Assessing Egypt’s imminent presidential election requires reference to the 2014 constitutional referendum. Held on 14 and 15 January, the referendum was passed with an overwhelming majority – over ninety per cent of the thirty-eight per cent turnout voted in support of the draft constitution. While the content of the constitution is highly problematic, as it extends and entrenches the powers of the military and interior ministry, the atmosphere surrounding the referendum is critical in predicting whether the presidential election will be conducted freely and fairly. The referendum was conducted in an atmosphere of fear and exclusion; activists and parties advocating a boycott or a ‘no-vote’ were arrested and protests were violently suppressed. This led many observers to criticise the poll, and the United States aid that was to be released following the referendum has, to date, not been unfrozen.
Indeed, since the referendum, the situation has deteriorated. The November 2013 protest law, which severely limits protests, continues to be implemented. Moreover, in order to suppress dissent, the constitution has strengthened the military’s judicial powers (Article 204), and mandated it to confront ‘terrorism’ (Article 237). This approach already saw results when, on 24 March, 529 alleged Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members were sentenced to death for the murder of Matay deputy police chief Mostafa El-Attar in a flawed two-day trial. Significantly, the court ruling was probably not as a result of an instruction from the government, but it does represent a common approach between many within the judiciary and the state administration.
Sustaining Sisi’s personality cult
Since Morsi’s overthrow, a personality cult has formed around Sisi. His popularity, though genuine in many instances, has been artificially amplified by institutions that seek to protect privileges gained during the Mubarak era. Hence, Sisi is regularly featured on state and private broadcast stations, and was even endorsed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Even if Sisi did not wish to run in the election – a possibility that is not suggested by his various public statements – the pressure of his cult-like status would force him to assume candidacy.
The situation in Egypt has severely constricted the space for opposition candidates and has deterred other potential candidates. It seems that only leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi will contest the presidency with Sisi. This is best evidenced in the leaked recordings of former air force general and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, wherein he criticised the roles played by the military and state institutions in promoting and advantaging Sisi. Shafik cited this ‘social disease’ as a reason for him not contesting the election, it must be noted that the military, headed by Sisi, has been in control of the country since Morsi was ousted. The institution decided on the interim president; designed the ‘roadmap’; and most security and political decisions relied on its consent.
2014 election and beyond
In light of the above, it is clear that the result of the impending election is not in doubt. Sisi will be victorious, and will likely get an overwhelming majority. To help guarantee a favourable result for him, the election law (Presidential Decree 22 of 2014) immunised the Presidential Election Committee against judicial oversight; meaning that election results cannot be disputed judicially. The banning of candidates with ‘criminal’ convictions will also prevent the emergence of other popular candidates. These measures do not augur well for the country. While he did not announce a comprehensive election programme in his speech, Sisi alluded to his ambition to rid the country of ‘terror’ (referring to the Muslim Brotherhood).
Military leaders prefer state control of the economy. Liberalisation would result in the military losing its dominant position in the economy; currently it accounts for over twenty-five per cent of the country’s GDP, and, as the army knows well, liberalisation will not help alleviate the poverty in the country. Sisi’s campaign will begin with the launching of two large state infrastructural projects around housing and Suez Canal development. Further, Sisi’s control over state institutions and his popularity means that he is unlikely to be overthrown by the military, as occurred with Mubarak and Morsi. The interior ministry and judiciary, for example, see his presidency as a bulwark against Islamism and the resurgence of the MB.
In addition, prior to resigning his military post, Sisi had substantially consolidated his power. The head of the new Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Sedki Sobhi, and the heads of the military and general intelligence services are Sisi’s military academy contemporaries; while the charismatic General Ahmed Wasfi, who had questioned the consequences of a Sisi candidacy, has been side-lined. Wasfi was touted by Morsi as a replacement for Sisi in June 2013 when Sisi’s intentions of overthrowing the administration became clear. In true military loyalty, he informed Sisi of the plan immediately after he had been approached. Also, the various constitutional protections that the 2014 constitution affords ‘deep state’ institutions through, for example, Articles 207 and 193 will act as inhibitors of an internal revolt.
He might be popular, but Sisi is not invincible, especially considering that the ousters of Mubarak and Morsi generated huge expectations amongst ordinary Egyptians. The calls for ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’ issued during the 2011 uprising can only be met through improvements in economic transformation. During his one-year tenure, Morsi did not achieve substantial economic improvement, which was used to rally sentiment against him, contributing to his eventual removal. The past eight months, under Sisi’s de facto tutelage, have not seen much improvement. Despite the introduction of two stimulus packages totalling over eight billion dollars, the economy remains stagnant. The official inflation rate stands at over eleven per cent, unemployment has increased to thirteen per cent – with youth unemployment standing at around thirty per cent, and the International Monetary Fund projects a meagre three per cent growth for 2014 – down from the average five per cent experienced between 2005 and 2010. Increased subsidies and debt-servicing payments are draining the country’s budget, the deficit currently stands at around fourteen per cent and total debt has increased to 107 per cent of GDP. Moreover, foreign direct investment has decreased and electricity blackouts and gas shortages have become common.
The economic crisis has resulted in a surge in protest action. In February alone, postal workers, garbage collectors, transport workers, the notary and lower-ranking police officers all undertook strike action; an influential factor in informing the resignation of the Hazem al-Beblawi administration. The situation is unlikely to improve in the short-to-medium terms. As planning minister Ashraf El-Araby stated, economic growth is linked to political stability. Sisi has acknowledged that he will not be able to work ‘miracles’, and has been advocating ‘self-denial’ and ‘hard work’ for citizens. Sisi’s highly publicised command of the military is likely to mean that failure to improve the economy will be seen as a failure of the military.
Opposition to Sisi
The new Sisi regime will also face challenges in attempting to curb opposition to his rule. As has become apparent, attempts to violently constrain the MB and other Islamist groups has met with only limited success. Despite freezing MB member’s assets, declaring the group a terrorist organisation, and arresting and killing many of its members, the MB and the National Coalition for Legitimacy (NCL) continue to operate. Protests are organised on an almost-daily basis, and their support has widened. Movements such as April 6 Youth Movement and Tamarod II – which supported the July ouster of Morsi, – have also begun expressing opposition to military rule. It is, however, noteworthy that the various opposition movements have not coalesced, and do not cooperate with each other. The 18 November declaration, in which the NCL dropped its call for Morsi’s reinstatement in an attempt to begin discussions with other opposition formations, has borne no fruit yet.
Further, the more ‘institutionalised’ opposition, which supported the Morsi ouster, may fragment as it becomes apparent that the likelihood of a strong Brotherhood re-emergence has been severely decreased. This would lead to different groupings jockeying for power in a post-Morsi/post-Brotherhood Egypt. In an attempt to prevent this, the ‘roadmap’ was altered to ensure presidential elections were held prior to parliamentary elections. This measure has been largely successful; most liberal parties have remained neutral over Sisi’s candidacy, choosing rather to focus on the process. However, the entrance of Hamdeen Sabahi into the race has resulted in the emergence of schisms, especially among young voters in the Tamarod movement.
A key reason for Sisi’s popularity has been the deterioration in security after Mubarak’s ouster. Many Egyptians prefer stability and view Sisi as a strongman who can provide it. During Morsi’s term, instability was partly a result of interior ministry resistance to the president; however, after his ouster the situation has worsened. The lawlessness in Sinai has transformed into a full-scale insurgency; dozens of security facilities have been attacked and scores of personnel injured; the scope and range of attacks have widened – with an assassination attempt on the interior minister, and bombings in many parts of the country, including Cairo. The regime’s scorched earth policy has worsened the situation and increased anger towards it. In addition, its conflation of the MB with more militant organisations and its violent crackdown on the MB has led some disillusioned members to join these organisations.
The current situation in Egypt highlights the need for the country to chart a new path towards reconciliation, and a reduction of the political polarisation that has plagued it for decades. A reconciliation process needs to incorporate the NCL and the MB into the political process. It is significant that both the African Union and the European Union have stated separately that relations between them and Egypt will only be fully normalised after a democratic, fair and inclusive election is held. The USA, on the other hand, is likely to reinstate aid to Egypt after the election, regardless of the toxic atmosphere in which it may be conducted. John Kerry’s 12 March statement that a decision would be made in the ‘days ahead’ was meant to pave the way for this.
The question remains: does Sisi have the will to undertake a reconciliation process that will free his enemies from prison and exile and bring them back into the political process? His candidacy speech, in which he asserted that he had ‘no scores to settle’, and that all unindicted Egyptians were active partners in shaping the country’s future, has provided some with a glimmer of hope. However, Sisi’s past actions, which include supporting the murderous dispersals of pro-Morsi protests; and the main thrust of his candidacy speech, which extolled his virtues and committed him to fighting for an Egypt free of ‘terror’, raise much scepticism about his commitment to inclusiveness and democracy.