It’s nearly April, which means that under the framework discussed at the time of Egypt’s constitutional referendum in January, we should be approaching the final stretch of a new presidential election, the second election in three years in Egypt’s troubled post-Mubarak era.
Instead, there’s still no date settled for the presidential election — or for the parliamentary elections that were supposed to be held by the end of July. Rather, Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour now promises only that the presidential election will be completed sometime before mid-July.
In the meanwhile, Egypt’s defense minister and army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi still hasn’t officially declared whether he will be a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, although the Egyptian military vigorously denied a Kuwaiti media report in early February that El-Sisi was certain to run. But El-Sisi’s candidacy — and his ultimate triumph — seem an increasingly foregone conclusion.
El-Sisi’s face is everywhere, he’s featured on every conceivable kind of merchandise on the streets of Cairo, and despite the military’s suppression of opposition voices within Egypt these days, there’s a genuine groundswell of support for El-Sisi on the basis that he’s the only figure in Egypt strong enough to get the country back on the right track.
Many of the key players from the June 2012 presidential election have ruled out repeat candidacies this time around, including former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, the runner-up in the July 2012 runoff against Mohammed Morsi, and he’ll back el-Sisi (not surprisingly). Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister and former secretary-general of the Arab League, has not only ruled out a run, but preemptively endorsed el-Sisi. To the extent that Shafiq and Moussa have ties to the feloul — or ‘remnants’ — of the old regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, the promise of an el-Sisi presidency threatens the full ‘re-Mubarakization’ of Egypt.
Moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was once considered a frontrunner in the 2012 election, is not running, and his Strong Egypt Party (حزب مصر القوية) is boycotting this year’s elections altogether due to the oppressive climate that the military government has engendered since overthrowing Morsi in July 2013:
Since the coup on July 3 [which led to the ousting of former President Mohammed Morsi], the atmosphere in the country became authoritarian, which is incompatible with democratic elections. On the other hand, the fact that the military institution appointed a presidential candidate — regardless of my opinion about him — indicates that the elections are just for show and the matter is already settled. This is especially true since the idea that he is the savior and redeemer has been widely propagated. Regardless of the identity of this person and my opinion about him, this matter remains a fraud. There are no elections without a democratic context. Thus, taking part in these elections is fraudulent, and we do not accept this upon ourselves.
Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood (الإخوان المسلمون), which Egypt’s interim government declared a terrorist organization last December, won’t be fielding a candidate, and Morsi, Khairat al-Shater and other top Brotherhood figures are all in jail facing criminal charges. That hasn’t stopped its supporters from protesting the military coup against the Morsi administration.
Likewise, the Salafist Al-Nour Party (حزب النور), which stands to become the most important Islamist force in Egyptian politics with the Muslim Brotherhood’s submission, has also decided not to field a candidate in the presidential race. Though the Al-Nour Party initially supported the military’s coup last summer, it quickly distanced itself from the interim government when it unleashed lethal force on protesters.
The New Wafd Party (حزب الوفد الجديد), an Egyptian liberal nationalist party formed in 1978, which won more votes than any other non-Islamist party in the previous 2011-12 parliamentary elections, won’t field a candidate, either.
That leaves Hamdeen Sabahi, who narrowly trailed Morsi and Shafiq in the 2012 race. Two years ago, Sabahi failed to make the presidential runoff by a very narrow margin, and his brand of secular populist nationalism made him the top choice of Cairo’s voters. But few believe that Sabahi, who announced his candidacy in early February, can effectively wage a fair campaign against the full force of the Egyptian military — even though Sabahi has emerged as the only credible challenger to el-Sisi. Sabahi, who leads the Popular Current (التيار الشعبي المصري), espouses a leftist, liberal nationalism that’s often equated with neo-Nasserism, though el-Sisi has arguably cast himself more credibly as the 21st century Nasser. That’s especially true in light of the US government’s decision to cut military aid to Egypt, giving el-Sisi a jumping-off point for the kind of populist, anti-Western rhetoric of which Nasser was so fond. (The US decision on aid, however, was always more symbolic than substantive, close ties remain between the US and Egyptian militaries, and US defense secretary Chuck Hagel, in particular, seems to have a close relationship with el-Sisi). Hoda abdel Nasser, the former president’s eldest daughter, endorsed el-Sisi for president in January, and Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim Abdel Nasser, a former Sabahi supporter, has now also endorsed el-Sisi.
But there’s no real indication that el-Sisi embraces the kind of progressive economic and social policies that Nasser advanced in the 1950s — to the contrary, el-Sisi appears to have embraced a more neoliberal austerian vision for Egypt.
The Tamarod (تـمـرد) movement that fueled the anti-Morsi protests and the ‘June 30’ revolution is split between el-Sisi and Sabahi, with two of its three leaders, Hassan Shahine and Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, prominently backing Sabahi.
So what’s causing the delay?
If you take the view that El-Sisi’s candidacy is essentially part of a gradual transformation from nascent (and imperfect) democracy to a full military dictatorship, it doesn’t really matter when El-Sisi decides to announce his candidacy for the ‘election’ as a formal matter, because the vote will ultimately be a sham. That fear has grown since the January referendum on the interim government’s amendments to the Egyptian constitution, which passed with 98.13% of the vote.
If that were the plan, you might expect to see El-Sisi and the interim government taking steps to consolidate the military’s power in government. And that’s exactly what’s happened throughout the past month. On March 1, el-Sisi and Mansour reshuffled the cabinet, giving liberals a much smaller role and giving military leaders a correspondingly larger role in government. Ibrahim Mahlab, previously the minister of housing, and formerly member of the influential Policies Committee of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (الحزب الوطني الديمقراطي), was appointed Egypt’s new prime minister, replacing the more liberal Hazem el-Beblawi, an economist with experience in several international organizations, including the United Nations. El-Beblawi appears to have been the scapegoat for increasing dissatisfaction with the government’s economic performance since last June, a problem that predates the initial ‘January 15’ revolution and the 2011 Tahrir Square protests that culminated in Mubarak’s ouster. Most recently, labor strikes and electricity shortages have further crippled the country’s weak economy.
Earlier this week, el-Sisi reshuffled the top Egyptian military command, presumably putting in place allies prior to el-Sisi’s resignation from the military in order to run for the presidency.
Photo credit to AFP.