News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - North Africa Egypt’s Presidential Pantomime

Egyptians are headed to the polls next month, but the winner is a foregone conclusion


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visits the Egyptian Military Academy.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visits the Egyptian Military Academy, 10 June 2023. Photo: IMAGO / APAimages

The most populous country in the Arab world is soon heading to the polls to elect a president. Egypt’s over 9 million citizens living abroad will cast their ballots from 1 to 3 December, while elections inside the country will be held from 10 to 12 December. The outcome is a foregone conclusion: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military dictator who has ruled the country with an iron fist since taking power over a decade ago, will win a third presidential term.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist currently based in Berlin. His posts appear regularly on Substack and Twitter

These sorts of staged elections have a long tradition in the country, as Egypt’s successive autocratic regimes have always been careful to construct a legal façade, keen as they are to rule by law, as opposed to the rule of law. Yet, even if Sisi’s third term is secure, his long-term grip on power is anything but. With his popularity plunging, the economy in shambles, and resistance to his rule growing by the day, whether Sisi will continue to rule until 2030 is another question entirely.

A Decade of Repression

Since leading a military coup against the country’s first democratically elected president in mid-2013, Sisi has ruled Egypt largely by means of state terror. He killed thousands in security crackdowns on the opposition, including the biggest massacre in the country’s modern history. Civil society was largely demolished. Opposition parties have been either dismantled or besieged and independent trade unions squashed, while a large part of Egypt’s private media has come under the direct ownership and control of the General Intelligence Service (GIS).

Instead of building a broad political base or a class alliance to serve as the foundation to his rule, Sisi depends solely on the repressive apparatus, namely the top military brass, to micromanage the country on a daily basis. The Egyptian parliament, where the GIS-run Nation’s Future Party and other regime loyalists control the majority of seats, rubber-stamps Sisi’s decrees and laws. The GIS engineered the 2015 parliamentary election, while the current composition of parliament was carefully chosen in 2019 by Homeland Security, Egypt’s feared secret police.

Egypt’s battered opposition is divided over how to approach the sham election.

The military also tightened its grip on the civilian economy, to the detriment of the local and foreign bourgeoisie, who now fear unfair competition from army-owned firms or even hostile takeovers.

No Serious Contenders

As the election approached, some politicians who are pro-regime or have a history of collaboration with the state, announced their intention to “run”.

One is Abdel Sanad Yamama, head of the decrepit Wafd Party, once a liberal nationalist force before degenerating into a clique of warring businessmen competing for favours and alliances with the regime. The second is Hazem Omar, the head of the Republican People’s Party, an obscure group composed of businessmen and officials who belonged to Hosni Mubarak’s since-dissolved National Democratic Party, and who has long praised Sisi and supported his policies.

Egypt’s battered opposition is divided over how to approach the sham election. Some called for a boycott from on, describing it as a charade. They view the nominees intending to run against Sisi with suspicion, or even as collaborators who must have struck a deal with the security services. Other dissidents advocate taking part in the election, but only campaigning and voting for “serious” contenders. But who those “serious” contenders really are is another question.

Egyptian law stipulates that any candidate who wants to contest the election must gather either 20 signatures from members of parliament or 25,000 citizens’ signatures from 15 provinces, with a minimum of 1,000 signatures per province. These sorts of requirements are purposefully designed to make it almost impossible for any serious contender emerge.

Two Kinds of Dissidents

Three opposition figures declared their intent to contest the election in recent months: Ahmed Tantawi, a former parliamentarian for the Nasserist Karama Party, Gameela Ismail, the head of the quasi-liberal Dostour Party, and Farid Zahran, the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

Ismail and Zahran were accused of meeting with Egypt’s spy chief earlier this year, where the latter allegedly encouraged them to run in the election to provide a democratic facade. Both have denied the accusation. Discussions to rally the opposition behind one candidate fizzled out, and Ismail eventually decided to withdraw from the race under pressure from his party’s rank and file.

Zahran has shied away from mentioning Sisi by name in most of his interviews. Instead, he lambasts the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists, as if it were still 2013. His party helped form the first post-coup cabinet that oversaw the Rabaa massacre and has collaborated with the state on a number of occasions, especially during parliamentary elections. In the eyes of the state, Zahran is an ideal “dissident” — he has not organized any street actions or collected signatures from citizens. He instead gathered the required 20 endorsements from parliamentarians in a clear signal of the regime’s consent.

Tantawi has been a different story. He is a seasoned politician from Kafr el-Sheikh province who was a source of annoyance for the regime when he was a parliamentarian. He eventually lost his seat after the security services rigged the vote. He publicly criticized Sisi and called on him to leave office, a move that ultimately forced him to leave Egypt for Lebanon last year.

He announced his intention to run for the presidency from exile and returned to Egypt this past May. He worked hard to build a ground operation, despite repeated security crackdowns on his relatives and campaigners. Tantawi made international news recently when it was discovered that his iPhone was targeted with spyware, likely by the Egyptian regime, prompting Apple to deploy security updates to all of its products.

Sisi has stifled politics in the country and abolished any remaining space for organizing in the streets or cyberspace.

Tantawi did not take the easy path of collecting MPs’ signatures, given that he would not be able to without the regime’s consent. Instead, he decided to build a campaign on the ground and online to collect 25,000 signatures from citizens. What little remains of the forces that led the 2011 revolution largely threw their lot in with him.

Their rationale was simple: Sisi has stifled politics in the country and abolished any remaining space for organizing in the streets or cyberspace. Now that the regime is weaker and less confident than it was a decade ago, thanks primarily to its economic blunders, the election may provide a rare opportunity to revive organizing on a modest level. It is, campaigners say, one step down the long road to reclaiming the streets.

Tantawi’s campaign exhibited remarkable bravery and resilience, but in the end, he withdrew after collecting 14,000 signatures due to the repression against his supporters and the systemic attacks by plainclothes thugs, mostly affiliated with the Nation’s Future Party or the security services.

Sisi’s Spiral

Since taking power in 2013, Sisi’s reign has seen plenty of ups and downs.

Riding the wave of something like a mass, fear-driven psychosis triggered by the state of constant insecurity that marred Egypt during the revolution, and capitalizing on the middle classes’ yearning for stability, Sisi unleashed a veritable bloodbath to pacify the country after becoming president. At the same time, he promised Egyptians economic prosperity and a rosy future after two years of turbulence.

Initially, the country was engulfed by a kind of Sisi mania. It’s quite likely that he genuinely won the first post-coup presidential election in 2014, whether it was rigged or not.

From then on, however, Sisi’s popularity took a steep dive, as he squandered billions on white elephant projects, militarized state organs, and impoverished Egyptians. Successive currency devaluations coupled with neoliberal austerity policies that left the economy in shambles under the control of the army generals.

If December’s election were truly free and fair, there is good reason to believe that Sisi would lose — and badly. The only thing guaranteeing his victory is brute force.

From Gaza to Giza?

Sisi’s current status and how long will remain in power are questions about which we can only speculate.

The country is going through a crippling economic crisis, which has seen the Egyptian pound decline in value as inflation soars and poverty rates skyrocket. Meanwhile, wildcat strikes have been taking place in a number of workplaces. It is difficult to come up with accurate numbers, as they are spontaneous and mostly happen independently of the crippled activist networks that existed before Sisi’s takeover. That said a shift in the mood towards militancy is more concretely evident in the white-collar trade unions.

The outbreak of the war in Gaza since 7 October has also shaken things up. The Palestinian cause has long been a radicalizing and politicizing factor for Egyptians. After all, the 2011 revolution was the climax of a long process of accumulating dissent that began with the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.

Thousands of fans of the Al Ahly FC football team rocked a stadium in Alexandria with pro-Palestine chants on the second day of the war. This is significant, given that this particular youth group was subject to security crackdowns and previous attempts to fly the Palestinian flag during football matches were met with repression.

Slowly but surely, the wall of fear that has surrounded Egypt for a decade is cracking.

Students at the American University in Cairo marched on campus. In other universities, a blood donation campaign picked up. Journalists assembled at the Press Syndicate in the heart of Cairo to denounce the war on Gaza, followed by protests at the Lawyers’ Syndicate and Actors’ Guild. The biggest mobilization was when hundreds protested at al-Azhar Mosque following Friday prayers on 13 October, before they were dispersed by the police.

Another significant protest took place on Sunday, 15 October, when hundreds of teacher applicants who were disqualified by the Military Academy that now oversees the militarization of the civil service held a protest in front of the Education Ministry in the New Administrative Capital. The protest was later broken up by the security forces with water cannons, physical assaults, and arrests. This marked the first recorded labour protest to take place in the New Administrative Capital, and the first concrete action on the ground against the militarization of a ministry.

As the war entered its second week, virtually all university campuses witnessed protests, and the white-collar unions in Cairo and the provinces continued their mobilizations. Fearing the continuation of the war could see Palestinians driven into the Sinai as part of an Israeli strategy to resettle them in the peninsula, the regime attempted to hold national protests to “give Sisi a popular mandate to protect Egypt’s national security”.

On the one hand, such state-sponsored mobilizations aim to show Israel and Western leaders that there is wide opposition to the resettlement plan. At the same time, the regime is trying to hijack the rising anger in the streets and channel it into support for the president.

The opposition seized on the opportunity and called for protests in different locations on the same day, 20 October. To the horror of the security services, protesters started chants against the regime, while mass protests got out of control and scores managed to reach Tahrir Square, chanting some of the iconic slogans of the 25 January 2011 revolution. Running battles ensued in downtown Cairo as the police tried to disperse the protests, and detained dozens.

This is the backdrop against which Egypt’s presidential election will be held roughly a month from now. Absent radical unforeseen changes, world events will not affect the outcome. Sisi will be “re-elected”.

Nevertheless, the revival of dissent among white-collar professionals, on university campuses, and in the streets, all while the economic crisis deepens and regional instability grows, spark doubts over whether he will actually complete his third term.

Slowly but surely, the wall of fear that has surrounded Egypt for a decade is cracking.