On March 26 and 28 Egyptians will be called to the polls to choose the President of the Republic. If we had to describe in one word a process which can hardly be termed “electoral,” the word that comes immediately to mind is “farce,” a theatrical performance mingling ridicule and hypocrisy. The stage has been carefully cleared of all the actors who might overshadow the star, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, candidate for his own succession.
Thus countless politicians have been disqualified on the most far-fetched pretexts. And, first of all, there was former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik who scored 48% in the 2012 presidential run-off—the only democratic election the country has ever known—against Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Having declared his candidacy in Abu Dhabi where he had taken refuge, he was bundled into a plane for Cairo, where it took several weeks of “friendly persuasion” to make him withdraw.
At the beginning of January, the former chief of staff (2005-2012) Sami Anan declared his intention to run. It wasn’t a good idea: he was arrested and jailed, in spite of an unwritten law that former generals never go to prison. Colonel Ahmed Konsawa was also sentenced to five years in prison by a military court for having dared to put forward his candidacy. Under these conditions the last remaining hopefuls, Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat —the former president’s nephew, who was not even allowed to hold a press conference—and Khaled Ali, a left-wing lawyer, withdrew from what is obviously a rigged election.
The second act of this farce took place a few days before the close of nominations. Sisi found himself in the embarrassing situation of having to stand without any competition, which was likely to demobilize an electorate already reluctant to go to the polls. When American vice-president Mike Pense visited Cairo in January, he confirmed that the US was in favor of a second term for Sisi, but only if he was not the only candidate. So at the end of January there were a series of behind-the-scenes maneuvers which caused hilarity on the social networks but were never mentioned in the official media, which make the Pravda of Brejnev’s day resemble a haven of pluralism by comparison.
At first, the choice of the authorities, or rather the muhabarat, the police services who handle such inglorious tasks, was El-Sayyid El-Badawi, a leader of the Neo-Wafd, successor of a nationalist party. The man agreed to run but a wind of revolt rose from the ranks of the old party and its leadership refused to accept this diktat, all the more absurd as it had already endorsed Sisi’s candidacy. Time was running out and the political police settled for an obscure politician, Mostafa Musa, providing him just a few minutes before the nominations were closed with the required signatures of twenty-seven MPs. And the new candidate had hastily to delete from his Facebook account his message in support of. . . President Sisi!
These maneuvers prompted a burst of activity from a rather moribund opposition which decided to unite for the first time since 2013. On 30 January, a half-dozen parties and 150 cadres and activists, including Khaled Ali, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, head of the Party for a Strong Egypt, Hamdeen Sabbahi, head of a Nasserite party, and Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat called for a boycott of this electoral farce. The result was not long in coming: Aboul Fotouh1 was thrown into prison and his party should soon be dissolved.
For anyone who still didn’t understand, Sisi himself declared on February 1: “Be careful. What happened seven or eight years ago [the 2011 revolution] won’t happen again. What didn’t work then, won’t work now (. . .) Those who want to ruin Egypt will have to deal with me. Even if it costs me my life, even if it takes the army.”2 In September 2016 the President already threatened: “We have a plan to deploy the army throughout the country in six hours to ensure the security of the State.”
After his election—though the term doesn’t really seem appropriate—the President is expected to change the Constitution which still bears a few traces of the spirit of 25 January 2011. It is said he will do away with the two-term limit on the president’s office, paving the way for a “lifetime presidency.” He will also no doubt remove the clause whereby the defense minister is appointed for ten years. This provision adopted at a time when it was meant to shield the army from the civil authorities is now quite useless or even dangerous: the current Defense Minister, Sedki Sobhy is thought to be one of the last senior officers likely to stand in the way of Sisi’s power seizure, which has involved a purge beginning with the replacement of the military chief of staff in October 2017 and including the recent dismissal of the head of General Intelligence in January 2018, replaced by Sisi’s personal Chief of Staff. The President’s circle of trust is shrinking dangerously.
On January 24, an editorial in The Washington Post was headed: “The Egyptian dictator is no friend of the United States.” He is, on the other hand, a “friend of France,” his largest supplier of weapons. Playing host to Sisi in the Elysée on 24 October 2017, Emmanuel Macron declared he did not want to “give lessons” to his counterpart concerning human rights. In 2005, following a presidential election won by Hosni Mubarak with 99% of the vote, Jacques Chirac sent a congratulatory wire to the lucky winner. When people criticized this gesture, his answer was that Mubarak was “a great statesman of the Middle East” and that “despotism was the form of political organization best-suited to Arab culture.”3 No doubt about it, Emmanuel Macron’s new vision bears an uncanny resemblance to the old one.