There were no surprises in Egypt’s elections in May. Former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won with a large majority – his election was all but assured, given the lack of any credible opposition. However, real challenges lie ahead for his leadership. We are re-printing an article written by our esteemed colleague, Sharif Nashashibi, which appeared in The Middle East Magazine in May 2014 edition.

With Egypt’s presidential election scheduled for late May, the farcical nature of the whole process has become ever-more apparent. To start with, the Muslim Brotherhood – the country’s largest opposition group – is banned from participating.

This comes amid an increasingly draconian crackdown on dissent that has widened far beyond supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. “Repression goes unabated in Egypt,” Amnesty International said in April. How can democracy take hold in such an environment?

Presidential elections law

The presidential elections law, issued on 8 March, makes matters far worse. Article 7 makes the decisions of the Presidential Elections Committee immune to appeal, so the rigging of results or a candidate’s disqualification cannot be contested. This violates Egypt’s new constitution less than two months after it was approved, as Article 97 bans immunity for administrative decisions.

“It makes the constitution, in which we invested a lot of time and effort, sheer ink on paper, and invites distrust in the Egyptian state on both the local and international levels,” said presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. It was not long ago that Morsi’s decision to grant himself immunity – a dictatorial move by a democratically elected leader – marked the beginning of the end of his short-lived rule.

Furthermore, Article 18 of the presidential elections law gives candidates just 30 days to campaign and receive funds. This short timeframe inherently favours Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the only candidate whose high profile means he does not need to do either.

His popularity comes despite not having a specific manifesto. It is reminiscent of many American voters embracing then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s slogan of change, without knowing what it entailed.

Mounting criticisms

The announcement setting the election dates came the day after Sisi declared his intention to run, after months of uncertainty. If that was not a sign that the race is being tailored around him, it is one hell of a coincidence. This has led to increasing condemnation of the entire process by politicians outside the pro-Mursi camp, with some parties boycotting the elections altogether.

Human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali retracted his decision to run in these elections. “I’m refusing to take part in a charade whose end we all know is predetermined,” he said. “I refuse to participate in this farce called an election.”

Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, head of the Strong Egypt Party, said he “won’t take part in deceiving the people,” describing the polls as a “mockery.” The practices of the current authorities “do not indicate any kind of democratic path or respect for freedoms and human beings,” said Abul-Fotouh, who came fourth in the last presidential race.

“When we have nearly 21,000 activists detained in prisons, who will participate and vote in these elections? When the detainees are tortured and when 85 journalists are detained and channels are closed without judicial order, how to participate in the elections? ‘The State of Fear’ is back in Egypt,” he said. “Each Egyptian is now afraid to express his opinion freely.”

Ahmed Shafik, who narrowly lost to Mursi in the last presidential race, said in a leaked recording that he would not run in the upcoming poll because it would be a “farce” and a “comedy show.” He added: “I know very well they’ll fix all the ballot boxes… They’ll fix everything” for Sisi. This is a striking statement coming from someone who had previously backed Sisi for president.

Some figures and political parties have said they will not contest the elections, without saying why. Others – such as Amr Moussa, who finished fifth in the last presidential race, and Murad Muwafi, former director of Egyptian General Intelligence – have declined in favour of Sisi. Hosni Mubarak has called on Egyptians to back Sisi, compounding fears of a return to the dictatorship and repression that marked the former president’s decades-long reign.

The Tamarod movement, which was at the forefront of the revolutions against Mubarak and Mursi, has been split between support for Sisi and Sabahi, with two co-founders being suspended for backing the latter.

Lack of competition

The result of all this is that there are just three candidates at the time of writing: Sisi, Sabahi, and relative latecomer Mortada Mansour, a lawyer and chairman of Zamalek football club. There were four times as many participants in the previous presidential election (another 10 were disqualified and one dropped out, making an initial total of 23 candidates). In comparison, the upcoming race can hardly be described as pluralistic.

Some analysts say the fact that criticisms are being made in the run up to this election is a sign that dissent is being allowed. However, those detractors are likely getting away with it because of the spotlight on the election and the platform it has given them, so silencing them at such a time would garner too much attention and be unnecessarily disruptive. The masses in jail for making the same complaints have not been so fortunate.

That criticisms are being made is due to the worsening situation in Egypt, not state leniency. Moreover, whatever dissent is going unpunished is being ignored by the powers that be. It is akin to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair ignoring overwhelming domestic opposition to invading Iraq, while claiming that democracy is at work because people are allowed to protest – except in Egypt, they are not.

Neither Sabahi nor Mansour stand a chance against Sisi. Sabahi, who came third in the last presidential race, has lost much of his support base to Sisi, including two of his most ardent supporters who played a major role in his previous campaign: director Khaled Youssef, and Abdel Hakim Abdel Nasser, son of the late iconic President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The loss of the latter has been particularly damaging, since Sabahi is an ideological follower of Gamal.

According to two polls, conducted in February and March this year by Baseera – the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research – only 1% of Egyptians plan to vote for Sabahi. He is also the subject of an investigation into his campaign funding.

Public opinion

While Sisi’s popularity is undeniable and his victory almost certain, there is a danger of exaggerating his appeal, and assuming that widespread adoration alone will hand him the presidency. It will also be due largely to the weakness of the other candidates, and the fact that large swathes of the Egyptian public have been disenfranchised by the outlawing of the Brotherhood and the crackdown on other critics of the current authorities.

Recent opinion polls contradict the oft-repeated claims about the extent of Sisi’s popularity. A September 2013 survey by Zogby Research Services found that 46% of Egyptians expressed confidence in him, while 52% did not. The figures were similar for Mursi, the man he deposed: 44% and 55%, respectively.

A Baseera poll in February this year showed that 51% would vote for Sisi, while 45% were undecided. However, another survey by the same pollsters the following month showed that the number of Egyptians who would vote for him had dropped considerably to 39%, with 59% undecided.

The sentiments of these surveys seem to have spilled over onto the streets and social media, in the form of an anti-Sisi slogan whose popularity has caught the authorities by surprise. The hashtag “intikhbo al-ars,” or “vote for the pimp,” was reportedly shared on Twitter millions of times in just several hours. Its use in the form of street graffiti has also been widespread.

As with the much-touted constitutional referendum earlier this year, the presidential race will at best entrench the status quo, or quite likely make matters worse, particularly if its conduct or results are contested.

Sisi will almost certainly become president, but he has been the de facto head of state since Mursi’s ouster last summer. The political, economic, social and security climates have all deteriorated under his watch, and there is no indication that this will change once his rule is made official.

This is a rubber-stamp election disguised poorly as a democratic process. Many Egyptians are not falling for it, and many others will likely become disillusioned in time. Sisi may well experience the same problem as Obama when he became US president: that with so much expectation, he is bound to disappoint. As such, not all his opponents will be upset to see him sworn in.

Sharif Nashashibi

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