Understanding Egypt's presidential election

A banner supporting presidential candidate Moussa Mustafa Moussa
A banner supporting presidential candidate Moussa Mustafa Moussa REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Egyptians will be going to the polls to vote for their next president on 26, 27, and 28 March. But with only two candidates, one being incumbent President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, there seems to be little doubt who will come out the winner.


Initially the contest was shaping up to be a proper show of democracy with many politicians preparing to declare their candidacy.

They included the nephew and namesake of former president Mohamed Anwar Sadat, the former prime minister under president Hosni Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq, and well-known human rights lawyer Khaled Ali. There was even a female candidate in the running - a first for Egypt - Mona Prince.

Before filing their papers, each potential candidate had to secure a formal endorsement from either 20 members of the House of Representatives or at least 25,000 eligible voters from at least 15 governorates with a minimum of 1,000 supporters per governorate.

But in the lead-up to the deadline, some candidates were arrested, others withdrew, while certain presidential hopefuls claimed a campaign of intimidation forced them to deem the elections a farce. Sadat told RFI that he didn’t believe “there would be equal chances for the candidates”.

Last-minute competitor

That left Sisi as the sole candidate until 15 minutes before the 28 January deadline. Then a known supporter of the president, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, submitted his candidacy on behalf of El-Ghad Party, bringing the total number of candidates to two.

El-Ghad (Tomorrow) has been around since 2004. It is considered a pro-status quo party, according to analyst HE Hellyer.

Or, as Timothy Kaldas of the Tahrir Middle East Institute puts it, it is a pro-government party without its own political identity separate from that of Sisi's government.

However, it is often confused with the Ghad el-Thawra party, headed by Ayman Nour, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party which led the Democratic Alliance for Egypt coalition after the revolution of 2011.

Shortly after the official announcement of the two candidates, the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of eight parties, called for a boycott.

Their slogan "stay at home" was intended to discourage people from participating in a poll where “there are no guarantees, nor freedom, no candidates", the movement's leader, Hamdeen Sabbahi, who stood against Sisi in 2014, told a press conference. "These are not elections.”

The movement called on the National Election Authority (NEA) to halt the campaign.

But in response the parliamentary majority formed a bloc, the Alliance to Support Egypt, and accused the Civil Democratic Movement of defying the constitution.

Boycott calls are a betrayal of democracy, alliance leader Mohamed Abu Hamed said.

And pro-government lawyer Samir Sabry filed a complaint at the Prosecutor’s Office and at the State Security Prosecution against members of the movement “to ban them from leaving the country” and to sentence them to five years in prison.

Inflation, subsidies and daily bread

The main issues facing the candidates remain a weakening economy and security.

Inflation continues to be a big problem. The overvalued Egyptian pound has been floating since 2016 and has already halved in value since then, dragging up the cost of living and increasing reliance on state subsidies.

Since the 1920s the government has subsidised and controlled the price of: fuel, break and water. Some economists argue the money would have been better reinvested in the economy to boost growth. But an attempt to scrap the bread subsidy sparked riots in 1977 and price controls are unlikely to be done away with any time soon.

People once again took to the streets when the bread subsidy was cut last year, with the hashtag bread uprising, #انتفاضة_التموين, trending.

During the past four years under Sisi, efforts have been made to boost infrastructure and modernise Cairo to the point that a new administrative capital is being built.

Traffic jams in Cairo alone cost Egypt 3.6 percent of its GDP, according to the Economist. Even though the project is expected to exceed nine percent of Egypt’s GDP this year, building a new city is expected to prove cheaper than solving the existing capital's many problems.

Muslim-Christian tensions

Security is another election issue.

Since Sisi has come to power, he has tried to reach out to the Coptic minority - about 12 percent of the population.

Tensions between Muslims and Christians were enflamed after the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was voted in as president in 2013.

Since his ousting, the Copts have become more openly and violently targeted, such as the deadly bomb attack at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in December 2016. The rise of Islamist attacks specifically targeting Christians, minority Muslim groups, such as the Sufis in November 2017, or Egyptian security personnel have prompted the government’s latest operation to crush such groups, which are believed to be based mainly in the Sinai.

On 9 February the military launched "Operation Sinai 2018" to break up the terrorist network believed to be in the peninsula. The same principle was applied to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has been effectively disbanded, at least in the public sphere, according to the World Politics Review.

Media clampdown

In the run-up to these elections, the government has introduced new restrictions on both national and foreign media.

After taking issue with a recent BBC report, the parliament drafted a possible blacklist of foreign media including the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Sisi has said that any critical reports on the country’s security forces will be seen as “false” journalism and as such an act of “high treason”. Defaming the army or police is “defaming all Egyptians”, not freedom of expression, he added.

Chief Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek referred to “evil forces” controlling Egypt’s media outlets. Citing the need to protect national security and prevent the spread of “fear throughout society”, he has instructed public prosecutors and regulators to monitor media outlets and arrest anyone who disseminates or broadcasts "false news".

Such moves may seem surprising, given that Sisi is more than likely to be reelected head of state.

Even popular television personality and known Sisi supporter Khairy Ramadan was arrested for allegedly defaming police on his programme.

Amr el-Shobaki, a former MP and senior researcher at the al-Ahram centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, says he can see no rational explanation for this behaviour.

But Egypt's media lack professional rules and commonly agreed ethics, such as those in France or the UK, he says. “We are suffering a lot” without such regulation, he goes on, with the media left open to the constraints of the government.

Ballots are to be cast on 26, 27 and 28 March under the authority of the NEA. Final results must be announced within five days of receiving all relevant documents from polling stations and electoral districts.

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