Egypt votes: the last man standing

Egypt votes: the last man standing

Staying true to the political climate in post-Mubarak Egypt, the upcoming presidential election is as unpredictable, as it is predictable. Seven influential figures announced their intention to stand in the election, but really only one remains.

The presidential candidates at a glance

The build-up to Egypt’s presidential election was mired in rumour and speculation even before the official timetable was announced on 8 January. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s vice-like grip on the country’s ruling institutions – the government, parliament and army – is unlikely to ease at such a critical time. Any credible challenger to his rule needs more than bravado alone.

Several credible candidates have stepped out of the shadows to challenge the status quo, but were all pushed back in a display far removed from what is generally expected of a democratic election.

Colonel Ahmed Konswa’s campaign ended after he was sentenced to six years in prison for violating rules of the military for expressing political opinions. Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of the former president Anwar al-Sadat, abandoned his challenge because of the environment of fear which surrounds the process.

Much like Sisi, the two most prominent would-be candidates Ahmed Shafiq and Sami Anan, are veterans of the armed forces. Shafiq, a former air force commander and prime minister, announced his candidacy in the UAE were he resided since 2012 after losing the election to Mohamed Morsi. He was subsequently deported from the UAE and forcibly detained upon his arrival until he pulled out of the race.

Sami Anan, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, was arrested only days after announcing his intention to run. Anan stands accused of running for the presidency without permission from the military, forgery, and “inciting against the armed forces”. The leading challenger to the incumbent lasted just three days. A media blackout is cast over his trial.

“The opportunity for hope in this presidential election has gone,” said Khaled Ali during a press conference on January 24. The prominent leftist human rights lawyer was the last presidential hopeful to quit the race. Ali has faced up uphill struggle from day one, with an impending court case possibly seeing him disqualified just days before the vote.

What Anan’s failed challenge tells us about the state of Egyptian politics

The current reality: an army chief ousted by Morsi is the only challenger to the army chief who ousted Morsi. Well, at least he would have been. While Anan’s campaign was called off, its significance remains, and the circumstances surrounding his departure confirms certain traits of the state.

Anan’s intention to stand in the presidential election signifies one of two things. Either his candidacy was a manipulation of the electoral process used to create the illusion of a competitive election, or a split of loyalties in the armed forces led Anan to believe he had enough institutional support to repel a backlash.

It is clear the latter is true, or at least Anan thought it was. While on an individual basis people may object to Sisi, Anan or Shafiq, the army remains the strongest and most respected institution in the country and operates as a state within a state. Anan’s legacy means he commands respect from much of the old guard, yet the swift and assertive response to his candidacy shows this wasn’t enough to overcome Sisi’s control of the country’s most powerful institution.

Sisi and Anan have never seen eye to eye. The latter was chief of staff of the armed forces from 2005 to 2012, and was expected to take over as the head of SCAF – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – from Hussein Tantawi in 2012 after his sacking.

The removal of Tantawi and Anan coincided with Sisi’s appointment as Minister of Defence. It’s believed that Tantawi saw Sisi as the heir to the military throne, and didn’t want Anan to obstruct him. Tantawi went on to back Sisi in the 2014 presidential election.

Anan would have liked to have been in Sisi’s place, but his recent call for state institutions to maintain neutral toward all candidates has not be met.

Outlook: No contest?

What Sisi’s reaction to Anan in particular shows is that he does not feel strong or confident enough to accept an electoral challenge. If the field was left open, it’s very likely his control of the ruling institutions would assure him a victory anyway. But nothing can be left to chance.

In another act of this seemingly choreographed display, the Wafd Party announced their presidential candidate just days before the application deadline date closed: party leader El-Sayyid el-Badawi. A second candidate and a saving grace for the election? Of course not. The Wafd Party has already endorsed Sisi, as have Wafd MPs.

A large portion of the Wafd Party ultimately could not continue this farce, and el-Badawi’s alleged candidacy ended as swiftly as it began.

As the deadline for submitting applications drew closer, rumours that the vote was shaping up to be a referendum on Sisi’s rule moved towards reality. As the curtains were about to close to end the first act of this show, the El-Ghad Party managed to muster up a candidate to avoid an election embarrassment and to give credibility to the process.

With less than an hour until the application process closed on January 29, Chairperson of El-Ghad Party Mousa Mustafa Mousa stepped up to fill the role left absent by el-Badawi. Unfortunately for the democratic process, Mousa is likely another pawn. Before his papers were submitted today, images on his Facebook page praised Sisi and called for his re-election.  

Several influential figures have announced their intention to stand in the election, two formally stand but really only one remains: the incumbent. With the state’s most powerful institutions at their disposal, Sisi and his allies have paved the way for assured victory in the forthcoming election.

All means are being used to mould the election in Sisi’s favour; to remove challengers and give the illusion of a competitive election. And many people fear this is only the start. While Sisi has maintained that he will leave the top office after a second term, any speculation is just that – speculation – as people worry that the constitution is amendable.

What is certain is that in the short term, Sisi’s grip over the country will only be strengthened. For good or for bad, much of the same is to follow.

About Author

Joseph Colonna

Joseph Colonna is a Cairo-based political analyst and journalist. He writes mostly in the Egyptian media providing commentary and analysis on political affairs in the Middle East. He is also a research fellow with Freedom Forward. Joseph holds a BA in International Studies, with a focus on Middle Eastern politics, from Leiden University.