Egypt Elections: A One Horse Race
President Sisi is taking no chances.
A “one horse race”. “ Farcical”. “ A “masquerade”.
These are terms being used to describe the ongoing Presidential elections in Egypt. The National Electoral Authority has said that the election will be contested by two candidates; the incumbent president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (independent) and the little known El Ghad party leader Moussa Mostafa Mousssa, known to be a Sisi supporter.
On numerous occasions Sisi had said that he would contest for a second term as President only if the people so wished. He is in the fray so obviously by his reckoning the people want him. Some Egypt watchers believe that even though Sisi is growing increasingly authoritarian, the Egyptians, comparing their country with the nightmarish situation in other Middle Eastern countries, are grateful for the comparative stability under his rule. Coptic Christians are among those who feel that Sisi is a president who wants to make the Christians feel that they are part of the country and treated as Egyptians.
President Sisi is taking no chances. When he was first elected in 2014, after the coup engineered by him in 2013, he had won the election with 96 percent of the vote after ousting the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi leader of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. But his popularity may be under threat due to several economic reforms and austerity measures he passed, including the flotation of the national currency which lead to unprecedented price hikes and a lower standard of living. Also expectations that the end of Mobarak’s rule would see more political freedoms, social justice and a popular stake in Egypt's economic resources have been belied. Sisi warned on January 31, 2018 while inaugurating the Zohr gas field that in the ongoing Presidential elections, he would neither countenance genuine opposition candidates nor tolerate an election boycott. Opposition politicians and political parties including former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi launched a 'Stay at Home' campaign, calling upon Egyptians to boycott the elections that they described as a 'masquerade'. Sabbahi called for all political factions to unite and choose a candidate for the presidential elections.
The past months have seen a cleansing of the political field to rid it of any threats to Sisi’s victory. Senior politicians and army officers have been detained on charges ranging from campaigning without permission to criticizing the President in interviews to the media and consorting with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Among others, notable people who have been detained include Abd al-Moniem Abu al-Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate and the head of the Strong Egypt Party; Mohamed al-Qassas, the Strong Egypt Party's deputy president; Mohamed Abd al-Latif Talaat, secretary-general of the centrist Al-Wasat Party; and Hesham Geneina, former head of the Central Auditing Agency and former Chief of Staff Sami Anan and former Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq. Muslim Brotherhood politicians remain banned from the electoral process.
Nor has the media and NGOs been spared. A UN report said that more than 400 media and NGO websites had been blocked. The United Nations Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein recently criticised Egypt's crackdown on political and press freedom, describing a "pervasive climate of intimidation" ahead of the election. The Cairo-based AFTE reported that at least six journalists have been arrested in Egypt during the first two months of 2018, and that 18 were arrested in 2017. Among those detained were Al Jazeera's journalist Mahmoud Hussein who was arrested and imprisoned. Mostafa al-Asar a documentary maker who had reportedly according to his lawyer, not even started filming a documentary critical of the President, was charged with publishing fake news. In his case the public prosecutor called for legal action saying the "forces of evil" are undermining the Egyptian state. He also announced telephone hotlines for citizens to report "news relying on lies and rumours". Even state television presenter Khairy Ramadan was detained for reportedly defaming the police after a news segment on an officer's family struggling to get by financially. President Sisi said on March 1, 2018 that anyone who insults the army or police - and by extension himself as commander in chief - is guilty of treason. This prompted legislators to consider new legislation that would jail such offenders for up to three years.
Human Rights Watch and 13 other rights organizations have said that the current elections lacked "the minimum requirements for free and fair elections." The rights group also reported that Egyptian authorities carried out a series of arbitrary arrests in late January and February, 2018, in an escalating crackdown against political opposition. NGOs and the International Commission of Jurists, called on the U.S., European Union (EU) and individual European countries to "denounce these farcical elections, rather than continue with largely unquestioning support for a government presiding over the country's worst human rights crisis in decades." Egyptian authorities blandly dismissed the reports saying they are based on envy of Egypt. The United States of America, Egypt’s close ally, has remained silent and, when now ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Cairo, he avoided all criticism of the election process. Nor has there been any meaningful criticism from any other world leader despite the reporting by the media and human rights groups. The Egyptian State Information Service (SIS) has accused foreign media outlets of “unprofessional” coverage of Egypt’s elections questioning their sources and facts and their not using information available from the National Election Commission.
In terms of the electoral mechanics the president is elected using the two-round system. The outright winner will be announced on 2 April if he has garnered the required 51% of the votes cast to avoid a runoff. In case of a runoff, which looks highly unlikely , the final result would be announced on 1 May 2018. This is the first time that the National Electoral Commission is conducting the elections. The NEA is made up of 10 members selected by the Supreme Judicial Council including the heads and deputies of the Court of Cassation, the Cairo Court of Appeals, and the State Council. The Chief of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) Lashen Ibrahim has said that the commission has ordered 17,000 judges on the country's electoral committees and sub-committees to monitor the presidential elections and they would be assisted by 95,000 governmental employees. Egyptians who are above the age of 18 have the right to vote. The eligible voters for this year's presidential election are sixty million. Active members of the Armed Forces and police are not allowed to vote. Young people and university students are looked upon as the main voting bloc and the Chief of the Election Commission has been exhorting them to turn out in large numbers. Past experience has shown that a significant percentage of eligible voters often do not vote and, for example, in the 2011 parliamentary election the turnout was only 54 percent.
Egypt is currently facing an ongoing threat from Islamist militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula and the western desert area. After the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi Islamic militants made arrangements, since ended, with local tribes who provided them safe haven. Egyptian authorities considered the Sinai to be the arena for any battle with Israel and therefore neglected its development. There was consequently an increase in attacks by several terror groups, including Tawhed and Jihad, Aknaf bit al maqdus in Sinai, Ansar bit al maqdus , and other smaller jihadi groups, all of which consolidated under the name on Ansar Bit al-Maqudis after 2011. Recently operations, including airstrikes, launched by the authorities have made some difference to the effectiveness of the Sinai based militants. But there is concern that Ansar al-Islam, which has declared a holy war against the Egyptian state, might escalate attacks. The ranks of the militants are being filled, in part, by fighters returning from Syria and Iraq and they have been solidifying their presence along the Libyan border, moving freely across it with the help of sympathetic tribes. The government has now taken cognizance of the threat that the Islamic groups in the western desert pose and recent operations have targeted both bases in the Sinai and the western desert. Efforts to establish an alliance with the tribes continue and more importantly there has been growing cooperation with Hamas. A Hamas delegation, headed by Ismail Haniyeh visited Egypt and there were reports that the Egyptian authorities had helped Hamas thwart a plot by the Islamic State to assassinate Haniyeh. Egypt is also reportedly trying to broker a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas.
On the economic front Egypt's economy is trapped by IMF debts. Cairo received a loan of some $1.25 billion (among other loans) from the International Monetary Fund in 2016 to support Egypt's economic reform program, but Egypt has not been able to pay all of its external debts. The effort to save the economy with mega projects might prove useless as, while investment can create jobs and help growth, it is unlikely that the country can afford such an effort with the existing levels of poverty that have impacted on Sisi’s popularity. Recently Saudi Arabia and Egypt set up a $10 billion joint fund to develop a planned mega-city, committing more than 1,000 square kilometres in the south Sinai, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo. The President has promised to cut taxes and reduce bureaucracy in order to boost investment. He has also launched a massive military offensive against the local Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai region, vowing to bring an end to a bloody conflict that has killed hundreds of people. There is however some concern that social and political intimidation; censorship; and the erosion of moves to establish a truly representative democratic system that the people had hoped for, might provide an impetus to instability that would require more delicate handling in the ancient civilization.