Elections in Egypt: Another setback for democracy

It looks likely that President Sisi will win a second term in March. Leading up to the election, François LaRochelle looks at the domestic challenges currently facing Egypt and the country’s changing role within the region.

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February 26, 2018
Members of President Sisi's campaign count boxes containing his new presidential candidacy papers at the National Election Authority in Cairo, Egypt, January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Next month, between March 26 and 28, Egyptians vote for a new president. The results, however, are already known.

The only real candidate, incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will succeed himself. The head of a small party, Mousa Moustapha Mousa, is also on the ballot, though critics see him as a “dummy candidate, standing only to give the impression of a full democratic contest,” as Reuters and others have reported. His party has in fact endorsed Sisi.

All other potential adversaries have decided not to run. One, Sami Annan, a former chief of staff of the military, was arrested and charged with incitement against the armed forces. Another, former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, disappeared on arrival at Cairo’s airport after being expelled from the UAE, where he lived, and then later announced he was withdrawing his candidacy.

The most recent withdrawal was that of Khaled Ali, a leftist lawyer who ran for president in 2012 and whose profile has risen since he led a protest movement against Sisi in 2016. Ali has said it is impossible for him to run a proper campaign this election due to the pressures exerted on him by the authorities, including the arrest of his supporters.

So, with all real opponents out of the picture and Sisi likely to receive a second term, it’s important to look at how he has fared as president until now. Sisi’s record so far is a mixed one. When elected in 2014, he promised to bring back stability and economic growth after the army overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and the authorities violently repressed members of the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned its leaders. He also pledged to protect the “gains” of the Arab Spring.

His recipe for a stable Egypt has been to rely on the old dictatorial measures: controlling the media, dividing the opposition, imprisoning opponents, and facilitating their torture or disappearance, as well as putting pressure on or prohibiting activities of Western and Egyptian NGOs. He has also prosecuted members of the LGBT community. The record of human rights in Egypt is so bad that even the Trump administration has criticized it, withholding American financial aid last August.

But during recent visits to Cairo by American Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the tone has changed, and those criticisms, at least publicly, have been replaced by a focus on the shared fight against terrorism. A point of contention between Washington and Cairo appears to be Egypt’s relations with North Korea. The US would like the Egyptians to downgrade their ties with that country, claiming the North Koreans are using their embassy in Cairo to illegally sell arms and avoid international sanctions.

Canada has also expressed concerns over Egypt’s human rights situation. Last November five Western ambassadors, from the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, publicly expressed criticism of Egypt over the detention of a human rights lawyer at Cairo’s airport in September on his way to a United Nations meeting. 

Trouble at home

Complicating Sisi’s leadership are repeated terrorist attacks by Islamist militants, the latest around Christmas against a Coptic church in Helwan (south of Cairo). A massacre last November, at the Bir al-Abed mosque in northern Sinai, killed or injured over 300 hundred worshippers, including children. Terrorists also target police forces, the army and civilians. In 2015, Islamic State militants fighting Egyptian security forces in Sinai took credit for a Russian airliner crash that killed 224 passengers and crew. 

Egyptian authorities seem powerless in the face of this growing terrorist threat spreading throughout the country, despite increased involvement of the army and the police. Following the mosque attack, Sisi ordered the military to eradicate terrorism in Sinai within three months and gave “carte blanche” to his troops.

Such operations are likely to further alienate Egypt’s Sinai Bedouin tribes, who have traditionally been neglected by the central authorities and feel they are considered second-class citizens. Over decades, in order to survive, these nomadic tribes have become experts in trafficking of all kinds, including that of goods and humans, especially to the Gaza Strip and Israel. For a long time, the Egyptian government has tried to settle the Bedouins to control their illegal activities, under the pretext of improving living conditions. In the wake of recent events in the Sinai, Sisi announced the construction of schools and the provision of more social services there. He also called for a tribal union to fight against terrorists.

It is likely that violent opposition to the regime by terrorists will continue for the foreseeable future, though the overthrow of the government by the jihadists is virtually unthinkable — the army has essentially controlled the country since the reign of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.

Economic opportunities

On the economic front, however, the view is more positive. At least, that is the outlook of the IMF, which put stringent conditions on the Egyptian government in return for a US$12 billion loan in November 2016.

A first wave of reforms, including the implementation of a value-added tax, the reduction of energy subsidies and the liberation of the Egyptian pound, was carried out, followed by a second wave targeted at removing investment barriers and attracting local and foreign investments. The government’s reform program has been widely endorsed by the World Bank and the African Development Bank. 

Following Sisi’s election in 2014, the economy has gradually been improving, with annual rates of GDP growth reaching 4.3 percent in 2015/2016, up from an average of only two percent during the period from 2010/11 to 2013/14. The overall budget deficit declined in the first half of 2017 to 5.4 percent of GDP, down from 6.4 percent for the same period the previous year. Following the floatation of the local currency, the exchange rate initially displayed some volatility, but subsequently started to strengthen.

To alleviate the adverse effects of the economic reforms on the poor and vulnerable, the government adopted a package of social protection programs. Despite the efforts, however, inflation (presently around 25 percent) caused by the currency floatation, energy subsidy reform and food price increases has significantly affected Egyptian households, especially the poor and the vulnerable segments of the population, as well as the middle class. Unemployment continues to be high, at 12.4 percent in the final quarter of 2016, with rates higher among youth and women. In different circumstances voters could express their discontent at these reforms by voting against the incumbent, but with only one candidate, the only way they could do so next month will be by not casting a ballot.

The economic situation has also had an impact on Egypt’s foreign policy. The country has attempted to diminish its political and financial dependency on the United States and is seeking alternatives. Qatar was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, Sisi’s predecessor, so Sisi has now turned to Saudi Arabia for closer relations. As a result, Egypt has had to surrender sovereignty of two islands in the Red Sea, is participating in the “coalition” fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and joined the Saudi-led campaign against Iran and Qatar.

Evolving allies

There are also now reports of a rapprochement between Egypt and Russia. An agreement has reportedly been reached allowing Russian military aviation to benefit from bases in Egypt, a first in more than 40 years. During his visit to Egypt in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that a nuclear plant financed by Russia would be built and that the Russian authorities were reviewing the travel restrictions put on tourism from Russia to Egypt following the 2015 attack on the Russian passenger plane.

Egypt saw a decline in tourism, a major source of revenue, fol­lowing the 2011 revolution, a drop exacerbated by security con­cerns, particularly following Rus­sia’s decision to halt flights. 

In addition to a hoped-for increase in tourism, the energy sector will potentially drive economic growth in 2018. A major development last year was production from Egypt’s largest Mediterranean natural gas field, Zohr, coming online. While this project provides only a fraction of Egypt’s daily consumption, the gas produced is an important addition to the country’s total daily production. Egypt expects to achieve self-suf­ficiency in 2019, when the second phase of development of the field is to be completed. That could allow Cairo to start exporting natural gas and secure a new and important income stream. 

It remains to be seen if these economic prospects will be enough to ensure that the country can cope with its inherent challenges. With a population of over 100 million (and growing), and a restless youth seeking work but also social changes, Sisi’s second mandate will not be easy on the domestic front. If re-elected, he will have to pay attention to the recent events in Iran and Tunisia, where populations expressed their discontent at their governments due to their economic situation. The Egyptian regime will also continue to be under pressure for its human rights record. Terrorism, while controllable, will no doubt be a threat.

On the international stage, the Middle East is a cauldron of tensions, and no one knows at this stage where the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran will lead. Since the 1980s, Egypt has gradually lost its leadership role within the Middle East, and its ties with Saudi Arabia are limiting its role further, but it is nevertheless a pivotal player that should not be ignored. Its stability is vital for the future of the region. That said, a desire for stability should not result in other countries, including Canada, blindly supporting an autocratic regime there. The international community should remain vigilant and not be shy to criticize the human rights record of the present (and future) Egyptian president.