Sisi’s Second Term Could Be Spent Securing a Third

To no one’s surprise, Egyptians re-elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on March 29 by an overwhelming majority. However, according to an Atlantic Council analyst, one of Sisi’s priorities in his second term may be securing a third.

“He has one major issue that I think he will go after in the first couple of years,” said Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, “which is to address the existence of a two-term limit article in the constitution.”

Under current laws, Sisi’s second four-year term must be his last. However, said Hellyer, he is likely to consolidate power and work to extend his time in office. The idea has a recent precedent—Chinese President Xi Jinping did away with term limits in China earlier this month.

“Sisi has essentially three choices going forward,” said Hellyer. He described how Sisi can either groom a successor, allow someone to assume the role who does not share his views, or ensure he stays in office. According to Hellyer, “all the signs are thus far that the last is the most likely.”

Over the course of the past few years, the Sisi regime implemented a brutal crackdown on any form of dissent. While Cairo has posited Sisi as a bulwark of stability able to address widespread security and economic concerns, many see another strongman in the same vein as, or even more intense than Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president who was ousted in 2011.

Low voter turnout may be interpreted as further waning confidence in the political arena, and a sign of deepening apathetic attitudes to regular politics.

According to early estimates, Sisi secured his re-election with approximately 92 percent of the vote. Of the sixty million registered voters, little more than 40 percent turned up to vote.

In Egypt’s last presidential election in 2014, Sisi won with 96 percent of the vote, although absolute numbers of voters probably did not differ.

This time around, the regime made an even more concerted effort to draw voters to the polls. Measured used included paying people to vote, and delivering valuable resources to underserved areas if residents cast a ballot.

Despite the voter numbers, a second term for Egypt’s strongman was all but secured in advance of the vote itself. Sisi faced only one opponent at the polls—Mousa Mostafa Mousa—who, after initially endorsing Sisi, tossed his hat into the ring to ensure the election did not become a referendum.

H.A. Hellyer joined the New Atlanticist’s Rachel Ansley for an interview. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Q: What is the significance of Sisi’s reelection?

Hellyer: Sisi’s re-election is simply the continuation of the first term—I don’t see there is going to be much change from how he pursues his second term as compared to his first. However, he has one major issue that I think he will go after in the first couple of years, which is to address the existence of a two-term limit article in the constitution. Sisi has essentially three choices going forward—to groom someone to take over from him following this term; to allow for the possibility of someone he doesn’t support taking over; or to aim for the removal of term limits so that he runs for a third term. I think all the signs are thus far that the last is the most likely.

Q: How did Sisi secure his electoral victory?

Hellyer: He probably didn’t need to do this, but the authorities for months, and arguably much longer than that, have facilitated a political environment, particularly against the background of a “war on terror,” where the idea of a genuinely open and free competition was virtually impossible. That was the case before candidates for the presidency even made themselves known. Those candidates that did make themselves known eventually withdrew their candidacies or were arrested. Had they been allowed to run, I suspect Sisi would have still won—it would take a long and open campaign period to change that being a certainty—but in any case, that’s the nature of the political environment at present.

Q: Why was voter turnout important in this election?


High voter turnout was going to be interpreted by the Egyptian state—and used as such in international public relations efforts—as evidence that the Egyptian citizenry is solidly behind the current political direction of the country. I suspect they also won’t admit the alternative, corollary explanation—that low turnout would represent apathy with the system – which is what many seem to suggest is the case.  

Q: What can be expected from Sisi’s next term in office?

Hellyer: Apart from the focus on the term limits, I suspect there will be more movement on subsidy reform—which is necessary to some degree, but ought to be built alongside a social security net that provides for the average Egyptian who is hit the hardest by these subsidy removals. I don’t think we can expect that to take place, but I hope it does. The country’s citizens have gone through a great and elongated period of turmoil, and I think it is in everyone’s interest inside and outside of Egypt to see their economic lot improve.

Q: Do you see any parallels between the Egyptian presidential election and the election that just took place in Russia?

Hellyer: They are rather different systems. To be frank, I doubt that Putin really cares one way or another about western indulgence of his state and presidency. Egypt is very keen to remain firmly in the western axis, while maintaining its independence from it in different ways—but not so it could join a Russian axis.

Q: How, if at all, will this election impact Egypt’s relationship with the United States and other countries in the region?

Hellyer: I don’t think the United States or countries in the region are going to have this voting exercise affect their relationships with Cairo one way or the other. The calculus of the relationships has little or anything to do with the democratic quotient of Cairo. Whether it should or should or not is another question, but I don’t expect the current calculus to change anytime soon.

Rachel Ansley is assistant director of editorial content at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: H.A. Hellyer

Image: An Egyptian woman shows her ballot paper with sign for Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before casting her vote during the first day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, March 26, 2018. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)