Could Egypt's presidential elections be a chance for change?

World Sunday 10/December/2023 09:18 AM
By: DW
Could Egypt's presidential elections be a chance for change?

Egypt's presidential elections, which will take place on December 10 -12, will most likely see the 69-year-old incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sissi winning a third term, which would be a first for the country of 113 million people.

Up until 2019, the constitution only allowed two presidential terms and el-Sissi was elected with no opposition to speak of with around 97% of the votes in 2014 and 2018. He then pushed for constitutional amendments that legitimize Egyptian presidents to stay for a third term, and extended the terms from four to six years.

Meanwhile, Egypt's National Elections Authority, NEA, said in a statement that the electoral process involving a total of four candidates had been fair and just. 

On Monday, they also announced that Egyptians abroad have completed casting their votes and that the final result would be published on December 18.

However, in the run-up to the elections, observers and human rights organizations have repeatedly accused el-Sissi of cracking down on promising opposition candidates.

"Hisham Kassem is currently in prison on political charges and Ahmed Altantawy is facing charges while dozens of members of his campaign are being detained," Timothy E. Kaldas, deputy director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

The expected reelection comes at a time when el-Sissi is unlikely to face much international criticism in light of the country's role in the current war in Gaza.

Since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas, classified as a terrorist group by the US, EU, Germany and others, global attention has shifted from Egypt's dire human rights record, its crackdown on the political opposition and the poor economic state to its role as reliable political partner in the region, mediator and access point for humanitarian goods for the Palestinian population.

This has not only boosted el-Sissi's international reputation ahead of the election, but will most likely also have a positive impact on the country's finances. 

"The European Commission announced up to €9 billion ($9.7 billion) in investments in Egypt while other reports indicate that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is considering as much as doubling the size of Egypt's loan in response to the situation," Kaldas said, adding that "this happens despite the fact that Egypt has largely failed to fulfill its reform commitments over the past year, preventing the IMF from completing a review and disbursing loan tranches."

The planned investments and loans are a welcome shot in the arm for a country that has been reeling from an economic crisis since 2022.

According to the Central Bank of Egypt, inflation was at 38% in October, while the Egyptian pound has lost half its value against the US dollar. Official estimates state that 30% of the population live in poverty. Foreign reserves, which are needed to pay back loans, are almost depleted. 

However, none of the experts DW spoke to, expect any major international backlash.

"In the past, the West has not been too critical of elections in Egypt either, and el-Sissi and the military have been regularly perceived in the West as the only actors who can prevent chaos in the country," Christian Achrainer, a researcher at Denmark's Roskilde University, who has extensively published on Egypt, told DW. 

Moreover, not only Gaza, but also Egypt's other neighboring countries — Sudan, Libya and Yemen— are at war, and the Red Sea is on the verge of becoming a battlefield for Iran's proxy militias against Israel.

"It would be a horror scenario for European decision-makers if Egypt as the most populous North African and Arab country would become instable as well," Achrainer added.

This view is echoed by Gamal Abdel Gawad, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and advisor to the Cairo-based think tank Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies whose political leanings are considered closely aligned with the government.

"Neither the region nor the world is prepared to deal with a turbulent situation in Egypt due to an economic fallout," Gawad said. 

In his view, the war in Gaza and the threat to displace Palestinians and bring the conflict to Egypt, "is a risk to the Egyptian national security which has led to a state of unity and increased support for the president," he told DW.

For Timothy Kaldas, this also means that "the recent softening of the West's position vis-a-vis Sisi's economic malpractice and rights violations in the midst of the war on Gaza gives further reason to doubt the needed reforms are on the horizon."

Ahmed Mefreh, executive director of the Swiss-based human rights watchdog Committee for Justice, thinks that one scenario of the expected reelection of el-Sissi will lead at best "to a continuation of the current cosmetic policies when it comes to human rights."

While the regime has released between 1,000 and 1,500 political prisoners this year, as part of a National Dialogue and political opening, Egyptian rights groups claim that at least three times as many political prisoners were arrested in the same period.

"Many of whom continue to be detained without trial or even charges," the Tahrir Institute's Kaldas said.

Egypt's most prominent political prisoner, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, also remains in prison. 

"The second scenario is a return to direct repression, including targeting human rights defenders and human rights organizations inside Egypt and in exile," Mefreh told DW.

"The key difference will be whether the regime is under significant pressure to improve the human rights record during the current economic crisis, or not," he said, adding that "the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza has shown that there is not enough serious pressure on the Egyptian regime, and this makes the second scenario more likely in the upcoming period."