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International standards for free and fair elections are not part of the process in Egypt

November 29, 2023 at 2:14 pm

Hazem Omar, presidential candidate for the Peoples Republican Party (PRP), left, during a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, on November 17, 2023 [Islam Safwat/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

As the presidential election in Egypt scheduled to begin next Friday approaches, the result, allege the opposition, is predetermined amid doubts about the integrity of the electoral process. The Egyptian regime sees the election as an opportunity to confirm its legitimacy and obtain a third term for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi up to 2030. Voting will take place on 1, 2 and 3 December for citizens living overseas, and 10, 11 and 12 December for those within Egypt.

The obsession with legitimacy has haunted Al-Sisi ever since he took control in a military coup on 3 July 2013, during which he ousted the then President Mohamed Morsi. At that time, Al-Sisi was Minister of Defence for the first elected civilian president in the Egypt’s history.

Despite the growing feeling among Egyptians that the presidential race has already been decided in Al-Sisi’s favour, there is a growing concern among government officials about a significantly low turnout and the reluctance of the electorate to cast their votes. An informed government source who requested anonymity told me that periodic meetings take place daily with state employees to encourage them to participate in the electoral process and turn out to vote, without obliging them to support a specific candidate.

The National Security internal intelligence agency is leading intensive efforts to engineer the electoral process, in cooperation with cadres of the Future of the Nation, Hamat Al-Watan and Egyptian National Movement parties, which are known for their close ties with sovereign agencies and run by former generals. The mobilisation plan, according to the source, depends on pushing government employees and their families to participate in the vote, and for the representatives of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, senior family men and wealthy people to use their social and financial influence to provide food baskets to those, especially the poor and women, who cast their vote.

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Education departments and school principals are gathering teachers’ signatures on statements confirming that they will attend Al-Sisi’s publicity conferences. Teachers are warned of the consequences of not attending or neglecting to vote.

The owners of businesses, restaurants and shops are obliged to display Al-Sisi’s election posters and banners, and to donate to his campaign. They fear that if they don’t, they will be harassed by the security agencies, or that “violations” will suddenly be cited against them by licensing and tax agencies.

The Orthodox Church in Egypt also plays a major role in the voter mobilisation process. It is directing the Coptic bloc, about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population, to vote for Al-Sisi, as political propaganda calls him their saviour from the rule of the Islamists. According to Coptic websites, he is also credited with legalising 2,973 churches and affiliated buildings.

The National Elections Authority has even broadcast on social media and television channels urging voters to cast their votes using the slogan “For tomorrow, do your duty, come down and vote”. Meanwhile, Minister of Immigration and Egyptian Affairs Abroad Soha Gendi has toured Gulf and European countries to motivate the 14 million Egyptians who live overseas to vote. The Egyptian Fatwa House has followed suit, and issued a religious edict which the opposition says is politicised. The fatwa stipulates that participation in the elections is a religious and national duty, and that voters are in the position of being witnesses before God.

Those in charge of the media campaign are trying to restore momentum around the presidential race. Momentum has declined significantly for several reasons, most notably the shift of popular interest towards Israel’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza; the absence of opposition forces from the political scene; and preventing opposition candidate Ahmed Al-Tantawi from completing enough endorsements to stand in the election.

The election will not meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people

Political expert Hamdi Al-Masry believes that there are some people in Egypt who consider Al-Tantawi’s candidacy to be pressure from external parties, and that the political environment in the country does not yet allow for competitive elections. He points out that the upcoming election will complement the demands of Western capitals, which believe that it is necessary to prove the president’s legitimacy. The election, however, will not meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people, whose psychological suffering and social and economic crises have worsened under Al-Sisi’s regime.

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The lack of any competition in the election is clear from the fact that the three candidates apart from Al-Sisi — Abdel-Sanad Yamama, Farid Zahran and Hazem Omar — are from loyalist parties that support Al-Sisi. Indeed, Omar is a deputy appointed to the Senate by the president himself in 2020.

Former Secretary-General of the Arab League and former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa has criticised what he calls a political clown show following Yamama’s announcement that he intends to run for president, after first announcing his support for Al-Sisi. The head of the Liberal Wafd Party said in June, “We are all with President Sisi,” and praised him as the national hero who saved the nation from the “unknown”.

According to Zahran, he is not part of the election charade, despite receiving 30 endorsements from members of parliament, which is dominated by a pro-regime majority. His party only has seven seats, which raises questions about how he obtained those endorsements. He faces accusations that he is provoking division in the ranks of the Civil Movement (a group of opposition parties), in exchange for promises to increase the number of his party’s seats in the next parliament.

Another factor that further weakens the legitimacy of the presidential election is the fact that nine parties in the Civil Movement have called for a boycott of the election because of violations during the endorsement collection phase.

Amnesty International has said that the Egyptian regime has essentially prevented genuine opposition candidates from running in the presidential election. The human rights organisation’s statement was issued against the backdrop of Al-Tantawi and members of his electoral campaign being put on trial, while the “Authorities step up repression.”

The expected decline in electoral participation will not result solely from boycott calls, but also the frustration among Egyptians who have a growing feeling that the result has already been decided and voting is a waste of time. The state wants to show the world that it is holding an election, but it will have no real impact on the re-election of Al-Sisi, who has pushed through constitutional amendments to allow him to stand for a third term in office.

He is virtually guaranteed to win, of course, but according to political researcher Mohamed Anan, the upcoming election may see the lowest turnout ever. The lack of any presidential debates in the media doesn’t help in this respect, nor does the absence of information about the candidates, no matter how fake they may be. In Anan’s opinion, the whole process is simply a referendum on Al-Sisi giving him an electoral veneer to boost his “legitimacy”. International standards for free and fair elections are most certainly not part of the process in Egypt.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.