Egypt's presidential election: 'A formality for President al-Sisi'

The presidential election kicks off this Sunday, December 10 in Egypt. Incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking a third term. He is unsurprisingly expected to win against three virtually unknown candidates, despite a disastrous economic record and a campaign overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hasni Abidi, director of the Centre for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERNAM), analyses the election for RFI.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a visit to the Huckstep military camp, east of Cairo, April 7, 2020. STRINGER / EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY / AFP

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RFI: What are the real issues at stake in the election?

Hasni Abidi: There is no high stakes at stake in this presidential election. It is seen as a formality for President al-Sisi as he changed the constitution to extend the term to more than four years, and he can run for three consecutive terms instead of the two provided for in the old constitution.

There was no election campaign. The Egyptian president did not hold any meetings. Much of the attention has been focused on Gaza to show the presidency's commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The usual issue in the presidential election is turnout, but with strict control by Egypt's military-controlled Interior Ministry. And there is reason to doubt the true turnout.

Could the turnout illustrate the population's dissatisfaction with the disastrous economic situation in the country?

Of course, the economic stakes are high because President al-Sisi, when he came to power after the departure of President Morsi, promised development and prosperity to Egyptians. It is now clear that the situation is deteriorating continuously. First, there is runaway inflation. The value of the Egyptian pound is also in free fall. And the economy is on life support, first of all from repeated loans from the IMF and the World Bank, and above all from the Gulf monarchies that support the president.

But the economic issue was not debated during the election campaign. The other candidates, who are unknown to the general Egyptian public, are not in a position to pose the slightest threat. All these issues – the change of the constitution, the failed economic programme – have been swept aside by the presidential camp to focus on al-Sisi's victory and his efforts to once again become a key player in the regional and international arena.

Read alsoWhy the Egyptian economy is in a critical state

Did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have an impact on the election campaign?

The first impact is the lack of interest of Egyptians in this election and the probable victory of President al-Sisi. He and his camp understood the value of investing in the news in Gaza. We have seen the president, in clips for example, organizing humanitarian convoys from Cairo and other Egyptian cities to go to the Rafah crossing that separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip. The whole official narrative speaks of the role of president, Egypt's role in mediating between Israel and Hamas, Egypt's role as a guarantor of stability and security in the region.

The Gaza issue has in a way eliminated the other issues that interest Egyptians, namely the economic and social daily life that is becoming more and more difficult, and the question, of course, of human rights, which has also become a secondary issue for Western chancelleries, since al-Sisi has also become a president who is highly courted by the international community.

Was the stability of Sinai and the region also an issue in the election?

The head of state has made the Sinai issue an issue. He has always demanded that the army not only comb the region, but also secure and stabilize Sinai with the problem of jihadist movements, with smuggling, which poses a threat to Egyptian security and also to the region.

But it is clear that there are enormous difficulties on the part of the regime in stabilizing the region and sometimes even conflictual relations with the Bedouins, with the inhabitants of the region due to the indiscriminate military operations that have done a lot of damage. I think that now too, with the emergence of certain groups that have announced their allegiance to the Islamic State organization, Sinai remains an open project, remains a major security challenge.

With regard to the issue of human rights, the authorities announced a few months ago a "national dialogue" to open up to opposition voices. What was the result?

There has been an attempt at a national debate that has been entrusted to certain personalities, but it has not yielded tangible results. There has been the withdrawal of several candidates from this presidential election, such as Ahmed al-Tantawi, a serious candidate who was the son of the former army chief of staff and the head of the transition after Morsi's departure. And others who have even been brought before the courts because they posed a threat to the candidacy of President al-Sisi.

This shows that the national debate was a manoeuvre on the part of the Egyptian regime to show its openness, to respond to certain criticisms emanating in particular from the United States on the issue of human rights and the opening of the media field, which is completely closed. But this does not reflect a sincere desire on the part of the regime to open up to other components of society.

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