This is a guest post by Jean-Francois Letourneau of the Department of Political Science, Université Laval, Canada
Between the 26th and the 28th of March, Egyptians were called to cast their ballots in a presidential election. The intentions of the regime, though, were very clear: all serious opposition candidates had been either arrested or pressured to quit the race. Only one candidate was to win, and the outcome could easily be predicted.
The history of modern Egypt as a truly sovereign polity began with a military coup against the monarchy in 1952. The Free Officers, under the leadership of Nasser, redistributed much of the state’s infrastructure to loyalists, who were unprepared for and in some cases uninterested in the entrepreneurialism that had led Egypt to be one of the most advanced economies in the then “Third World”. Indeed, since the historic coup, capital accumulation and the capture of rents have been mostly limited to an elite close to (or members of) the three pillars of the Egyptian state: the presidency, the armed forces, and the security apparatus.
Presidential and parliamentary elections were introduced by President Sadat, Nasser’s successor, but from the beginning were intended only to give the regime a façade of democracy working in synergy with a increase in crony capitalism catalyzed by neo-liberal reforms. Under Sadat’s successor, President Mubarak, the regime very slowly descended into a “social-fiscal trap”: although elites increasingly benefited from more market-oriented policies, the state, which had lost its direct control over most of the economy, found itself less able to finance its immense public sector (which constitutes half of the country’s nominal GDP) or to maintain high subsidies for basic foodstuffs and essential commodities. Eventually, the regime collapsed, unable to bear the weight of its own contradictory nature, at which time the armed forces stepped in to pick up the pieces. The results are well know: free elections led to a Muslim Brotherhood government and presidency, which was later overthrown (with the support of a large segment of the population) by the armed forces.
The presidential elections held in 2014 led to the victory of Abdel Al-Sisi, the very man who, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had ordered the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.(1) Since the beginning of his first mandate as president, Al-Sisi has pursued policies quite similar to those of his predecessors (with the obvious exception of Morsi), albeit he has maintained closer ties to the military and allowed it to accumulate more economic and political power. It is perhaps a testimony to his political acumen that he has, up to now, successfully based his legitimacy on his role as a bulwark against terrorism.
In the last 6 years, Egypt has seen two new constitutions. The first of these was mostly written by members of the 2012 constituent assembly (CA) loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood and included controversial clauses, such as the creation of a non-elected “Shura council” and the granting of a legislative veto to Al-Ahzar University. The second constitution was drafted by a new CA formed after the overthrow of the Egyptian Brotherhood government. The draft was then approved by a referendum in early 2014 “in an atmosphere marred by street fighting, terrorist attacks, political apathy, and a large Islamist constituency boycotting the vote altogether”. This new constitution considerably bolstered the role of the military: no longer was there any pretense of accountability to the parliament or courts. Indeed, the armed forces now had a clear mandate to interfere in civilian affairs if its leading officers and the president felt it was needed. Moreover, the powers of the presidency were increased: the president now had the explicit capacity to call cabinet meetings and make policy without consulting the prime minister. As for the judiciary, the constitution admitted that its independence “should” be maintained, but that this would be accomplished through legislation.(2)
A number of candidates entered the race in January 2018 (the official beginning of the presidential campaigns). However, one after the other were either arrested or pressured into rescinding their candidacy. One important threat to the incumbent was the candidacy of Sami Anan, a retired general and former chief of staff of the armed forces.(3) Having announced, on January 20th, that he represented a real alternative to president Sisi, he was later arrested on the rather dubious charges of having forged his release as a reserve officer in the armed forces. Another high-profile potential candidate, Mohamed Al-Sadat, the nephew of former president Sadat, announced in mid-January that he would not be participating in the campaign, explaining that it would “be like committing suicide running against someone like [Sisi]”(4). Perhaps most threatening to President Sisi was the candidacy of Ahmed Shafik, former commander in chief of the air force and presidential candidate in the 2012 election, which he lost by 48% to 52% in a runoff against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi. Shafik was in the UAE when he declared his candidacy in the 2018 election. UAE police soon deported him and his whereabouts remained unknown to his family until a video of him appeared in the Egyptian media reminiscent of the Moscow trials: downtrodden and submissive, Shafik announced that he had reconsidered and was no longer running as he was “out of touch” with Egyptian politics.(5) With no candidates remaining, the regime appears to have hastily propped up a lone candidate to oppose Sisi: a obscure politician named Mostafa Moussa who, before registering himself as a candidate, was campaigning for the incumbent president. As could be expected, the “campaign” itself was mostly a matter of a variety of electoral posters and billboards exhorting Egyptians to vote for the incumbent president.
Although the victory of the incumbent president was almost certain, and there were little “campaign issues” outside the menace of violent jihadists, there are numerous pressing issues that the re-elected president will need to address. One is the effects of the austerity measures on the Egyptian people: lower subsidies, fewer public servant jobs and high inflation could easily lead to a storm of discontent, perhaps worse than what occurred during the so-called “bread riots” that followed an attempt to lower subsidies under president Sadat. Indeed, the very fact that two generals attempted to run as candidates could be a signal that some parts of the military are discontented with Sisi’s policies.(6) Moreover, the grandiose infrastructure programs announced by Sisi have yet to take off: the building of the “New Capital” on the east side of the Greater Cairo area has been plagued with delays and contract cancellations, and the plans to supply the new metropolis with water seem somewhat implausible considering the scarcity of the already available water supply and the very real possibility that water will become even scarcer as Ethiopia begins to fill the reservoir behind its newly constructed “Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”.(7) Only time will tell if President Sisi will be able to successfully address these imminent crises.
Robert Spingborg. Egypt, Polity, 2017
EU Directorate-General for external polices. Egypt: in depth analysis of the main elements of the new constitution, 2014
Ruth Michaelson. The Guardian, Jan 15th 2018
BBC world newsonline [http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42597803]
Carnegie Middle East Center. Why Sisi seams worried[http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/75509]
Carnegie Middle East Center. River of Discontent[http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/73491]