Cairo— President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was announced Monday as the winner of Egypt’s presidential election, with the nation’s election authority saying the incumbent had won 89.6% of the votes. The National Election Authority said an “unprecedented” 66.8% percent of Egypt’s 67 million eligible voters had come to the polls. In the last election, in 2018, which drew a turnout of about 41%, El-Sisi won 97% of the vote.
It was an all but preordained outcome, as none of the three opposition candidates ever really stood a chance.
The results, granting former military commander El-Sisi a third term in office, came as no surprise given the absence of strong candidates to challenge the man who’s ruled Egypt for about a decade. And opposition figures believe there was more to El-Sisi’s overwhelming win than just popularity.
“Not really competitive” elections
“The rules of open and free elections do not apply to what happened in Egypt last week,” according to Dr. Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University who’s also a cofounder of the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of Egyptian opposition parties.
“The election was not really competitive,” said Al-Sayyid, adding that the three other candidates “did not have the same resources he [El-Sisi] has. He had the machinery of the state completely behind him. In one way or another, he also had the support of major business groups in the country.”
In a 2022 report, the U.S. State Department said that ahead of the 2018 election, “observers noted restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, political association, and expression” which had “significantly inhibited the political climate surrounding the elections.”
The report said local rights groups and even an Egyptian government commission had “credible reports” of a litany of human rights abuses, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents, and by terrorist groups; enforced disappearance by state security; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government.”
With the war still raging on Egypt’s northeast border between Israel and Hamas, however, there were other factors that likely contributed to El-Sisi’s sweeping victory.
Did the war in Gaza help El-Sisi?
Months ago, interest in the upcoming election was slowly increasing among Egyptians. Even the weak, scattered political opposition groups in the country thought there might be a chance to force, through the ballot box, some change from a government that has long been accused of muting dissent.
But then the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its unprecedented surprise attack on southern Israel, sparking a war with the potential to spill over the Gaza Strip’s borders and become a wider regional conflict.
The attention of the world, including Egyptians, shifted to Gaza.
Al-Sayyid said some people likely voted for El-Sisi as “they thought the country is facing a dangerous situation, and in this situation, it is good to have someone who has the support of the military and the experience of running the country.”
Was it the last election for El-Sisi?
According to Egypt’s constitution, this should be El-Sisi’s last term. But the constitution previously limited presidents to two terms. It was tweaked, by way of amendments, to allow him to run for his third re-election.
Al-Sayyid said he didn’t want to speculate, but the possibility of new amendments to Egypt’s constitution that could, theoretically, allow El-Sisi to seek yet another term, could not be excluded.
“Maybe in four or five years. I think some people would say it’s for the country to remain stable,” he said.
Al-Sayyid added that it would be very difficult for any party to field a real challenger to El-Sisi, even by the next election in 2030, unless things change in the country.
“If restrictions on political parties continue, then there will be no chance for the opposition,” he said.
The real challenger: Egypt’s economy
Egypt has been struggling through an unprecedented economic crisis, with inflation at painful levels heaping pressure on the daily lives of Egyptians whose salaries have not kept pace with price hikes.
The government has blamed the economic malaise on the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and now the war in neighboring Gaza, with officials insisting those circumstances are out of its control.
Critics, on the other hand, accuse the government of ballooning the national debt — including taking by taking out international loans to fund mega-infrastructure projects with no real potential for financial return.
“The major challenge for El-Sisi,” Al-Sayyid said, “is how to deal with this very serious economic situation.”
“There are other challenges, but I think this is the most difficult one, because if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, this might lead to popular discontent, and this could be quite destabilizing for the Egyptian political system.”