Egypt elections: Citizens lack the appetite to protest its 'anti-democratic' president, analysts say

  • The three-day vote, which started Monday, sees al-Sisi running against just one challenger after several credible political rivals quit the race.
  • Under nearly every dictator, everyday life for Egyptian citizens has deteriorated since 2011. The cost of day-to-day living has increased, inflation has significantly reduced the value of salaries, liberties have been curtailed and an uptick in terrorist activity has caused greater insecurity.
  • In Amnesty International's latest annual report, the rights group offered a scathing assessment of Egypt's crackdown on dissent in recent years.
Mohamed El-Shahed/ Stringer | AFP | Getty Images

Egyptians continue to cast their ballots in a presidential election widely expected to keep President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in power for a second term.

The three-day vote, which concludes Wednesday, sees al-Sisi running against just one challenger after several credible political rivals quit the race. And while the incumbent has urged for a high voter turnout in order to try to affirm his legitimacy, critics have dismissed the vote as a charade.

"Very little effort has been expended to make the election seem democratic to please international onlookers. Meanwhile, there has been very little effort expended by the country's democratic allies to call for such a pretense," Jared Jeffrey, political analyst at NKC African Economics, said in a research note on Monday.

"Sisi is unapologetically anti-democratic — he believes the country is not ready for democracy — and nobody seemingly cares. U.S. President Donald Trump calls the president 'a fantastic guy,' French President Emmanuel Macron sells him fighter jets and everyone else keeps mum," he added.

Who's in the running?

All of the president's credible opponents withdrew from the race in January, citing a targeted strategy of intimidation by authorities following the arrest of al-Sisi's main challenger. Egypt's president has denied any wrongdoing.

As a result of a flurry of withdrawals at the start of the year, al-Sisi's only remaining challenger is Moussa Mustafa Moussa. The little-known lawmaker had consistently endorsed al-Sisi until a last-minute decision to enter the race. Moussa reportedly even helped organize events in order to ensure the U.S.-allied former general could stand for a second term.

Detractors have accused Moussa of being a stooge candidate, though he has insisted his campaign to become Egypt's leader is genuine.

What about voter turnout?

When al-Sisi became Egypt's first democratically-elected leader since Mohamed Morsi in 2013, he won almost 97 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, less than half of the nearly 60 million eligible voters in the world's most populous Arab state were recorded to have cast their ballot in 2014.

This time around, some external onlookers have suggested voter turnout could be an indication of the Egyptian premier's popularity.

"That is a flawed premise," Crispin Hawes, managing director at Teneo Intelligence, said in a research note.

Egyptians queue up at a polling station in downtown Cairo on March 27, 2018, on the second day of voting in the 2018 presidential elections. Authorities have been urging Egyptians to participate in the three-day vote, hoping for a high turnout despite what is seen as a foregone conclusion.
KHALED DESOUKI | AFP | Getty Images
Egyptians queue up at a polling station in downtown Cairo on March 27, 2018, on the second day of voting in the 2018 presidential elections. Authorities have been urging Egyptians to participate in the three-day vote, hoping for a high turnout despite what is seen as a foregone conclusion.

Hawes argued that voter turnout had only been reliable in Egypt on three previous occasions over the past decade. And on each occasion, turnout was recorded at around 50 percent — with that figure dropping to just 23 percent in 2005.

Voter apathy, especially given Moussa himself has admitted he does not expect to emerge victorious, is also likely to depress turnout this week, Hawes said.

"In the longer term, accusations of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing, which are practically inevitable, will have no effect on the president's perceived legitimacy within Egypt," he added.

What has been the international response?

In Amnesty International's latest annual report, the rights group offered a scathing assessment of Egypt's crackdown on dissent in recent years.

And shortly after the arrest of al-Sisi's former running mate at the start of the year, several international and Egyptian rights groups called on the country's Western allies to publicly condemn its "farcical" presidential elections.

Nonetheless, international outcry about the democratic merits of Egypt's election process has been muted.

During a visit to Cairo in mid-February, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared careful to avoid criticism of Egypt's forthcoming vote. Instead, he said the U.S. would remain committed to free and fair elections in every country.

Why does this matter?

Under nearly every dictator, everyday life for Egyptian citizens has deteriorated since 2011. The cost of day-to-day living has increased, inflation has significantly reduced the value of salaries, liberties have been curtailed and an uptick in terrorist activity has caused greater insecurity.

Human rights groups say al-Sisi has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on dissent which has resulted in the detention of tens of thousands of people.

A skyline view of Cairo, Egypt
Mohamed El-Shahed | Getty Images
A skyline view of Cairo, Egypt

Meanwhile, Egypt has been hit with several attacks in recent months, with armed groups regularly targeting security forces and carrying out deadly church bombings.

In November, an assault on a mosque killed more than 300 people — thought to be the worst attack in Egypt's modern history.

It is self-evidently the case that Egypt's population is "so exhausted" by the turmoil spanning over the 2011-2013 period that they no longer have an "appetite" to protest, Teneo Intelligence's Hawes said.