The question that occupies the minds of the Egyptian people, amid a difficult living environment, a record rise in prices and a continuous collapse in the value of the local currency, coinciding with the imminent end of the second term of the current President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and the holding of presidential elections in the middle of next year, 2024.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to answer this question with the tightening of the security grip in the country, and the continuation of campaigns of persecution of opponents, in a way that prevents Sisi from being criticised publicly, or holding him accountable before Parliament.
The National Electoral Commission (an independent judiciary) is scheduled to start receiving applications for candidacy on 20 January next, for 10 days, with the final list of candidates to be announced on 20 February of the same year, to contest the elections scheduled for next March.
To accept the candidate’s papers, he must obtain the recommendation of 20 deputies in Parliament (out of 596), or the support of at least 25 thousand citizens representing at least 15 provinces, and a minimum of one thousand supporters from each province.
Up to this moment, Sisi has not issued any announcement of his intention to run for a third presidential term, pending internal, regional and international arrangements, paving the way for his stay in power until 2030.
Al-Sisi had announced in an interview with the American network, CNBC, in November 2017 that he had no intention of running for a third term, saying: “I am committed to two presidential terms of 4 years, and with no change to this system, and I say that we have a new Constitution now, and I am not in favour of making any amendment to the Constitution in this period.”
But the former Defence Minister changed his directions in April 2019, and managed to pass a referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow extending his second term from four to 6 years to end in 2024, with the possibility of running for a third six-year term ending in 2030.
Supporters say that “Sisi” (69 years old) has achieved much, in addition to the establishment of the new administrative capital, new cities, the development of the road and bridge network, the expansion of the Suez Canal and the imposition of security and the elimination of terrorism.
But opponents accuse the current President of suppressing freedom of expression, arresting thousands, being responsible for the collapse of the local currency, increasing poverty rates, rising foreign debt, deteriorating economic situation, waste on the Tiran and Sanafir islands and the crisis of the Renaissance Dam issue.
The position of the Army
With the growing economic empire of the Egyptian Army in recent years, it may be difficult for the military establishment to give up its gains, or accept a civilian head of a state whose rule has been sanctioned by 5 military chiefs for about 70 years.
The current Minister of Defence, Major-General Mohamed Zaki, a former Commander of the Republican Guard who participated in the overthrow of the late President, Mohamed Morsi (the first elected civilian president in the history of the country), takes over the post just one year after his first presidential term, 3 July, 2013.
The Egyptian military participates in the early publicity campaign for Sisi by adopting the “show it yourself” initiative, where it provides planes to transport delegations of university students to visit national projects in order to highlight the achievements of the President, who is strongly supported by the security and intelligence services.
An Egyptian political analyst, who preferred not to give his name, spoke to Middle East Monitor, saying that during Sisi’s rule, the Army’s economic empire swelled, and the financial influence of senior officers increased, according to an equation imposed by the Egyptian President, “protecting the Chair in exchange for business”, which means that the generals may lose their influence and financial interests if he leaves, as well as the risk of betting on others is a risky adventure.
But observers believe that the decline in the popularity of Sisi, and the continued deterioration of the economic situation, may change the compass of the Army leaders, if signs of discontent appeared on the Egyptian street, and this was translated into popular protests that may repeat the scenario of 25 January, which overthrew the late President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
There are leaks circulating on sites affiliated with the opposition that the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, Major-General Abbas Kamel, held talks with representatives of the Civil Democratic Movement (a coalition of several parties and public figures) to nominate three figures in order to run for the presidential race, and show the electoral process in a competitive form, which the movement denied in a post on its Facebook page.
In an attempt to stir the stagnant water, the head of the Reform and Development Party, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, hinted at the emergence of what he described as a “surprise candidate”, without revealing his identity, pointing out that he is one of the political cadres in the ruling power circles, and that if he runs, he will not take the step of nominating himself, according to Egyptian media.
Leading the names of potential candidates are former parliamentarian, Ahmed Tantawi, Gamal Mubarak, the son of former Egyptian President, Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, Turkey-based dissident Ayman Nour and the son of the brother of the late Egyptian President, Mohamed Anwar Sadat.
Others, including former presidential candidates, are reluctant to express any attitude towards the 2024 presidential elections, most notably Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Khaled Ali, amid fears of harassment inflicted on any candidate hinting at the possibility of running for the presidential race, as happened with former Egyptian Army Chief of Staff, Sami Annan, and former Egyptian Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik.
Annan was arrested after announcing his intention to run for the presidential race in early 2018, and charges were brought against him for violating military rules, claiming that he is still under military summons, and an attempt to sign between the army and the people in his presidential candidacy statement.
Shafik announced his forced withdrawal from the presidential race, after threatening to investigate old corruption charges against him, after the UAE deported him to Cairo, December 2017.
There are three former presidential candidates in Egyptian prisons, led by the head of the Strong Egypt Party, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Salafi preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, and former Egyptian Army officer, Colonel Ahmed Qansawa.
Adding to the blurring of the political scene in Egypt, the newly issued criticism from Gulf capitals that were supportive of the current President, amid reluctance to support him with firmness and generous financial loans compared to the previous one.
Ruling Egyptian circles fear that Sisi has actually lost Gulf support, and the existing calculations are no longer in his favour, after he abandoned his allies in sensitive files, and wasted tens of billions in demonstration projects to no avail.
Saudi Finance Minister, Mohammed Al-Jadaan, has openly announced a clear shift in his country’s policy towards unnamed parties, saying at the Davos Economic Forum last January that they used to provide direct grants and deposits without restrictions, adding: “We are changing this while working with multilateral institutions to say, in fact, that we want to see reforms.”
The Secretary-General of the Emirates Council for international investors, Jamal Saif Al Jarwan, also warned in statements to CNN that “repeated requests for assistance may lose face on the one hand and, on the other hand, may lose credibility”.
There is no doubt that Sisi’s allies do not want to repeat the scenario of 2011 and, at the same time, they do not want to repeat the experience of Islamist rule in 2012, but they certainly resent that Egypt will turn into a “black hole” that swallows aid packages and billions of dollars in vain, amid public discontent with the escalating dominance of the Army on the country’s economy.
It can be said that a new position may take shape inside the Gulf capitals regarding the possibility of Sisi remaining in power until 2030 and, perhaps, also the Egyptian military establishment is in the process of developing a new position, preserving its gains on the one hand, and preventing the country from turning into a ball of flame in the future, due to possible popular anger.
According to political researcher, Mohamed Gomaa, there is almost an international rejection of the continuation of the Egyptian President for a third presidential term for fear of a hungry revolution in the most populous Arab country; however, speaking to Middle East Monitor, “these forces are only interested in who protects their interests in Egypt and they see that Sisi is doing this role best, especially for America and Israel, so they are at a loss, and they may keep him for a third term”.
Egyptian experts are raising the possibility of pushing a new military candidate or a civilian alternative linked to the ruling circles to meet the requirements of the next stage, according to internal, regional and international arrangements, provided that Sisi is content with two presidential terms (2014-2024), and secure a safe exit for him.
All scenarios remain possible, between a President who holds the reins of affairs with an iron fist, and a military institution with important and diverse interests, at the same time, fearing damage to its popularity, and blaming it for the deteriorating economic situation; and between Gulf and Western capitals upset by the failure of their ally, and a people who may be pushed by poverty and high prices to the fields of protest again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.