantawi announced on 14 October he was withdrawing from the race, after gathering 14,000 signatures, citing security harassment and the arrests of campaigners. While it had been widely expected the security services would go after Tantawi after the election was over, Sisi’s revenge came sooner. The prosecutor announced in the first week of November that Tantawi would be referred to trial on criminal charges of “circulating election-related papers without official authorization."
Another leading opposition figure who had the intention of running was Gameela Ismail, the head of the quasi-liberal Dostour Party. Her short-lived campaign ended abruptly on 10 October, under pressure from the party’s rank and file members.
Mystery also shrouded an alleged contender, retired Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazi, Sisi’s in-law, and former army chief of staff. Sisi removed him from service in 2017 and gave him an honorary role as a presidential advisor. It was rumored that Hegazi had the intention to run against Sisi, and his name was suggested as a possible candidate by some opposition figures. Retired army personnel are required by law to seek permission from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) before running in elections for any office. Egyptian exiled writer Belal Fadl claimed Hegazi tried twice to secure approval from the SCAF but was rejected. It is difficult to independently confirm or deny this allegation, but, if true, it at least shows the senior brass are still behind the president. Both Sisi and Hegazi also appeared publicly together at the Military Academy, in what was understood as an implicit message of unity.
So, who are the contenders?
The final list of contenders was published by the Official Gazette on 9 November, which included Sisi and three other candidates who are running with essentially the consent of the security services.
The first is Abdel Sanad Yamama, the head of the Wafd Party, which was a liberal nationalist force in the distant past only to descend into a patronage network for a group of businessmen competing for favors from whoever is ruling Egypt.
The second is Hazem Omar, the head of the Republican People’s Party — an obscure party comprised of businessmen and former members of Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party that was dissolved in 2011. Omar’s political record does not include dissent in any form. On the contrary, he routinely praises the regime and Sisi.
The third is Farid Zahran, the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. Although he denied taking part in a meeting with Abbas Kamel — Sisi’s right-hand-man and director of the General Intelligence Service, during which Zahran was allegedly encouraged to run to provide a democratic façade to an already settled election — Zahran’s candidacy was approved through the endorsement of 20 parliamentarians, which signals the regime’s consent. His party also has a long record of collaboration with Sisi, whether by helping to form the post-coup cabinet or striking deals with the security services during parliamentary elections. Throughout his presidential campaign, Zahran hardly mentions Sisi’s name or levels any serious criticism against him. Instead, he is routinely lambasting the Muslim Brotherhood as if time had stopped in 2013.
Most of the Egyptian opposition have already declared they would boycott the election, instead of casting a protest vote in favor of Zahran, prompting the latter’s party to freeze its relations with the opposition.
The days ahead
Sisi’s electoral victory is a given. But whether this victory will strengthen him meaningfully remains unclear. His popularity has plummeted for several reasons, the most important of which is the deteriorating economic conditions that have impacted all sections of society outside his tight-knit constituency of army generals. So the real ballot box is the evolution of the country’s economy.
The war in Gaza adds another layer of complication. It is threatening further blows to an already crippled economy, while gradually reviving street dissent. While another 2011-style revolution is unlikely in the short term, such a possibility cannot be ruled out in the future if regional and economic instability persist. On the other hand, Sisi probably hopes that the war in Gaza would provide him with leverage with Western and Gulf governments as well as international donors and that he would be able to use this leverage to ease the country’s economic and financial crisis.
So, while there is a lot to watch in Egypt these days, the elections seem like a sideshow at best.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.