• Washington Post

What to Know about Egypt’s Election, Expected to Hand Sisi a Third Term

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Displaced Palestinian families on Thursday in the al-Mawasi area of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip and near the border with Egypt, where they are living in tents.

CAIRO – Egyptians head to the polls Sunday in an election expected to hand a third term to President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi.

It’s the first presidential election since a constitutional referendum passed in 2019 that paved the way for Sisi to stay in office until 2030. It comes as the most populous Arab country faces a severe economic crisis and grapples with the impact of the war next door in Gaza.

For Sisi, an authoritarian leader who came to power in a military coup in 2013, the vote – scheduled to take place from Sunday to Tuesday in Egypt – will serve chiefly to provide a veneer of popular legitimacy as he extends his decade-long rule.

His face is everywhere in Cairo, on massive billboards along the city’s sprawling highways that proclaim: “All of us are with you.”

But as the prices of basic goods soar while the state spends heavily on flashy megaprojects, grumblings of discontent here are growing louder.

Here’s what to know about the election.

Who is running?

Apart from Sisi, three lesser-known candidates are on the ballot: Farid Zahran, head of the left-leaning Egyptian Social Democratic Party; Abdel-Sanad Yamama, head of the nationalist Wafd Party; and Hazem Omar, leader of the Republican People’s Party.

None of the challengers pose a threat to Sisi, analysts say.

All three parties were part of the pro-Sisi bloc during the last parliamentary elections. Omar, a tourism entrepreneur, was appointed by Sisi to the Egyptian Senate in 2020. Yamama praised Sisi in a television interview last month and, last year, called for an amendment to the constitution to honor Sisi’s role in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests in 2013 that preceded the coup.

Zahran has criticized the government and campaigned on ending media censorship. But he is seen as a relatively moderate opposition figure who doesn’t cross the authorities’ red lines.

Opposition parties were divided over whether to participate in an election widely seen as a charade, but Khaled Dawoud, an Egyptian journalist and Sisi critic who has supported Zahran’s campaign, said “he’s working for the future, not just this particular election.”

Will the election be free and fair?

No.

In the months leading up to the campaign season, security forces arrested supporters and relatives of Ahmed Tantawy, seen as the only credible opponent to Sisi. Tantawy is a vocal critic of the government and became popular among young Egyptians.

In September, research by Google and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that Tantawy’s phone was infected with Predator spyware.

Getting onto the ballot required each candidate to receive endorsements either from 20 members of parliament or from at least 25,000 eligible voters across 15 governorates.

Sisi officially declared his intent to run again in early October, saying he was “heeding the call of Egyptians once again.” The national election authority said he racked up more than 1.1 million endorsements.

The process was marred by allegations of obstruction and intimidation. Rights groups and witnesses reported that Tantawy’s supporters were blocked from entering notaries’ offices to submit their endorsements. “Paid thugs” also assaulted suspected Tantawy backers, according to Hossam Baghat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the few rights groups that continues to operate in the country.

The national election authority denied the allegations.

“The boomerang effect really was that this made people even angrier and made the regime seem weak, because there was no chance that Tantawy was going to defeat [Sisi] or be allowed to replace him at the ballot box,” Baghat said.

On Oct. 13, Tantawy announced he was ending his campaign after failing to garner the necessary endorsements.

He and members of his campaign were indicted last month on charges rights groups described as politically motivated. Tantawy is free pending trial, but dozens of his campaign volunteers remain in pretrial detention.

Tantawy’s elimination from the race, combined with the war in Gaza, have made for a muted campaign season. Egyptian media, almost entirely government controlled, has continued to sing Sisi’s praises. Few posters advertising the other candidates can be seen around Cairo.

Egyptians living abroad voted during a three-day stretch at the beginning of the month. From Sunday until Tuesday night, Egyptians inside the country can vote at one of nearly 10,000 polling stations. Outside election monitors from the African Union and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa will observe the proceedings.

During the last two elections, Sisi’s supporters offered cash, food and other incentives to get Egyptians to the polls.

Both times, Sisi won with 97 percent of the vote.

What are the key issues?

Egypt’s economy is front and center this election – and represents Sisi’s biggest challenge.

The country of 105 million people is sinking under foreign debt and contending with a severe shortage of hard currency. Inflation stands above 35 percent – and is even higher for food – causing widespread economic pain. The International Monetary Fund postponed two reviews of a $3 billion loan program this year after Egyptian authorities failed to carry out required reforms.

Bloomberg Economics recently ranked Egypt as the second-likeliest country in the world to default on its debt payments, after Ukraine.

Sisi blames external shocks, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, for the country’s deepening economic woes. But analysts say the military’s control over large swaths of the economy, coupled with massive government spending on infrastructure projects – including a $58 billion new capital in the desert outside Cairo – are draining the state’s coffers and stifling growth.

Poverty is on the rise. The middle class has been hollowed out. Power cuts became a feature of life in recent months. The black-market price of dollars continues to tick up. In rare displays of public criticism, people are openly complaining on social media about the skyrocketing prices of basic commodities.

Many Egyptians are dreading an upcoming currency devaluation, demanded by the IMF and other lenders, which is expected to take place early next year – once Sisi has solidified his hold on power.

How has the war in Gaza affected the election?

For Sisi, it’s been a helpful distraction, analysts said.

The suffering of civilians in Gaza has touched a nerve in Egypt, consuming the attention of political commentators and the public. As some right-wing Israeli politicians advocate pushing Gazans into northern Sinai, Egyptians fear becoming complicit in the displacement of Palestinians.

The war has also burnished Sisi’s image internationally. Egypt played a key role as an interlocutor with Hamas in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian militant group over the exchange of hostages for prisoners and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“Sisi benefited tremendously from this situation,” Dawoud said. “Like many other countries, when they face an outside threat or a situation with an external danger, people tend to rally around the leader, whoever he is.”

Rare demonstrations called by the government drew thousands of people to the streets in a show of solidarity with Palestinians in late October. But when organic protests spun off, and participants began to criticize the government, security forces quickly clamped down.

Some 67 million Egyptians are eligible to vote this cycle. Turnout in the 2014 and 2018 elections was 47 and 41 percent, respectively, according to official figures – lower than authorities had hoped. State-affiliated media reported last week that eligible voters who do not cast a ballot could be fined 500 pounds, about $16.

Turnout will likely be a function of “how many resources are devoted to bribing or coercing people to participate,” said Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

After polls close Tuesday evening, the preliminary tally is slated to be released Wednesday. Candidates will then have several days to appeal. Barring the unlikely event of a runoff, the final result will be announced Dec. 18.

The winner will serve a six-year term.