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Middle East and Africa

Egypt and the Election Monologue

Egypt's President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi []

Sisi to run for a second term. His challengers were either forced to withdraw or arrested. Although he has lost consensus, Egyptian society fears new destabilization. A conversation with Tewfik Aclimandos

Last update: 2018-03-08 15:57:17

The sole challenger to Egyptian President ‘Abd al-Fattah el-Sisi in a March election is a staunch supporter of his, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who until a few days before submitting his candidacy was collecting signatures in favor of his future opponent.


Within a few weeks, several candidates and possible challengers of the rais pulled out of the race or were forced to do so, rendering the next electoral event irrelevant, as the international press pointed out.


The nephew of former president Anwar al-Sadat quit; the former candidate and central figure of the Hosni Mubarak regime, Ahmed Shafik, announced his withdrawal from the race after being taken from his home in the Emirates and deported back to Egypt. And the most credible of all candidates, former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Gen. Sami Anan, was arrested a few hours after announcing his intentions to run. In February, the former Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh - who ran in 2012 - was arrested. Security officials claimed that he had ties with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.


Egyptian and international human rights groups and associations spoke of “electoral farce” and accused Sisi of having “trampled over even the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.”


In a country struggling with a difficult economic situation (which forced the President to undertake unprecedented reforms) and continuous terrorist attacks - in the heart of its cities often against the Christian community and in North Sinai, a jihadist stronghold - heightened regime repression drastically decreased personal freedoms


President Sisi’s vows to save the country from Syria, Yemen and Libya’s fate and to tackle terrorism and bring security – a military operation against jihadist groups in Sinai, the Nile Delta region and the Western desert towards the porous Libyan border is under way – still guarantees a maneuvering space to the rais both at home and abroad.


Although Sisi, candidate for a second term without opponents, has lost popularity, according to Tewfik Aclimandos, Professor of International relations at the French University of Egypt, “Egyptian society is tired and fears new upheavals and destabilization, whether revolutionary or not. This sentiment works in favor of the president.”


What is your assessment of ‘Abd al-Fattah el-Sisi’s first term in office, and what have these four years meant to society, the economy, the relationship between different religious communities?

“His first term is divided into two phases: in the first one, he invested in great projects whose relevance is the subject of discussion among experts – involving supporters and opponents. Sisi thought that the help of the Gulf countries would remain at the historically miraculous levels of 2013 and 2014. The question now is if that help could have been used differently: to support structural reforms. For several reasons, such help was interrupted in 2016, and the President was left with no choice. He launched structural reforms, putting an end to forty years of postponements and refusals. However, this is a tough agenda: the purchasing power of all social classes has dramatically reduced and for the moment, the government’s plans have not been successful. The President’s popularity is strongly affected. However, on this point he has shown great courage. It is hard to know for how long the population will endure the situation. Large households, who do not have family members working abroad, suffer terribly and have significantly less purchasing power.

The black, irremediably black spot, is the dossier regarding public liberties and human rights. While, contrary to common perception abroad, the press is quite free, it is true that there is a zero tolerance attitude for demonstrations and associations, and that the group in power has conservative actors ready to prosecute any form of behavior considered ‘sinful’ or ‘religiously wrong’.”


What about the terror threat? And what could be the outcome of the ongoing Sinai military operation?

“As for security, it posed a huge challenge in which successes and failures have alternated. Overall, the war against the violent factions in the Nile valley is resolving in a way that benefits the state, while in Sinai it is going very badly. But it is an oscillating situation; the operation under way in Sinai could overturn it.

As for the coexistence of religious communities, something has been done on the level of reforming the religious discourse, but we are far from the goal. Al-Azhar felt attacked by the power and the intellectuals, and thus tightened the ranks and became more rigid, although the concrete gestures made were deemed to be insufficient.

The Coptic community is quite disappointed but continues to support the President even if less firmly than before. According to the Copts, the power has been too timid towards the Salafis, and their aggressors in inter-confessional accidents are too often left unpunished. For its part, the power recognizes the existence of a problem, contrary to what happened under Mubarak. The President often finds the right words, and that is fine, but it is not enough. Since the Islamists consider the Copts the main cause of their failure (wrongly so), and given the constant worsening of the hate speech, the Copts have no choice: they support the regime although the regime is no longer able to convince them.”


After Gen. Sami Anan’s arrest, the international press spoke of electoral “farce”. How does this affect Sisi’s credibility? What is left of 2011?

“It is undoubtedly a farce, which can be explained in light of structural and conjunctural factors. From a structural point of view, the country no longer wants the Islamists, and paradoxically the non-Islamist forces exist only when the Islamists represent a danger. When the danger disappears, the raison d’etre of non-Islamist forces is less evident. In other words, these forces, with the exception of the liberals, have a revolutionary culture, coup-driven, aiming to ‘bring down the regime’ rather than ‘build a party’ or ‘prepare political alternation’. Serious candidates are, three times out of four, military figures (Sisi, Ahmed Shafik, Sami Anan). The army fears that its children could eliminate each other, washing their dirty linen in public.

I believe that the elections, or rather the electoral farce, do not change the situation much: the Egyptians have long understood that democracy will have to wait, and the media and international opponents find consolation in detesting the head of the state.”


What happened to the Muslim Brotherhood? Is it true, as Bloomberg claimed, that there is an openness towards them on Sisi’s part?

“There are those who want to calm the situation with the Brothers in order to give them just enough to stop from working for Qatar and Turkey, rivals of the current regime, but without offering them too much which would trouble the public opinion and endanger the regime. Others within the regime think that any kind of concession would arouse public concern. Among the Brothers, there are those who believe that a truce or reconciliation would allow them to rebuild the organization and give it some breathing space. Naturally, there are more or less moderate figures at the top. That said, there has been talk of reconciliation for more than two years and an agreement has not been reached yet”.


Is there still an active leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood or are they all in prison?

“A leadership exists. Many are in exile and the organizational situation of the Brotherhood is a mystery. The organization is now illegal and it only leaks information considered convenient. The historical leadership is still in control of the money and has the support of a part of its members, not out of conviction but out of fear of internal divisions.”


How does society face the current political atmosphere in Egypt? How does the electoral farce and the lack of security in Sinai affect popular support?

“It is difficult to speak of the public opinion with confidence without reliable polls. Today the President is certainly less popular than in 2014. Egyptian society is tired, fears new upheavals and does not want fresh destabilization, whether revolutionary or not. This works in favor of the President.

Regarding the media, the main change is the slow disappearance of private television stations that had sprouted after Mubarak’s fall. To be more precise, many of these were taken over by the state services (army, secret service, military intelligence…): this is partly explained by a tired public opinion, which follows the debates less and less, with the exception of those on foreign politics. The loss of independence of these televisions obviously can only reinforce this trend rather than reverse it. Another affecting factor is that the Gulf countries no longer compete to control or influence the Egyptian media, and it finances it much less. The Brotherhood is mostly a danger of the past, while Qatar is persona non grata. As far as the press is concerned, readers have declined a lot, despite the fact that at least two influential newspapers stand quite clearly in the opposition field. Also in this case, the weariness, the relatively bad quality of the product and the loss of purchasing power can explain the drastic drop. In any case, reading newspapers is still a habit especially in Cairo and in Alexandria.

Finally, the intellectuals are not very happy – as far as I can judge. The reasons for their discomfort are numerous, including the impression of not being appreciated by anyone, neither the state nor society, the impression of seeing the state giving in too easily to the pressure of “religious” who hunt for what they believe to be religiously incorrect, and the difficult living conditions due to the decline in international funding (Western and of the Gulf) to their activities. Obviously, there are also winners and almost everyone is relieved for not having to suffer the Islamist threat anymore. This last point seems established by now, perhaps wrongly, and therefore it is no longer enough to guarantee loyalty.”


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oasis International Foundation