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Dhaka Tribune

Egypt’s elections: A preview of what we can expect

The economic storm that faces Egypt may visit us as well

Update : 25 Dec 2023, 10:05 AM

Egypt has just concluded its Presidential elections. President Sisi, a former chief of Egypt’s powerful army, won a third term with nearly 90% of the votes. Apart from General Sisi, the three other contestants were fairly unknown candidates. They were Farid Zahran, head of a leftist party, Abdel-Sanad Yamana, and Hazem Omar, leaders of two other obscure parties. Absent from the elections was the country’s most influential Muslim Brotherhood or its later off-shoot, Freedom and Justice.  All three parties that contested the elections had been pro-Sisi during the turmoil that caused the ouster of Morsi, the first Muslim Brotherhood leader who had been popularly elected following the fall of Hosni Mobarak in 2011. 

Despite the less than crowded field of contestants, Egyptian election authorities claimed that voter turnout was one of the biggest in Egypt’s history with more than 60% voting in the elections. Since there was no international oversight, we have to take Egypt’s official statement and accept the results. Now President Sisi is having a third term for another six years, he having amended the constitution earlier to allow a third term for Presidentship which was restricted earlier to only two terms. That is, I guess allowable in a country that has witnessed Presidents who came out of the barracks and continued to rule by fiat or a single party domination for years -- starting with Jamal Abdul Nasser. Each President had floated a party with military backing and had succeeded in perpetuating their power base away from people but with firm backing of the armed forces, until the seams burst in 2011 in Tahrir Square with peoples protest and massive movement.

Unfortunately, though the massive people’s movement that brought back the Muslim Brotherhood in the scene whose leaders had been incarcerated and have been hiding for last two decades, could not govern for long. In less than two years, President Morsi, the leader of the party fell due to division among Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamic Allies, but most importantly the army. It was because Morsi had alienated the still powerful army with a constitutional amendment granting him executive powers. The result was again massive demonstrations against Morsi, orchestrated by the army and the more moderate political parties. Morsi was forcibly removed after a coup d’etat staged by General Sisi, and was later arrested on charges of various crimes, and the prosecutors sought death penalty. Morsi died in jail during trial. 

Democracy did not return to Egypt, at least the way it had after Hosni Mobarak’s fall. In 2014, General Sisi (who had later become Field Marshal), who had removed Morsi from power after a coup, orchestrated a state-run election where he featured as people’s nominee for President. His only opponent was a hand-picked obscure politician. In the elections Sisi won 97% of votes. In his second term that began in 2018, Sisi had only one opponent. The others who had wanted to contest the elections were either arrested on false charges or were made to withdraw their candidacy through intimidation or physical threats.

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The third term may seem if not for, but Sisi and his supporters’ considerable tactics to make this landslide happen. Initially, a rather popular opposition leader, Tantawi, a vocal critic of Sisi declared his candidacy. But the army establishment saw to it that he never gets the required number of endorsements from voters (20,000 signatures) for his candidacy. Independent reporters stated that security forces arrested relatives and supporters of Tantawy during campaign season. The supporters were also prevented from submitting their endorsements to notaries office by goons. As a result, Tantawy had to withdraw his candidacy. 

With the field cleared of any credible opposition Sisi played the election game this year as he had done in the earlier two elections. Is there any surprise then that he would win hands down? The only difference is that the margin of victory for Sisi is more modest than before. Unlike his first term victory of 97% of votes, he has brought it down to only 89% this time. But with 8% less votes Sisi is not going to be any less powerful than his earlier terms. His authoritarian government will not be less dictatorial for next six years. 

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Egypt’s case is illustrative for several reasons. For one, it shows the pathetic state of democracy in parts of the world where ruling parties and leaders lure people with promises of a better life, but with only them at the helms. In most countries (mostly Muslim, unfortunately) where leaders rule as absolute monarchs, there is not pretension of democracy. People do not expect to vote for their monarchs or emirs. These are hereditary positions. The problem arises with countries where constitutionally there are no monarchs or emirs, but the leaders would like to rule like them in these countries, though the position of head of government is theoretically held by the party that wins majority in the parliament. In such cases, the endeavour is how to manipulate the elections to guarantee the continuity of the party and its leader as head of the government. In Sisi’s case, it is easy to drive any opposition away from elections, through intimidation, arrest, or otherwise making them disappear, because the election is for a single position of President. Can the Sisi model be replicated or is it being replicated in our own country? Or does some other model exist that leads to the same result?

From what we have seen so far in Bangladesh, some parts of the Sisi model have worked in the past. But it is not so easy, as the elections in Bangladesh are not for a single President, but for a whole slew of 300 parliamentarians. The number of contestants is huge, all of whom cannot be driven out by intimidation. So, a different strategy has to work along with selective application of baits and intimidation of would-be contestants. This way a number of people will never participate following Egypt’s Tantawy, and others cannot simply because they have been put away. The end result in any way will be a massive victory for the ruling party as contestants have either been selectively chosen or have driven away. Like it or not, we may look forward to another term for the same party and its leader for another five years. But it is not likely to be a smooth one as the economic storm that faces Egypt may visit us as well. So, brace yourselves, our countrymen. 

 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US

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