Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s landslide victory in the recent national elections was a foregone conclusion long before the polls opened on March 26.
As predicted, Sisi won a second term, securing 92 percent of the alleged 23 million votes cast. While the outcome of the sham elections reveals little about actual popular support for Sisi, the regime’s handling of the election campaign suggests it is on the defense. More specifically, Sisi’s bullying of opposition candidates, arbitrary purges and dismissals of the officer corps, and crackdown on popular dissent could indicate that he perceives his grip on power to be threatened. Egypt’s primary challenges are still to come in terms of political and economic stability over the next four years, and Sisi’s handling of these issues will likely determine his fate.
Sisi first entered the political scene as the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of senior military leaders that assumed control of Egypt, following the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Sisi rose through the ranks and was appointed minister of defense under then-President Mohamed Morsi. He ultimately rose to power in 2013 when he and other military leaders staged a coup ousting Morsi. The new regime wasted no time crushing political opponents and instating military law. Almost five years later, the regime has not only continued but expanded its repressive policies. It has imprisoned tens of thousands of political opponents and taken unprecedented measures to paralyze civil society.
In the lead up to the elections, the regime has taken additional actions that indicate Sisi perceives a threat to his power. He forced all viable candidates to withdraw from the elections through coercive measures. In early January, Sisi’s strongest opponents, including former Air Force General Ahmed Shafik, dropped out of the race following alleged government threats. Later that month, the military arrested the retired general Sami Anan just days after he announced his candidacy. On election day, the only remaining contender was last-minute candidate Mousa Mostafa Mousa, a long-time supporter of President Sisi.
Sisi has also ordered a number of unexpected dismals of high-level military officers over the last few years, which reveals his fear of dissent. In late 2015, 26 military officers were arrested for conspiring to overthrow Sisi in collaboration with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi also had his Chief of Staff, Mahmoud Hegazy, suddenly replaced in October 2017, and later put under house arrest for allegedly opposing regime policies. Leaked intelligence reports claim that Sisi has expressed concerns of assassination. Finally, Sisi rejected multiple attempts of resignation from Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhy, who had intentions of challenging him in the election. He has furthermore proposed to amend the constitution to dismiss Sobhy, who, under the current constitution, is appointed by SCAF.
A final threat to Sisi’s power comes from popular discontent with his rule. Initially, promises of maintaining security and stabilizing the economy bolstered his popularity. However, his failure to deliver on economic promises and inability to maintain security have eroded public support. In particular, Egypt’s economic forecast looks bleak. In November 2016, it received an IMF loan for USD 12 billion to bail out its economy. Yet, many of the economic reforms required by the loan conditions, such as rolling back subsidies for electricity and fuel and let the Egyptian pound float, have caused prices for basic goods and services to skyrocket and inflation to more than double. Additional subsidies are anticipated in the summer months which are likely to further stoke public tensions. Moreover, Egypt faces rapid population growth, high youth unemployment, rising poverty and inequality, and a level economic growth that is insufficient to compensate.
Sisi’s ability to stay in power over the next four years will largely depend on whether he can continue to convince the military that he is the right man for the job. If the population loses faith in him, the economy tanks further, or dissent among Egypt’s ruling elite grows, the military is more likely to turn on him and seek to replace him. On the other hand, if Sisi can gain control of the economy, rekindle a level of popular support, and avoid the political blunders of his predecessors, he may very well ride out the remainder of his second-term.