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MENASource December 7, 2023

President Sisi’s third term will be his biggest challenge—not the upcoming Egyptian election 

By Shahira Amin

Egyptians head to the polls from December 10-12 to cast their ballots in a presidential election that analysts say is certain to guarantee a third term for incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has been in power for nearly a decade. Skeptics lament the outcome of the upcoming election. At the same time, some activists have called for the cancellation of the vote, arguing that it is “a waste of taxpayers’ money” at a time when Egypt faces a severe economic crisis.

Israel’s war in the neighboring Gaza Strip, meanwhile, has overshadowed the upcoming election. Pre-occupied with the developments unfolding next door, many Egyptians have put their domestic issues and economic woes on the back burner for the time being. Giant portraits of a smiling Sisi plastered on billboards and hanging from lampposts in the main squares as well as across the streets of the capital Cairo are the only reminders that an election is taking place.     

Learning from the mistakes of the last presidential election held in 2018—which at the time was denounced as “farcical” by Egyptian and international human rights organizations—Egyptian authorities are seeking to give some semblance of a democratic, multi-candidate election this time around. In the previous election, Sisi had run against a little-known challenger—Moussa Mostafa Moussa, an architect-turned-politician who had endorsed a Sisi candidacy. Moussa became the sole candidate against Sisi after several serious presidential hopefuls dropped out of the race or were arrested on what Amnesty International described as “trumped up” charges.

In the upcoming election, Sisi is competing against three rival candidates from various political parties. However, the fact that all three are non-military men has caused some Egyptians to doubt the election. The Egyptian military, the institution from which every modern Egyptian leader has emerged—save for the former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the army in 2013—has made clear it is unwilling to cede power to a civilian government.

Egyptians might have believed the elections were genuine if it had not been for the fact that one serious competitor—Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament and former head of the leftist Karama (Dignity) Party—was forced to end his presidential bid just hours before the deadline for announcing candidacy on October 14. Tantawy had failed to collect the required number of endorsements to allow him to submit his bid formally. Many of Tantawy’s supporters cited harassment—and some even physical assault—by pro-government mobs at public notaries when supporters tried to register their support for his candidacy—allegations that have been denied by members of the National Elections Authority overseeing the elections.

Dozens of Tantawy’s supporters have been arrested in recent weeks and face charges of “falsifying” their endorsements for his candidacy. Several of Tantawy’s family members have also been arrested and detained. Meanwhile, Tantawy and twenty-two members of his campaign are facing trial on the accusation of “inciting others to influence the conduct of the electoral process.” However, Egyptian rights organizations have rebuffed the charge. In a joint statement released on November 12, the rights groups condemned “the escalating retaliatory practices” against the opposition politician, which they said were meant to stop Tantawy from exercising his legitimate right to run in the presidential race. 

Abdel Sanad Yamama, who heads Egypt’s oldest political party, Al Wafd, was the first to announce his candidacy. He has said in interviews that he was confident that his party’s mass appeal would win him votes.

In the early days after its establishment in the wake of the 1919 popular uprising against British rule, Al Wafd was a liberal opposition force with a massive following. Over the years, however, the party has lost its luster and clout and seen its popularity dwindle. In the current stifling political climate, it has been weakened even further and dismissed by some critics as “irrelevant.”

One analyst, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me that Yamama’s presidential bid was “little more than window dressing,” meant to create a more favorable impression of the elections.

“A Wafd candidate will stand little to no chance of winning the election against Sisi,” Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, was quoted as saying by France24 in 2019.

Moreover, Yamama does not have the full backing of his party. Internal divisions persist within Al Wafd, with some members throwing their weight behind Fouad Badrawi, a former member of parliament and a member of Al Wafd Supreme Council who had sought to be the party’s presidential nominee.    

Farid Zahran, the head of the leftist Social Democratic Party, is another presidential hopeful and, perhaps, the best-known of the three rival candidates running against Sisi. He has gained recognition within intellectual circles for his political contributions, which have been published in various local newspapers and on news sites. Zahran was appointed by President Sisi as a member of the Egyptian Senate in 2021, possibly to reward him for backing the 2013 overthrow of the then-Muslim Brotherhood president by military-backed protests.

Dismissing criticism of the election as a theatrical farce, he recently told the independent Al Masry Al Youm website that “my credentials do not permit me to be part of a staged election,” insisting that his candidacy was based on his party’s decision to field a candidate that could unite opposition forces and garner their support.

Zahran advocates for a mixed system of governance that grants equal powers to parliament and the head of state and a free market economy as the only way to achieve social justice. He also promises to prioritize the release of political detainees and prisoners of conscience if he were to win the election and vows to diminish the role of the state in the economy by relinquishing ownership of strategic assets like the Suez Canal and the Iron and Steel Company. But his pledges have failed to entice even the young revolutionaries who led the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak and have decried the arbitrary detentions of dissenters and the state monopoly over the economy. Many activists have dismissed Zahran’s campaign promises as “hollow” and tell me that his pledges are no more than “empty campaign talk.”

Hazem Omar, an engineer and member of the little-known People’s Republican Party, formed in 2012, meanwhile, vows to reform the education and healthcare systems. His campaign platform is again meant to appeal to Sisi’s opponents, who have criticized him for prioritizing infrastructure mega-projects with questionable economic benefits over education and healthcare.

During a televised interview on the talk show El Hekaya, broadcast on the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC Masr on November 28, Omar sought to assure skeptical Egyptians that “your vote counts as it will determine who will become the president of Egypt.” He cautioned against voter apathy, telling viewers that boycotting the elections and calling them a sham is “inappropriate.”  

Voter turnout was markedly low at around 40 percent and 47.5 percent in the last two elections held in 2018 and 2014 respectively. Many Egyptians failed to show up at polling stations, believing that the results were pre-determined. A repeat of the voter apathy witnessed in the last two elections would undermine Sisi’s legitimacy. That is why the Sisi government has gone to great pains to place several competitors on the ballot and ensure that Sisi doesn’t run opposed—a large voter turnout would dispel doubts about Sisi’s popularity and speculations of potential unrest.   

Sisi himself has, so far, done little campaigning and has not given any television or newspaper interviews. That’s either because he is overwhelmed by multiple challenges not least of which is keeping the Gaza war from spilling over into Egypt or because he is confident that his victory in the election is assured.

Israel’s relentless bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip has been both a blessing and a curse for Sisi. It has either dented his popularity or earned him greater support—depending on who you talk to. Some Egyptians are utterly dismayed with the government’s handling of the conflict raging on Egypt’s northern border and have called for the permanent opening of the Rafah border crossing to allow Palestinians to flee the violence. 

Critics see Sisi as “complicit” in Israel’s killings of civilians and feel helpless and ashamed that Egypt stood idly by and allowed it to happen. Others applaud him for standing firm and not allowing Egypt to be drawn into the conflict. They commend his role in overseeing the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and negotiating alongside Qatar and the United States to secure the release of hostages held captive by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian detainees. They also praise him for what they view as foiling an Israeli scheme to displace Palestinians into Egypt—despite this not having ever been Israeli policy.

The Gaza war has polarized the already divided country even further. While it is certain that Sisi will win a third term in the election, it is uncertain what will happen after the vote and when the war is over. Many Egyptians will once again shift their attention to their harsh everyday reality of grappling with soaring prices, double-digit inflation, and high unemployment. With talk of another devaluation of the Egyptian currency after the election, the situation may get even worse for many low-income families that can barely survive.

On the other hand, Sisi has managed to secure the backing of Western allies, including the United States, and is being promised handsome rewards for Cairo’s pivotal role in the conflict. The European Union has announced plans to support Egypt with $10 billion worth of investments in the coming months “to buffer the economy from the impact of Israel’s war on Gaza and the potential spike in refugee flows.” The International Monetary Fund is also mulling over expanding Egypt’s $3 billion loan program by an “unspecified amount” to help the country overcome economic difficulties resulting from the war, such as a drop in tourism and rising energy costs. 

Be that as it may, Sisi still needs to win over the hearts and minds of disgruntled Egyptians, which may prove to be his biggest challenge during his third term in office. 

Shahira Amin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and an independent journalist based in Cairo. A former contributor to CNN’s Inside Africa, Amin has been covering the development in post-revolution Egypt for several outlets, including Index on Censorship and Al-Monitor. Follow her on X: @sherryamin13.

Further reading

Image: Vehicles drive past posters of presidential candidate and current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ahead of the presidential elections to be held inside the country next week, in Cairo, Egypt, December 5, 2023. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany