The outcome of Egyptian presidential elections scheduled for March 26 is a foregone conclusion - incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will win and serve his second term unchallenged. The only question is whether he will then abrogate the constitutional clause that imposes a two-term limit and become - like all his predecessors - de facto president for life.
Al-Sisi’s victory is certain because his only opponent is Moussa Mostafa Moussa, an obscure politician who heads the al-Ghad party, supports al-Sisi, and was allowed to register as a candidate literally at the last moment. One does not have to be particularly conspiracy minded to recognize Moussa’s candidacy as a maneuver orchestrated by the regime to be able to claim that al-Sisi won a competitive election. Earlier, four candidates that had expressed an interest in running were either declared ineligible for flimsy reasons or decided to withdraw when faced with insurmountable obstacles. For example, Anwar el-Sadat, the former president’s nephew, abandoned his project to run when faced with the reality that no hotel or other facility would allow him to even rent a room for a press conference announcing his intention to run.
Paradoxically, both supporters and foes of the present regime concur that al-Sisi would have won easily against the banned candidates. Egyptians are tired of instability, they argue, and more focused on their own economic survival than on political change. The regime’s relentless propaganda portraying al-Sisi as the country’s savior has also had an impact.
If al-Sisi is certain to win, what purpose do elections serve? The answer is twofold. First, Egyptians have always respected the letter of the constitution, even if they often disregarded the spirit. When some constitutional clauses become inconvenient for the regime, they are amended - the process for doing so is very easy in Egypt. The present constitution prescribes elections every four years and a maximum of two terms. If al-Sisi decides to run again in four years, he will abrogate the term limits in a legal fashion.
The second purpose of the elections is to re-affirm that Egyptians want al-Sisi to stay in power, possibly bolstering his position within the military, the real arbiter of power allocation. Al-Sisi did not rise to power on the strength of his own leadership qualities, popularity, or charisma. He was placed there by the military after the coup d’état of July 2013 that removed Mohammed Morsi from power. Presumably, the military could replace him. A vote, indeed a plebiscite, confirming his popularity would be a disincentive to do so.
Nobody really knows what al-Sisi’s standing within the military and security services is at this point. Rumors circulate of dissatisfaction within the military and even of attempted coups against him, but there is no specific information. The standard reply to any inquiry on this topic is that the military and security forces are “a black box.”
An electoral victory will not help al-Sisi unless voter turnout is high, demonstrating that he has real support, but this is problematic. His supporters have little incentive to vote, knowing that he will win in any case. Even his detractors have no reason to vote for his blatantly fake opponent. Some parties have called for an election boycott, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, one of the most influential advocates of that course of action and a former high-ranking leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who broke with the organization, has been jailed as a result. The arrest will probably put an end to open calls for a boycott but will not dissuade people from staying home. Low turnout was a problem in the 2014 election: in fact so few voted initially that the government decided to keep the polls open for an additional day and to give government employees a day off from work so they could vote. The government will exaggerate the rate of participation - it always does - but there is a limit to what it can claim when the public has seen the empty polling stations.
Another question about the forthcoming elections is why the regime has bothered to exclude candidates al-Sisi would have easily beaten. The answer is that the regime rejects politics in general, not just political activity that would threaten its power. Al-Sisi has declared repeatedly that Egypt is facing too many problems, both in the security and the economic realms, to afford the luxury of democracy, with its eternal debates and compromises sapping efficiency and speed. This is a favorite refrain of authoritarian leaders. What is more unusual is that al-Sisi has taken no steps to create a space for officially sanctioned political activity. He has not set up a party, let alone one complete with women’s and youth organizations, as authoritarian leaders tend to do. He has not set up government-controlled organizations of “civil society.” He has simply tried to suppress all politics, and opposition candidates represent politics. Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who continues to declare his admiration for al-Sisi even while theoretically running against him, is not keeping politics alive but adding to the chorus of support for the regime.
In March, a tired and demoralized Egypt will re-elect al-Sisi. People are impoverished. CAPMAS, the government organization that collects statistics, recently announced that the poverty rate went up to almost 28 per cent as a result of the decision to let the Egyptian pound float (which halved its value), and of the elimination of most subsidies for food and energy. Poverty rates in Upper Egypt are as high as 50 per cent. The regime has grandiose projects, a vision for a new Egypt resembling the wealthy Gulf states, symbolized by a new administrative capital being built in the desert between Cairo and Suez, which will be reserved for civil servants, and only high-level civil servants at that. For most Egyptians, the reality is not this vision of modernity and even opulence - the only building completed in the new capital at this point is a seven-star hotel that stands fully staffed and empty in the middle of a construction site - but the old Egypt with its overcrowded, dirty streets, crumbling buildings, and absence of economic opportunities. Ordinary Egyptians grumble, but not too loudly. They appear more resigned than rebellious. Politics has been suppressed. The problems are ever more blatant.