The polls for Egypt’s presidential elections were set to close on Tuesday evening. No one expects any surprise. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for a decade, is bound to win a third term. Nevertheless, the certain victory of al-Sisi is not based on popularity or notable economic achievements, but on his control over the state institutions, the formidable security apparatus and the elimination of any challenger.
Although the elections were scheduled for spring 2024, the regime hurried to organize them earlier than planned. No official reason was given, but Sisi’s supporters were quick to claim it wasn’t extraordinary at all, saying that moving the date was in line with the Egyptian Constitution.
There is only speculation about the reasons behind this. The prevailing belief is that al-Sisi wanted to solidify his legitimacy before implementing further currency devaluations and austerity measures, which have been postponed despite assurances to the IMF and other international lenders. According to this hypothesis, the elections are supposed to give al-Sisi greater cover – both legally and in terms of public perception – to implement economic measures with such a severe impact that they would exacerbate Egyptians’ poverty and potentially spark social uprisings.
In the last two elections, in 2014 and 2018, al-Sisi secured victory with about 97 percent of the vote, in a process orchestrated by the security services. State agencies were mobilized to ensure that civil servants and workers voted in his favor.
Despite the mobilizations, turnout has steadily declined from one election to the next, reflecting the widespread disillusionment of citizens with the political procedures set up by the regime since the coup. Turnout in the 2014 presidential election was at 47 percent, dropping to 41 percent in 2018. The 2020 Senate elections saw a turnout of just 14 percent, while the parliamentary elections in the same year saw a turnout of just 28 percent.
In 2014, a law was enacted imposing a fine of 500 Egyptian liras (15 euros) on eligible voters who refused to vote. The penalty was never enforced: indeed, it would have been impossible to fine nearly half the population.
The outbreak of war in Palestine on October 7 may have given al-Sisi some financial breathing room: international donors are increasingly concerned about regional stability. Western governments have sought Egypt’s cooperation on Gaza, pushing the EU to accelerate economic development plans for Egypt. In addition, the International Monetary Fund is seriously considering approving a $3 billion loan program for the country.
Over the last decade, al-Sisi has suppressed dissent in many different spheres, using the pretext of the “war on terrorism” to dismantle or weaken opposition parties, independent trade unions, the media, student groups, community networks and human rights organizations. Nonetheless, fueled by the economic crisis and declining regional support for the regime, the beleaguered Egyptian opposition has engaged in small-scale struggles to gradually expand space for political activities and revive street politics.
This was the context for Ahmad Tantawi’s aborted presidential bid. Originally from Kafr el-Sheikh in the northern Nile Delta, a former parliamentarian aligned with the Nasserist-oriented Karama party, Tantawi had been a critic of al-Sisi during his tenure in parliament from 2015 to 2020, drawing the regime’s wrath. He lost his seat in the 2020 elections amid allegations of electoral fraud.
In 2022, due to security threats, Tantawi briefly sought exile in Beirut, from where he announced his presidential aspirations. In May 2023 he returned to Egypt to launch his campaign, gaining support from various opposition parties, remnants of 2011 activist groups, a number of celebrities and segments of previously uninvolved youth.
According to my sources in the activist community supporting Tantawi, no one had any illusions that they would defeat al-Sisi through the electoral process. In reality, they supported Tantawi primarily to take advantage of the opportunity for mobilization and organization, as election periods are often an occasion for a relatively open public space and attract international media attention.
To run in the presidential elections, Egyptian law requires the collection of 25,000 citizen signatures, validated by state notary offices, from at least 15 provinces (with a minimum of 1,000 signatures from each), or the support of at least 20 parliamentarians. These nomination procedures were designed to ensure state control over the final selection of candidates, favoring those approved by the regime-aligned Parliament and hampering campaigning on the ground, which can be subject to interference by the security services.
Tantawi opted for a grassroots campaign, seeking to collect signatures from citizens. For a month, this effort led to him being subjected to a series of measures by the security forces against his family and supporters, attacks by unidentified assailants and bureaucratic hurdles by state notary offices. In addition, his iPhone was targeted by alleged Israeli spyware with ties to the Egyptian regime, prompting Apple to deploy a security update on its products.
On October 14, a day before the deadline for submitting the signatures to the National Election Committee, Tantawi announced his withdrawal from the race after collecting 14,000 signatures, citing harassment from the security apparatus and arrests of activists.
Although it was widely expected that the security services would prosecute Tantawi after the elections, al-Sisi’s retaliation came even sooner. In early November, the prosecutor general announced that Tantawi would be tried on charges of “disseminating election documents without official authorization.” Another key opposition figure who planned to run was Gameela Ismail, head of the quasi-liberal Dostour party. His brief campaign came to an abrupt end on October 10 due to pressure from party members.
As a result, there are only three candidates running against Sisi – essentially only those who have the seal of approval of the security services. Abdel Sanad Yamama heads the Wafd Party, once a liberal nationalist force but which has now degenerated into a patronage network for a clique of businessmen vying for favor with Egypt’s rulers.
Hazem Omar, head of the People’s Republican Party, represents an obscure group of businessmen and former members of Hosni Mubarak’s dissolved National Democratic Party. Omar’s political history does not feature any kind of dissent; on the contrary, he constantly praises both the regime and al-Sisi.
Farid Zahran, the leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, despite denying that he took part in a meeting where he was encouraged to run in order to give a democratic facade to an election with a predetermined outcome, has won the endorsement of 20 parliamentarians, an indication of support from the regime. His party has a history of working with al-Sisi, helping to form the post-coup cabinet and negotiating with the security services during the parliamentary elections.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Zahran has avoided mentioning al-Sisi or putting forward any serious criticisms of him. Instead, he has been focusing his attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood, as if we were still in 2013.
Much of the Egyptian opposition has announced a boycott of the elections, refusing to cast a protest vote for Zahran. In turn, this stance prompted Zahran’s party to cut ties with the opposition. Al-Sisi’s victory in the elections seems a given, but his potential for substantially strengthening his position remains uncertain.
His popularity has declined sharply due to various factors, most notably the worsening economic conditions affecting all segments of society beyond his close circle of military leaders. The real test is the country’s economic trajectory, which serves as a true measure of public sentiment.
The conflict in Gaza has introduced an additional element of complexity. It represents a threat to an already weakened economy and could gradually reignite public discontent in the streets.
Although the prospect of a revolution similar to the events of 2011 seems unlikely in the short term, it cannot be entirely ruled out if regional and economic instability persists. In light of these developments, the elections seem to be of secondary importance amid the multitude of critical issues Egypt is laboring under.