Perhaps the most striking difference between past elections and the one recently announced for December is the number of candidates vying for the presidency. Contenders from both opposition parties and pro-government factions have announced their intention to stand, raising intriguing questions about increased political openness.
Though it is widely expected that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will seek a third six-year term and is poised for another comfortable win, he has yet to declare his intention to stand. Constitutional amendments passed in 2019 extended presidential terms from four to six years, allowing him to remain in office until 2030.
The forthcoming election is likely to differ from its predecessors due to three key factors, says Mohamed Fayez Farahat, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“The National Dialogue process has opened up expectations among both political forces and the wider public that major reforms are in the offing,” he says. Discussions during the dialogue were characterised by "a significant margin of freedom, suggesting that commitment exists to broaden the public sphere".
Farahat says this impression has been reinforced by measures such as the suspension of the emergency law, the release of pretrial detainees and the issuing of presidential pardons, actions that have solidified the conviction among political forces that they have a role to play in the upcoming election.
“The poll represents an important political training process. Any political force aspiring to expand its presence should participate,” he argues.
The polls will be open in Egypt from 10 to 12 December, while expatriates will be able to vote between 1 and 3 December, with any runoff scheduled for 5-7 January. Results will be announced by 18 December, or no later than 16 January in the event of a runoff.
To date, seven politicians have declared their intention to run for the presidency, four of them openly expressing their support for President Al-Sisi. The list includes Abdel-Sanad Yamama, leader of the Wafd Party, Fouad Badrawi, a former Wafd Party MP, Ahmed Al-Fadali, head of the Democratic Peace Party and Hazem Omar, the chair of the People’s Republican Party.
Three potential presidential hopefuls have emerged from the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition comprising seven political parties: Ahmed Tantawi, former president of Karama Party, Farid Zahran, president of the Social Democratic party, and Gamila Ismail, president of the Dostour Party.
There were also suggestions earlier this week that the movement could select a single candidate. Tantawi has said he would be willing to back a consensus candidate. Ismail didn’t raise any significant objections but requested any decision be delayed until after the Dostour’s General Assembly on 10 October, while Zahran said it was necessary to wait until it became clear which candidates could attain the threshold — the required popular endorsements or support from MPs — needed to stand.
“We need to confirm that there are qualified candidates before discussing a consensus figure. Some may be able to meet the required threshold, some may not,” says Egyptian Social Democratic Party deputy Maha Abdel-Nasser. “There is also a debate about who truly represents the Civil Movement and whether their positions resonate with everyone. This is not an easy matter.”
Potential dividing lines are already beginning to emerge. They include Tantawi’s past positions on issues such as female circumcision and the classification of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and, according to a source who attended a closed meeting on the topic, some disquiet over “Nasserist positions and popular discourse” was expressed. This was largely focused, said the source, on the recent jail sentence handed to Hisham Qassem for defaming former Nasserist minister Kamal Abu Eita. Another fly in the ointment is Hamdeen Sabahi’s recent meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The source is not convinced the Civil Movement will be able to unite around a strong candidate.
“Participating in the election is an opportunity to build parties and open up to the public,” says Abdel-Nasser, adding that the opposition is relying on the election guarantee document presented to the Board of Trustees of the National Dialogue and submitted to the presidency.
“Practically, our collective decision will be based on the extent to which guarantees over the free movement of candidates are met, and we will adopt a unified stance accordingly,” Sabahi, part of the Civil Movement and a presidential candidate in 2014, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“We want to enter this race with a reasonable level of guarantees,” he continued. Citing a convergence of factors that include the economic challenges stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing Ukrainian conflict and the depreciation of the Egyptian pound, he added that “the gamble is, under such conditions, that the authorities have an interest in holding open elections.”
“The overall political landscape is more encouraging,” Abdel-Sanad Yamama said. Although he believes Al-Sisi’s popularity remains high, he told the Weekly over the phone, “I am contesting the elections because national interests and economic conditions require a change in positions, policies, and leaderships.”
The evolving political situation has created a buzz, particularly on social media platforms, with hashtags like “presidential elections” and “notary office” trending.
Though the president has not officially declared his candidacy, pro-government parties have initiated a campaign to support his re-election, with members flocking to notary offices to submit forms endorsing him.
To register as a candidate, contenders must secure endorsements from either 20 MPs or 25,000 citizens from across at least 15 governorates, with a minimum of 1,000 endorsements per governorate.
Tantawi’s campaign said it is working on collecting endorsements while the Egyptian Social Democratic Party told the Weekly it was seeking support from parliamentarians, leveraging its seven MPs in the House, the support of the two Adl Party MPs and hopefully the six MPs from Anwar Al-Sadat’s Reform and Development Party.
Though it has no sitting MPs, the Dostour is also hoping to attract parliamentary support. According to one source, Ismail is banking on securing the endorsement of MPs, particularly women, willing to support the first female candidate for the highest office in Egypt, open up public space, and expand the scope of political participation.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly