Turnout a key question ahead of Egypt’s presidential election

November 19, 2017

Manoeuvring has begun ahead of Egypt’s 2018 presi­dential election, the third since the 2011 revolution. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not announced his can­didacy but it is widely expected that he will seek — and win — a second term. Even so, the election will be a test for the Sisi regime.

Turnout will be important, just as it was in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Then turnout was about 25%. Sisi’s government framed the parliamentary polls as a critical step in the post-revolution demo­cratic process.

The low turnout, however, re­flected widespread apathy among Egyptians, particularly young Egyptians, who expressed little interest in what some described as a rubber-stamp parliament. Ap­peals to a “national duty” to vote did little to boost turnout.

It was the same with other gov­ernment measures, such as time off for public-sector employees to vote, lower public transport fares on Election Day and repeated exhortations from a pro-govern­ment talk show host. Eventually, as expected, the pro-Sisi For the Love of Egypt coalition emerged victorious in the polls.

The same sort of pro-Sisi coalition-building process is under way ahead of the 2018 election. Members of parliament have launched a campaign for Sisi’s re-election called Let’s Build Together. It emphasises that Sisi is the only person able to “meet the challenge” facing the country and “build and develop Egypt.”

The campaign highlights what it calls the major successes of Sisi’s presidency, namely the mega-projects he has undertaken since 2014. There is also mention of Sisi’s importance in terms of Egypt’s security and stability.

The flattery cannot entirely obscure criticism faced by the Sisi administration for its handling of economic development and security challenges. The govern­ment has touted a 2016 agreement with the International Monetary Fund, an increase in investment and other improved indicators of macroeconomic stability as signs that Egypt’s economy is back on track.

Necessary structural reforms have had an effect on the popula­tion. Inflation, for instance, sky-rocketed after the Egyptian pound was allowed to float last year. Seeking to ease public concern over rising prices, Sisi credited the move with strengthening the currency.

Mega-projects have not deliv­ered. The government’s New Suez Canal, inaugurated in 2015, failed to bring the promised revenue boost. The feasibility of a prom­ised new administrative capital, which the government said would provide much-needed jobs, is highly uncertain.

On the security side, the govern­ment has struggled since 2014 to defeat an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai. Troops in the Sinai have been involved in high-profile am­bushes in recent weeks, prompting Sisi to reshuffle leadership of the security forces. There has been a growing number of attacks in the interior, including on Christians.

One of the most critical tests for the government was resentment of and opposition to the transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The deal prompted mass protests and wide­spread public anger and, while the transfer was approved in June, it faced significant challenges from Egyptian courts.

Egyptian human rights lawyer and opposition leader Khaled Ali, who won a case that nullified the islands’ transfer, announced that he would challenge Sisi in the 2018 election. Ali faces a jail sentence for public indecency, an allegation he claims is politically motivated. He has filed an appeal but, if it fails, he could be disqualified from the race.

Nevertheless, the emergence of Ali as a potential presidential con­tender is significant. Given public anger surrounding the islands’ transfer, Ali could mobilise discon­tent against Sisi.

Despite Sisi’s consolidation of authority since 2014, public discontent and apathy could contribute to low turnout in the upcoming election. Significantly low turnout would be a blow to the regime and its credibility. Sisi won about 97% of the vote in 2014 with approximately 47% turnout.

The regime and its supporters will undoubtedly take steps ahead of the polls to boost public support to achieve a similar result but, though the presidential elections will probably garner more interest than the 2015 parliamentary polls, the regime will be anxious about turnout.

As Khaled Dawoud, a former spokesman for the liberal Dostour (Constitution) Party, said of the turnout following the parliamen­tary elections: “It is an embarrass­ment and [the government] can’t deny that it is an embarrassment.”

In 2018, the stakes will be higher. Sisi’s victory may not be in question but his mandate will hinge on the numbers of Egyptians who head to the polling booths.