Worlds apart: Egypt's presidential elections now and then

Osman El Sharnoubi, Sunday 11 May 2014

Unlike Egypt's 2012 presidential poll, the 2014 race is marked by limited competition in a drastically changed political landscape

A supporter of presidential hopeful Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, plays traditional music, in front of a poster with his image, during a rally in Cairo, Egypt Saturday, May 3, (Photo: AP).

As the presidential race has been launched, and the date set for Egyptians to elect their new president approaches, it can hardly escape attention that the coming vote is worlds apart from the presidential elections which brought ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi to office two years ago.

The tumultuous political events that have unfolded since the previous presidential vote include the popularly-backed overthrow of the Brotherhood by the military after a brief year in power; the approval and implementation of a strict protest law to deal with a fluid political scene, a move that many have criticised for allowing the police to consistently overstep their roles; and a central decision by the army leader who led Morsi's ouster, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, to run for the presidency.

Aside from such developments, the poll itself is clearly different than the one from 2012.

While the 2012 elections hosted five prominent candidates and held surprises – like Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s coming in third behind Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, the latter viewed as representing the Mubarak state – the coming elections, confined to the competition of El-Sisi and Sabahi, come amid a public persuasion that Sabahi doesn’t stand a chance.

A partisan state?

The result of the vote is settled for El-Sisi, said Mohamed El-Qassas, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who, expelled from the group in 2011 due to differences with its leadership, founded a liberal-leaning party, Al-Tayyar Al-Masry.

The only way El-Sisi could lose, Qassas went on, is if he and those in power plan for his loss, which is highly unlikely.

Qassas complained that Egypt’s powerful state institutions are throwing their weight behind the former military chief who led the move to oust Morsi, to the joy of millions of Egyptians who cheered the decision.

The Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) tarried to launch the registration window for candidacy until after El-Sisi had announced his resignation from the army and declared his presidential bid, Qassas said, claiming the committee was waiting for El-Sisi to give it the green light.

"Things are developing according to the whims of one candidate," Qassas asserted, questioning why El-Sisi changed his mind about running for office. In an interview with The Washington Post shortly after Morsi’s ouster, El-Sisi had hinted he wasn’t "aspiring for authority."

Mohamed Waked, a leftist political activist, concurred with Qassas about the political climate ahead of the elections.

The sweeping crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters also engulfed their opponents, Waked contended. To him, legislation facilitating the crackdown is at the crux of the presidential issue.

The protest law – a law passed in November laying down stringent conditions on public gatherings and harshly penalising violators – was primarily issued to control the presidential vote, as it had the constitutional vote, he argued.

The law was first implemented in a protest calling for the omission of articles from the draft constitution allowing military trials for civilians and was extensively used in dispersing subsequent demonstrations.

The months leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, in contrast, were marked by regular protests against the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Campaigning against the ruling military took the country by storm before the elections.

Recently, campaigners for Sabahi lopped accusations against notary office employees saying the latter had hampered the registration of recommendations for the Nasserist candidate.

Commenting on the recent conduct of security forces, Waked said they were granted power to quell dissent and allowed to abuse it in doing so.

Unlike Waked, Hala Moustafa, a political scientist and commentator, believes the crackdown – which has thrown many prominent liberal and leftist activists in jail for protesting – is merely a vestige from the Hosni Mubarak era.

She agrees that repressive practices by police and bureaucratic holdovers are tainting the political scene, adding that such attempts are futile, however, as Egyptians are now – after the 25 January revolution – a concrete force rulers must reckon with.

Karima El-Hefnawy, a leftist political activist who took part in the very first anti-Mubarak mobilisation attempts via the National Association for Change which posed prominent politician Mohamed El-Baradei as an alternative to Mubarak, agrees with Moustafa.

"The Egyptian people overthrew two presidents, they brought down Mubarak’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood after him," she noted.

For Hefnawy, the 25 January and 30 June uprisings made demands which no president will succeed without granting.

Man of the hour

Scores of Egyptians perceive El-Sisi as the only potential president with the ability to carry out crucial changes; Hefnawy is among them.

The issue doesn’t solely revolve around the electoral programme, Hefnawy argued, but the ability to implement it. While Hefnawy hasn’t yet lent her full support to El-Sisi – despite meeting him – she believes he may be the right candidate to fulfil the revolution’s demands.

El-Sisi is yet to reveal his electoral platform, which Hefnawy is still waiting for. She is also watchful of his political alignments: whether he will be on the side of workers, of the public sector, of freedom. In short, Hefnawy will grant the former army chief her support if he aligns himself with the revolution as she sees it.

Unlike Hefnawy, Waked sees El-Sisi’s programme as being manifest in one institution: the army. Waked is keenly critical of an aspect voiced by Egypt’s leading historian and journalist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who said El-Sisi needs no programme, that his credentials are enough.

"El-Sisi’s main constituency is those who want the army, the army is the programme," Waked stressed.

Many parties, activists and political commentators were outraged when in January SCAF declared in an official statement its support for El-Sisi’s possible candidacy.

Large-scale projects, such as the one-million low-cost housing units construction plan worth over $40 billion, which the Egyptian defence ministry in March agreed with UAE’s Arabtec Holding to build, are to Waked a clear sign the military is rallying support for El-Sisi.

The military is El-Sisi's pillar of strength, and it places him at an unparalleled advantage compared to any other candidate, he asserted; combined with the rampant crackdown, it represents a great setback for Egypt’s democratic movement.

Hefnawy said none of the goals of the 25 January revolution have so far been achieved, including that of freedom. However, she is convinced the people will bring them about, regardless of any president's "background".

The priority, as Hefnawy sees it, lies in keeping the Egyptian state intact and safeguarding it from what, in her view, are the Brotherhood’s attempts to dismantle it.

El-Sisi is the only one with the power to do so and he will, Hefnawy asserted, if he chooses to.

The Brotherhood's absence

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s most organised political group – had already won a majority in parliamentary elections and were well placed to prop Morsi for the presidential seat.

The Brotherhood is now branded a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government. The majority of its leadership – once filling top executive and legislative posts – currently occupy prison cells, on trial for a variety of charges ranging from espionage to murder.

The street presence of Brotherhood supporters has considerably dwindled. Reasons for this are attributed to various factors, including a violent crackdown by security forces against them and a plummeting scale of support once enjoyed by the Brotherhood.

It is doubtful the group will be able to affect the outcome of the coming poll, whether it takes part or not, said Ammar Ali Hassan, political sociologist and expert on Islamist movements.

The group has opted for boycott.

The Brotherhood doesn’t possess the power to mobilise a vote, their social support networks are now disrupted by the crackdown and their religious rhetoric largely discredited, Hassan argued.

He believes the Brotherhood’s "badly run" year in power and the 30 June uprising against them is the prime reason for their downfall.

"After the dispersal of their sit-in in August, the group lost momentum and is hardly able to cause headaches for authorities," Hassan told Ahram Online.

The group nevertheless holds weekly protests. Some of Egypt’s top universities witness almost daily clashes between Morsi-supporting students and police. Over a dozen students were killed in such clashes.

Hassan, however, thinks clashes are ineffective and give security forces the excuse to widen their crackdown, especially in the context of the terrorist attacks targeting army and police forces which have killed hundreds of them so far.

Unlike their influence in the 2012 elections, when millions voted Morsi to the presidency, Hassan said the group’s actions now fall in the category of revenge but remain unable to hinder economic activity or cause significant disruption to public life.

Egypt’s presidential polls are slated for 26 and 27 May. Political groups are divided between supporting El-Sisi and Sabahi. The latest opinion polls have shown immense support for El-Sisi.


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