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Will Egypt's presidential election bring any real change?

Jennifer Holleis | Mahmoud Hussein
October 4, 2023

Egypt's election looks unlikely to rattle the status quo. Nonetheless, support campaigns for incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have kicked off, as have crackdowns on the opposition.

Sailboats bearing posters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi take part in a rally on the River Nile
Egypt is in election mode with a sailing rally in favor of incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.Image: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS

It didn't take long for Egypt to jump into election mode. Just days after the announcement that a presidential election would take place from December 10 to 12,  and not in 2024 as initially planned, billboards and posters featuring Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi started to replace sale advertisements along popular streets.

Observers do not doubt that the 68-year-old will remain in power, even though seven other candidates have announced their intention to run, and the deadline for further candidates to enter the race is not until October 14.

"Other candidates have no chance of winning the election, because there's no opportunity for them to compete," Timothy E. Kaldas, deputy director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

Indeed, the two most promising opposition candidates, Ahmed Altantawy, the former head of the leftist al-Karama (Dignity) Party, and Gameela Ismail, the chairwoman of the liberal al-Dostour (Constitution) Party, reported that their supporters were being harassed, interrogated and, in Altantawy's case, also detained.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a Cairo-based think tank, confirmed that the crackdown on Altantawy's supporters "has intensified, with at least 73 campaign members detained in connection to charges of joining a subversive or terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media."

"They were interrogated simply for filling out volunteer forms in Altantawy's presidential campaign, while others just liked the campaign's Facebook page," the think tank added.

Egypt's National Election Authority, which oversees the country's electoral process, responded in a statement that these claims "are baseless and false allegations."

Meanwhile, Mada Masr, Egypt's last non-state-controlled news site, reported that the phone of Altantawy was hacked multiple times in the past months.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi wave Egyptian flags in Cairo
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is running for a third term Image: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance

El-Sissi's grasp on power in Egypt

"There is very little reason to believe that this election will look any different to that of 2018," Alice Gower, Director of Geopolitics and Security at the London-based consultancy firm Azure Strategy, told DW.

In the 2018 election, el-Sissi won with 97% against one allied opponent after four opposition candidates were arrested or decided to quit due to threats and intimidation. 

El-Sissi has been in power since 2013 after leading a military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, democratically elected after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. Two elections have occurred since, in 2014 and 2018, but observers criticize that both lacked fairness.

In 2019, el-Sissi consolidated his power after amending the constitution, allowing the incumbent to stand for a third term. The changes also adjusted the length of presidential terms from four to six years, which would see el-Sissi in power until 2030 should he win.

Despite el-Sissi calling on "Egyptians to witness this democratic scene, and to choose the right person for the role," at a congress last weekend, Kaldas regards the upcoming vote as "electoral theater."

"If there was a competitive election, el-Sissi would be extremely vulnerable," he said. "Public discontent with the leadership, the deterioration in the economy, and the standard of living of most Egyptians has deteriorated for the duration of el-Sissi's tenure."

Egypt's dire financial situation

Egypt has been mired in an economic crisis for years, and Russia's war in Ukraine has exacerbated the financial situation of the wheat-importing country — food prices have soared nearly 72% over the past year.

An Egyptian woman shops at a fruit market in Cairo
Soaring prices sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine have bitten into the purchasing power of consumers in Egypt.Image: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Egypt's GDP growth is predicted to be just 3.7% in 2023, after 6.7% growth in 2022. The country is also grappling with record inflation of 39%, and a loss of 50% of the Egyptian pound's value against the US dollar since February 2022, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics. 

Egypt signed a $3 billion (€2.85 billion) agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in December 2022. However, it has only received $347 million of the loan because the nation has yet to make the required budgetary cuts and reforms. Meanwhile, the country's foreign currency reserves are almost depleted. In light of these figures, a few comments in el-Sissi's campaign speech last weekend caused irritation.

"If the price of the nation's progress and prosperity is hunger and thirst, let us not eat or drink," he said.

In response, Altantawy posted on X, formerly Twitter, that "Egyptians actually starved during your rule because of your administration."

Egypt's international partners have also started voicing more criticism and demands. For example, Gulf countries, who have long unconditionally supported Egypt financially, "have made quite clear, both publicly and privately, that they're dissatisfied with the way the country is being run," Kaldas told DW.

'Political opponents are silenced'

Egypt, however, is not only scrutinized economically but also over its poor human rights record. Human rights organizations have long estimated that 65,000 to 70,000 political prisoners are held in pretrial detention or after unjust trials in Egypt's prisons. In the run-up to the presidential election, this crackdown has intensified once more.

Earlier this week, the human rights organization Redress, and several Egyptian non-governmental organizations concluded in a legal analysis that the use of torture by Egyptian authorities was so widespread and systematic that it amounted to a crime against humanity under customary international law. The NGOs submitted the report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture ahead of its review of Egypt's record in November. 

"Political opponents are silenced by jailing them, civil society organizations are limited by making obligatory licensing very difficult, and organizing [protest] has become very difficult, as the political space has pretty much eroded in the last 10 years," Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, told DW.

That's what makes the protests across the country earlier this week all the more remarkable. Several state-sponsored rallies celebrating el-Sissi's candidacy announcement turned into anti-government demonstrations, but were quickly dismissed as art gatherings by the authorities, according to the German news agency dpa.

Numerous videos on social media, verified as accurate by Egyptian activists, showed people shouting: "The people call for the fall of the regime."

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

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Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa