Is Democracy Dead in Egypt?
Q&A with Amr Hamzawy, a former member of the People’s Assemby in Egypt and current senior research scholar for the Middle East Initiative. Written with Dan Shevchuk and Nicole Feldman.
At the end of March, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won re-election with over 97 percent of the vote. Sisi first gained office by leading the Egyptian military’s 2013 coup and was elected President in 2014 in a vote international observers called a sham election. This year, he faced lower voter turnout as a million voters voided their ballot and several potential candidates withdrew or were arrested.
As the Middle East experiences more strong-man politics, Amr Hamzawy, a former member of the Egyptian People’s Assembly, describes the impact of the election on Sisi’s power, the worrisome state of Egyptian democracy, and the future of regional politics at large.
On April 2, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won re-election with 97 percent of votes. Are these numbers surprising? How accurate are they?
This is not surprising at all. While over one million people voided their ballots in an act of protest, el-Sisi still has many supporters who believe he brings stability to the nation. The elections lasted three days, and these “stability voters” turned up in force during the first two days. On the last day, the government coerced some Egyptians to go and vote, and they voted for him as well because there was no other candidate. The 97 percent within the group of those who voted is accurate. I see no fabrication. He has popular support in Egypt, and he does not have any competition. I believe Sisi still commands the support of 30 to 40 percent of the Egyptian electorate.
Turnout was 41 percent, despite efforts to get as many Egyptians as possible to polling stations. That’s less than the 47 percent in the 2014 elections. What does that say about how Egyptians feel about their elections?
Half of this 41 percent voted on the last day of the elections, when the election commission and government sources announced that they would be penalizing every single citizen who did not go and vote. They announced a fine of £500.00, and I believe this is why the voter turnout climbed so much on the last day. Sisi needed a higher voter turnout — or at least a voter turnout as high as 2014 — to prove his legitimacy to the world. He has little opposition in the country, but to the outside world, he needs to show that he was elected democratically.
According to Reuters, “The main challenger was arrested and his campaign manager beaten up, while other presidential hopefuls pulled out, citing intimidation.” Was Sisi involved?
Sisi sidelined all his opponents. One is in military custody. One is a former military general and prime minister who was coerced into dropping out. Two civilian candidates dropped out as well. An additional reason is that Sisi controls the private and public Egyptian media. They all favor him and constantly defame his opponents, which creates an environment of intimidation. And when the government says that the leaders of opposition parties are criminals and must be brought to justice, that only worsens this environment.
What does this say about democracy in Egypt more generally?
Egypt is far from restoring a path toward democratic transition. We are in authoritarian times. Sisi is an autocratic ruler. He is not interested in the democratic values of having open elections or having a vibrant parliament. Sisi’s regime does not like diversity in the public space, does not like freedom of expression, does not like freedom of association. I do not expect Sisi to change his behavior in his second term. In fact, once he was elected, some of his mouthpieces in the media started to circulate and float around the idea of amending the Constitution. Currently, the Constitution has presidential term limits, so currently Sisi cannot run for a third term. Amending the Constitution could enable him to run for a third or even fourth time. Either way, I’m not expecting his autocratic behavior to change any time soon.
How can we improve Egypt’s system of government?
This is a domestic issue, and it comes down to what Egyptians will say. Currently, considerable segments of the Egyptian population are supporting him because they feel that we need a strong man, we need a savior. And they are willing, as a by-product, to accept human rights abuses and violations and a lack of justice.
There is not much that can be done because Sisi has established a security-driven government that cannot be tampered with. Egyptians are quickly arrested or taken into custody if they dare speak out in an organized setting. The number of young Egyptians arrested for speaking out is appalling. Opposition movements or independent NGOs cannot operate freely, so here you’re creating a security driven environment, a repressive environment in which no one can stand up to government injustice.
We have to wait for a more active constituency to get out of this repression induced disenchantment, to get out of this current situation. And then start, once again, to demand democratic change or democratic reform similar to what happened prior to 2011. Demanding democratic reform without giving up on stability and economic improvement.