The concept of democracy at the very highest levels of power is new to Egypt — and, judging by this week’s election charade, the country’s leaders are still struggling to understand its most basic tenets.
Up until 2005, there was no such thing as a presidential election. Previously, voters had been asked to approve or reject a candidate selected by Parliament. Running against himself, former dictator Hosni Mubarak won every time.
Despite the intervening years, among the most turbulent in Egypt’s modern history, little seems to have changed.
Egyptians vote this week for their president, and there is only one real option on the ballot.
This time, it is President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi whose victory was a foregone conclusion before the first vote had even been cast.
It was Sisi, remember, who came to power in 2013 in the wake of a military coup. The coup unseated Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who won the 2012 presidential election held in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring revolution.
Morsi has been in detention ever since. The Muslim Brotherhood, probably Egypt’s most popular political grouping, has once again been deemed an illegal organisation. And Sisi, a former general, has been running the country as if the Arab Spring never happened.
Torture of political opponents by security forces is so widespread that it could amount to a crime against humanity, says Human Rights Watch.
There has been a huge increase in the number of death sentences being handed down by courts. Freedom of the press is almost non-existent, with both local and foreign journalists reporting harassment and intimidation. (Most recently, London Times correspondent Bel Trew was expelled when authorities claimed she was “reporting illegally”.
The newspaper said she had all necessary accreditation.) The civil society space has been squeezed by a draconian new law that gives the government a high degree of control over nongovernmental organisation activities.
At the same time, Sisi is prosecuting a brutal war against alleged terrorists in the northern Sinai peninsula, which has left thousands dead over the past four years.
Meanwhile, the economy is struggling, with food prices skyrocketing by 30%, and nearly a third of youths are unemployed, according to the Brookings Institution. Against this turbulent backdrop, the climate may be ripe for a genuine opposition candidate to challenge the president at the ballot box. But not in Sisi’s Egypt. Several high-profile contenders were either deemed ineligible to run on a technicality, or pressured to drop their candidacy.
These included former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, and Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat, the son of former president Anwar el-Sadat, who said he withdrew from the race because he was concerned for the safety of his campaign workers.
Sisi’s only challenger is the little-known Moussa Mostafa Moussa. He is widely seen as a stooge, his inclusion designed to give the vote a semblance of legitimacy. It doesn’t help this impression that he was actively campaigning on Sisi’s behalf.
Indeed, Egyptian officials are pushing this line hard: “By the fact of having two candidates, it means, by extension, a competitive election. Everyone must abide by law. Other opponents were excluded from running according to the Constitution and law or by their own will,” said Ayman Walash, an Egyptian diplomat.
But by running essentially unopposed while cracking down on civil liberties, Sisi is playing a dangerous game. Soaring food prices, high youth unemployment, social instability — we’ve been here before. It was called the Arab Spring, and it didn’t end well for Mubarak or his fellow dictators in Tunisia and Libya.
“It happened before; it’s going to happen again,” said human rights activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, at the recent Olso Freedom Forum in Johannesburg. “Seven years later we are not free, we are still being crushed, we are still being oppressed. The story that started in Tunisia seven years ago has not yet written its final chapter.”
He was speaking generally about dictatorship in the Arab world, but in this election week the lesson rings especially true for Egypt and its would-be 21st-century pharaoh.