As polls open for what is difficult to describe sincerely as a presidential election, one must ask the question: Why would the Egyptian government and President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi put on such a farce in such an obvious manner, undermining any credibility for this vote? Most candidates have been railroaded out of the race through intimidation, detention, imprisonment, or disappearance. When no real opposition candidates were permitted, the leader of the Ghad Party declared that he would run for president. He failed to remove images endorsing Sisi’s reelection from his Facebook profile before making the announcement.
It is difficult to imagine that the government believes this transparent charade is convincing to anyone, domestically or internationally. Most Egyptians already recognize that Sisi will continue as president after this vote. Moreover, the international community has shown little if any concern over the undemocratic circumstances surrounding the election. U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence failed to raise the issue during a visit to Egypt earlier this year and European officials concede in private that it is not a priority. The whole sham thus seems, on its face, unnecessary. Rather than convince a domestic or international audience of the integrity of the election, it may be that Sisi and his backers within the government are trying to send a very different signal with these transparently antidemocratic actions: that they control Egypt fully and that no one will or can stand in their way.
The state consistently justifies its actions with references to various pieces of legislation, practicing a sort of legal authoritarianism, and so will hold an election for the purpose of maintaining the narrative that it is observing the constitution and to be able to refer to Sisi as an elected president. But the government’s actions ahead of elections are unambiguous affronts to any semblance of democracy, signaling to Egyptians that Sisi has consolidated power. Neither the former head of the air force nor even the former chief of the armed forces can challenge him without facing the consequences. Indeed, the high-profile status of Ahmed Shafiq and Sami Anan, whose aspirations to run for the presidency were both shut down quickly and forcefully, highlights Sisi’s grip on power.
Both Shafiq and Anan, despite being former high-ranking leaders in Egypt’s armed forces, lost their freedom within 72 hours of expressing an interest in running. Shafiq was expelled from the United Arab Emirates and flown back to Egypt, where he was held for a month in the Marriott hotel until he recanted his desire to run. Within 72 hours of Anan’s announcement that he intended to run, pending approval from the armed forces, Anan was condemned in a statement from the general command of the armed forces and almost immediately arrested and initially held incommunicado. He remains detained to this day, facing an array of charges.
Other candidates have also been excluded from the race. An active duty colonel, Ahmed Qonswa, also posted a video indicating his intention to run. He was arrested and tried in a speedy military trial in which he was sentenced to six years in prison for expressing political opinions as a serving military officer. The nephew of former president Anwar Sadat, Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat, also initially sought to run for president but withdrew from the race, claiming, “The general atmosphere become nonconductive of the possibility of honest competition.”
The last remaining candidate was human rights lawyer Khaled Ali. He complained that his staff suffered harassment and arrest from the government. The evening after Anan’s disappearance, Ali held a press conference announcing his own withdrawal, citing the campaign of intimidation against him and his team, and ending any semblance of an electoral race.
While Sisi still enjoys a fair bit of popularity, that popular support must be contextualized in a media environment in which virtually all personal criticism of him is prohibited. It is conceivable, even likely, that two months of sustained criticism from any real opposition—to say nothing of a major national figure with military bona fides, such as Anan or Shafiq—could seriously damage Sisi’s unchallenged popularity, as well as the institution of the armed forces, which has deepened its grip on the state and the country’s economy since the 2013 coup.
To some, the harsh measures taken by the government against the candidates—to say nothing of the firings of Mostafa Hegazy, armed forces chief of staff, and Khaled Fawzy, director of the General Intelligence Agency— are indications that there exist serious internal threats to Sisi’s rule. While it is difficult to verify anything in that black box, it is important to consider the opposite. It is almost certainly the case that, in a regime as expansive as the one that rules Egypt, there will be differences of opinion and individuals critical to aspects of Sisi’s rule; however, it seems that, for the time being, those internal critics neither have the organization nor the weight to do anything about their misgivings. Sisi and his circle have successfully removed these high-ranking members and imprisoned a former armed forces chief of staff with little cost thus far. Rather than a sign of internal chaos, it could be a sign of consolidation. At the very least, the image that Sisi and his backers seek to project through these actions is that of consolidation.
It seems possible that, following this vote, the repression in Egypt may expand. Already the rhetoric against the press, particularly the foreign press, has intensified, with the prosecutor-general claiming that critical members of the press are aligned with the “forces of evil” and that fake news was designed to “undermine state security” and “terrorize citizens.” The foreign press corps has been scolded repeatedly by State Information Services over their unfavorable coverage of the election and just last month a longtime member of the foreign press corps, Bel Trew of the Times of London, was deported. It is possible that following the election, an emboldened government may move to up the ante in its repression of the press and target foreign correspondents more forcefully. The absence of substantial pushback from Egypt’s international partners witnessing this repression makes this more likely. Indeed, if foreign governments congratulate Sisi on his inevitable “victory” this month, it will make them complicit in this charade and encourage further repression like that which accompanied it.
In Egypt, the clearest message from this election appears to be one of intimidation to any would-be opposition that may hope to challenge Sisi, his rule, and his policies. Rather than being an opportunity for holding the government accountable, the government appears to be using this vote to remind the population that their actions and rule are not subject to popular approval. It is a culmination of Sisi’s effort to depoliticize the Egyptian public and convince them that they have no place in politics. It also seeks to show critical members of the international community that speculation about divisions in the regime or military are without merit and they have no alternative but to accept Sisi. At the same time, Sisi and his coterie may be seeking to comfort concerned foreign backers of the government and show them that political threats to Sisi’s rule have been exaggerated and that the world can be confident that they are dealing with the long-term leader of Egypt. This is a message that ties to the state’s narrative of being a source of stability in a volatile region and will also be used to comfort international financial institutions and investors who fear that popular will could compel the government to reverse or deviate from its planned economic reforms. Fundamentally, the government is saying that like him or not, Sisi is here to stay.