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Quick Thoughts: Hesham Sallam on the Egyptian Presidential Election

[An Egyptian woman registers at a polling station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 15 May 2014, the designated voting day for expatriate Egyptians. Voters in Egypt will head to the polls on 26 and 27 May. Image by Ahmed Yousri via Associated Press] [An Egyptian woman registers at a polling station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 15 May 2014, the designated voting day for expatriate Egyptians. Voters in Egypt will head to the polls on 26 and 27 May. Image by Ahmed Yousri via Associated Press]


[On 26-27 May 2014, Egypt will hold its second presidential election since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Contesting the poll are Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the military strongman who engineered the coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, and Hamdeen Sabbahi, leader of the Popular Current. With the election widely expected to consolidate Sisi’s leadership of the Egyptian state, Jadaliyya asked Co-Editor Hesham Sallam to comment on the election and its broader context.]

Jadaliyya (J): Why is this election considered significant?

Hesham Sallam (HS): The election is significant because it constitutes the first multi-candidate vote since the coup of 3 July 2013. From the perspective of the military-dominated ruling coalition, this is an opportunity to garner greater domestic and international legitimacy by sending the message that the post-coup political order is an expression of a popular consensus rather than the product of a power struggle in which the military prevailed at the point of a gun. Putting this claim to the test is something that concerns major political players in Egypt for different of reasons.

What we can broadly characterize as “anti-system forces”—including but not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, along with marginalized groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement—have called for an election boycott. They would like to use the vote as an opportunity to embarrass the regime by highlighting the (sometimes comical) flaws in the technical management of the poll and the broader political context in which it is being conducted. They want to rob advocates of the status quo of any chance to present this event as a signpost of a credible democratic transition. In many respects the regime has made their job very easy. The way Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has announced his candidacy, in military uniform and with a proclamation by the armed forces endorsing his decision, reinforced the image that that the state is not a disinterested party in this process. That pro-military media were quick to slander other potential contenders, discouraging them from contesting the election, underscored the extent to which this race is only open to state-approved candidates. That this election is proceeding in a context of wide-scale arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, and even murder of political dissidents leaves little doubt that this vote is devoid of democratic merits.

A different perspective, prevalent among Sabbahi’s supporters, concedes that the deck is overwhelmingly stacked in Sisi’s favor, but sees in this battle as something other than a chance to vote autocracy out of office. Specifically, it emphasizes that deflecting votes away from Sisi would help limit his mandate. Proponents of this view argue that it will take a lot more than a simple majority for Sisi to achieve a meaningful political triumph and that chipping at his margin of victory will make it difficult for a potential Sisi presidency to shut down political space and marginalize voices of dissent. They also see the election as an opportunity to develop a coherent political program and organizational networks that can lobby on behalf of those who reject choices limited to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The battle for them not about the presidency per se, but rather consolidating the position of the opposition and giving its voice substance and meaning in preparation for upcoming political battles. There are many reasons to question this line of reasoning, but it is certainly a viewpoint that many progressives in Egypt have been contending with.

J: Some have suggested that anything but an overwhelming and untainted victory for Sisi will undermine his legitimacy, do you agree?

HS: In my own modest assessment this view is correct, because this is a regime that thus far has shown little interest in erecting a convincing democratic façade or the appearance of competitive politics. Instead it seems more interested in trumpeting and inflating its levels of popular support in order to portray its rule as the reflection of a solid and unassailable national consensus. This was particularly obvious in the constitutional referendum earlier this year, in which the regime did not tolerate even benign expressions of support for a “No vote”.

Unlike previous state-managed elections that featured long lists of presidential candidates in order to highlight the wide range of choices that voters enjoy, the 2014 presidential ballot has only two names. Many hopefuls were dissuaded from running by the pro-military media’s intimidation tactics. There is no real attempt to exaggerate the competitiveness of this upcoming vote. In fact, if you look at Sisi’s campaign, you will see no acknowledgement that another candidate exists. For example, right after Egyptians abroad cast their ballots between 15 and 18 May, vote count updates circulated by the Sisi campaign’s Facebook page reported only the number of votes cast for Sisi, the total number of votes cast, and the number of invalid votes—with not a single mention of Sabbahi, the other candidate. Their approach resembles the referenda that used to occur under Mubarak’s rule, wherein Egyptian voters were asked to check “yes” or “no” for a single presidential candidate.

I think this trend has a lot to do with the context in which the 3 July coup was conceived. In many ways, the coup reflected the failure of a power-sharing arrangement in which the military tolerated a form of competitive politics so long as this did not infringe upon its longstanding political and economic privileges. It now seems to be introducing a different arrangement, in which it rules through its own representatives instead of relying on partnerships and pacts with civilian allies as was the case between June 2012 and June 2013. Because the old model, which relied on a democratic façade, did not generate the stability the military hoped for, Sisi seems more interested in presenting himself as a leader who assumed power on account of an “historic” popular consensus rather than by winning a supposedly competitive contest.

J: What do you make of reports that the Muslim Brotherhood will informally encourage its supporters to vote for Sabbahi in order to undermine Sisi's mandate?

HS: The current context compels us to exercise some caution in attributing Muslim Brotherhood conduct to a single, unified decision-making body. We need to think a bit more critically about how the developments of the past year have disrupted existing hierarchies inside the movement before inferring what the “Muslim Brotherhood” is thinking or how it is behaving.

That said, I think such reports need to be taken with a grain salt, because many of those disseminating them are prominent Sisi supporters. This suggests many of these claims may be fabricated or exaggerated in order to undermine Sabbahi’s support and signal to Egyptians that a vote for Sabbahi will bring the Brotherhood (the so-called “bad guys”) back to power through the back door. This is also consistent with the general tone of pro-Sisi public figures, who often argue that Sisi is the right person for the job because Sabbahi is “soft on terrorism” and its alleged supporters among Muslim Brotherhood affiliates. Sabbahi himself has in fact been anything but cordial toward the Muslim Brotherhood in his public statements and assured that the group would remain banned if he assumes office.

Not only have I not found convincing evidence to support these claims, but I find it extremely difficult to believe that Muslim Brotherhood leaders would risk alienating their supporters by asking them to participate in a military-sponsored election, legitimizing it after hundreds lost their lives resisting the coup and Morsi’s ouster. The claim strikes me as very suspect.

J: What are your expectations regarding the post-election period?

HS: Rather than making predictions, I would like to highlight one open question that I think will be extremely pertinent in the post-election period: How will Egypt’s next president address the serious economic challenges the state has been confronting for years?

Sisi’s support seems to be coming from a socially diverse coalition that includes proponents of redistribution advancing demands for greater state spending, as well as business interests that have a stake in curbing the economic role of the state. The conspicuous absence of a formal electoral platform in Sisi’s campaign perhaps reflects a reality in which committing to concrete positions on economic and social policies is very difficult and politically costly in light of these broader tensions. Thus far Sisi has successfully avoided these difficult questions by eschewing concrete policies and commitments. He has instead portrayed his presidential bid as the product of his duty to save Egypt from national crisis.

It is hard to overlook the fact that in his infamous television interview with Ibrahim Eissa and Lamis al-Hadidi, he presented almost every policy issue as a national security matter and his (often vague) recommendations as necessary to avert disintegration and total collapse. If Mubarak’s motto was, “It’s either me or the Brotherhood,” Sisi’s message to Egyptians is, “Either me or death.” This approach may work for the purpose of securing electoral support, but eventually he will have to devise a national budget and deal with very socially contentious and potentially de-stabilizing economic files. On this particular issue, it is important to remember that even if the youth activists who served as the “face” of the 25 January Revolution are marginalized or in prison, the structural conditions and social imbalances that paved the way for mass revolt in January 2011 are still prevalent. While I am not saying that a resurgence in popular mobilization along the lines of 2011, 2012, and 2013 is imminent, it remains that every electoral contest since 2010 has proven that Egypt is a country where electoral outcomes, whether democratic or authoritarian, are not binding and subject to the possibility of reversal. As we think about how the next president will manage the wide range of Egypt’s socioeconomic grievances there is no reason to believe that a Sisi electoral victory is immune to that danger.


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