Presidential Elections in Egypt Yield Apathy

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

February 20, 2018

The presidential elections in Egypt, scheduled for March 26-28, are expected to give President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a second term. Though the outcome may be a foregone conclusion, many regional and domestic observers have been surprised by the incumbent’s ruthlessness against his would-be opponents. The result has been an extremely narrow field of candidates that risks undermining the legitimacy of Mr. Sisi’s expected victory. This has also led, according to some reports, to apathy on the street and the potential for a very low turnout on election day.


Reflecting on the current state of the presidential campaign and the absence of a meaningful opposition due to intimidation and legal challenges, Daily News Egypt’s Abdallah Al-Moghazy concludes that “the political environment in Egypt is still abhorrent to the idea of political pluralism and the multiplicity of candidates. As soon as anyone tries to run, they are attacked by many. This is completely unhealthy, and it shows that we will spend a long time in the stage of democratic transformation we live in now…. There is no doubt that there will never be a re-run in April because all evidence to date confirms the current president’s victory by at least 90%. It is clear that the presidential elections will pass quietly, although we wish there were strong candidates to ensure the elections are real, competitive, honest, and fair, but it is clear that it will take time for all of us to absorb the stage of democratic transition.”

In an op-ed for the Jordan Times, Rami Khouri expresses a similar sentiment, characterizing the recent political developments in Egypt as a continuation of the widespread political degradation across the region: “For most of the past two centuries, Egypt has been the epicenter, litmus test, proving ground, and mother of cultural and political trends across the Arab region — so we should all be worried by the events of the past month that systematically throttled, indicted, intimated, detained and otherwise politically eliminated potential serious candidates to oppose Field Marshal President Abdel Fattah Al  Sisi in this year’s presidential election…. Arab citizens in their hundreds of millions are being politically, socially and economically castrated at birth, and they grow up learning that they have no voice, no power, no rights, perhaps even no value as human beings. …The slow, painful hollowing and effective dehumanization of Arab societies deprives them of the dynamism of their greatest resource — the ability of their men, women, and youth to participate in the mechanisms, decisions, assessments and development of their own societies.”

In a report prepared for Egypt Independent, Taha Sakr asserts that the media has been one of the tools used by the Sisi regime in Egypt to delegitimize the opposition. According to Sakr, “Immediately following Sisi’s submission of his documents, private newspaper Youm7 started publishing reports about how Sisi enjoys massive support from officials and prominent civic figures. On his part, Sami Anan, who was disqualified from running after he had announced his intention to participate in the race, has been bashed by the media…. Another presidential hopeful, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, who declared his withdrawal from the elections, has not been exempted from criticism of the pro-government media…. Similarly, former Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Ahmed Shafiq also faced criticism from local media after he declared his intention to be a presidential candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.”

Interestingly, as Osama Al Sharif points out, one of the unintended victims of the orchestrated intimidation campaign against declared and potential presidential candidates may be Mr. Sisi himself: “In a rare phenomenon, this year will see a number of legislative and presidential elections take place across the Arab world. Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and even Libya and Tunisia are all lining up to hold what can only be described as crucial elections…. The outcome of Egypt’s presidential election next March is already known… But the real story is not about the definite winner, but about the chasing out of potential contenders in the most brazen manner making Sisi the sole candidate. It is difficult to accept the reasoning behind this strategy that has made the elections a one-man race…. Sisi may have inadvertently reset the country’s priorities and deflected attention from his own economic agenda — controversial as it is. His second term will be dominated by calls for serious political reforms and questions about his authoritarian leadership.”

Considering the real possibility for a low turnout on February 23rd, it is not a surprise that the Egyptian state machinery has put its weight behind a drive to get more people to the ballot box. Such efforts, according to an Egypt Today staff report, include a speech by “Shawki Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt [who] urged the Egyptians to participate intensively in the March electoral vote…. ‘We want to send the world a message of peace and to show that Egypt is capable in practicing the elections,’ Allam said during his weekly program Hwar elMufti (Mufti’s talk) on ON TV live satellite channel. He further called on Egyptians not to base their decision on political affiliations or race or any other influence, stressing the immorality of the practice of electoral bribes as it goes against the principles of the religion and is considered a legal felony if proven.”

Part of this effort to add much-needed legitimacy to the presidential election is the recruitment of a former government official and “opposition” leader to enter the race as the lone challenger to Mr. Sisi. As Gamal Essam El-Din writes in an op-ed for Al Ahram, “Khaled Ali, a leftist lawyer, also announced that he would not run. Ali said at a press conference on 24 January that his decision came after what he described as an ‘absence of any possibilities for competition. ‘It was a difficult and bitter decision which I reached following consultations with campaign members and supporters’, Ali said. He claimed that several serious violations took place during the nomination phase of the electoral process, including what he claimed was the theft of his nomination endorsements, adding, ‘there was a lack of cooperation from the NEC in sharing with me the total number of endorsements collected’.”

Despite such efforts, Egypt Independent’s Ola Noureldin’s interviews with Egyptian voters on the street reveal a general “state of apathy in Cairo’s streets ahead of presidential election….  A number of Egyptian political figures issued a statement on January 30 condemning the upcoming presidential election, saying that it had lost its legitimacy in the wake of recent repressive practices imposed by the government. The statement called for a cancellation of the presidential election altogether, to stop the work of the [National Elections Authority], and to dissolve its board. It also called on people to boycott the election and not to recognize its outcome…. According to the Egyptian Constitution, a president can serve a maximum of two four-year terms. However, critics are concerned that if Sisi wins the 2018 election, the constitution would be amended, enabling him to serve a longer term.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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