Egypt’s president expected to secure third term as the world’s eyes are fixed on Gaza

Motorists drive past campaign billboards of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi along a street in Cairo on December 7, 2023, ahead of the country's presidential election. Egyptian citizens living abroad will cast early ballots on December 8 in a presidential election, in a vote all but certain to give incumbent Sisi a third term in office. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Motorists drive past campaign billboards of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi along a street in Cairo on December 7.Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to secure his third term in power in a Sunday presidential election that critics have called a sham, as global attention is focused on the bloody war in neighboring Gaza.

The 69-year-old president has enjoyed two months of a pause in criticism from Western allies over his authoritarian rule and heightened crackdown on dissent, experts say, attributing the shift to Sisi’s renewed diplomatic relevance on the international stage due to the Israel-Hamas war.

Several top Western officials have paid Sisi visits since the war began, including United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Palestinians cross to the Egyptian side of the border crossing with the Gaza Strip Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. in Rafah Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

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HA Hellyer, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in London, said that Cairo has historically been “a critical interlocutor for the international community in general when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“As the Israeli-Palestinian question diminished in importance in many policy arenas, which was clearly a fundamentally flawed approach, so did Cairo’s geopolitical weight,” Hellyer told CNN, adding that with the Palestinian issue now prominently back in discussions, “there is a new prioritization internationally for good and comprehensive contact with Egypt.”

Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the sole remaining link between the Gaza Strip – which Hamas controls – and the outside world. Egyptian officials have played mediation roles in previous wars between Israel and Hamas, as Cairo maintains diplomatic ties with both sides. During the current conflict, Egypt’s good offices have been used to deliver crucial aid into Gaza and to help secure the release of some of the hostages held there by Hamas since its militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting more than 240 others.

Egypt has also helped foreign nationals escape the carnage in Gaza, along with injured Palestinians. More than 17,000 Palestinians have so far been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, which cites sources from the Hamas-controlled enclave. Aid has also been able to trickle into Gaza through Rafah.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carry his posters during a march in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Egypt will hold a presidential election over three days in December, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi highly likely to prolong his stay in power until 2030. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carry his posters during a march in Cairo, Egypt on October 2.Amr Nabil/AP

Meanwhile, Sisi is moving to quietly secure another presidential term with little to no opposition at home or abroad, critics say.

“There are no elections. There is electoral theater,” Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, told CNN, citing the lack of viable opposition to Sisi.

The former field marshal rose to power in 2013 after overthrowing Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, in a military coup. Sisi ran for president in 2014 and 2018, winning both elections with a sweeping majority. In 2019, his government passed constitutional amendments that permitted him to run for a third term.

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“The terrible violence we’re witnessing (in Gaza) helped Sisi divide the attention of the public from their domestic concerns onto what’s happening, particularly the Palestinians in Gaza,” Kaldas said. “And as a result, somewhat reduce the level of focus on their own domestic plight, particularly their economic struggles.”

Egypt has also spent the past two months reminding its international partners of how “vitally important” it is, Kaldas said. Egypt can say: “See the useful role we play in negotiations and facilitation of the humanitarian assistance that needs to go to Gaza,” he added.

Sisi has appeared keen to capitalize on the crisis and present himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. In a speech last month, the president repeated his call for a ceasefire, as well as his refusal of the “displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip,” calling such a prospect a red line.

While diplomats have been focused on Gaza, critics and human rights groups have lambasted Egypt over the past two months for what they say is its suppression of political dissent and silencing of opposition candidates.

Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament who belongs to the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) and intends to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to the media during a press conference held by Egyptian opposition parties claiming that people trying to endorse candidates to stand against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in an election in December have been repeatedly obstructed from doing so, at headquarter of Conservative Party in Cairo, Egypt, October 13, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament who tried to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to the media during a press conference held by Egyptian opposition parties in Cairo, Egypt on October 13.Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Former lawmaker Ahmed el-Tantawy, who was the most prominent potential challenger to Sisi before he ended his campaign in October, said his supporters were restricted from registering their endorsements for him. He ended his campaign after failing to register the number of signatures required to run.

The Egyptian National Elections Authority (NEA) denied el-Tantawy’s claims, according to state media.

Three other candidates are running for president, with little support expected for each. These are the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Farid Zahran; Wafd party nominee Abdel Sanad Yamama; and Republican Peoples’ Party candidate Hazem Omar.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International said last month that “genuine opposition candidates (were) barred from running” in Sunday’s election, adding that since October 1, Egyptian authorities “have arrested and interrogated at least 196 individuals due to their participation in unauthorized protests, as well as on allegations of engaging in terrorism-related activities and spreading ‘false news.’”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a press conference with his Russian counterpart (unseen) following their talks at the presidential palace in the capital Cairo on December 11, 2017. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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Amnesty also criticized Egypt’s prosecution of el-Tantawy, along with members of his campaign, which the rights group says are under fire “in retaliation for exercising their rights to political participation and to freedom of expression and association.”

El-Tantawy is accused of circulating election-related papers without the permission of the authorities. His trial date was pushed to January 9.

“Once more, the Egyptian authorities lay bare their utter intolerance for even the faintest whisper of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, as he urged the country to lift “sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

The Egyptian government’s foreign press center did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

‘No one will come out to vote’

Just days before the election, streets in the capital, Cairo, were draped with large banners bearing Sisi’s portrait. An increased security presence is noticeable throughout the city, with officers and checkpoints dotting squares, highways and the entrances to bridges.

Among those boosting the pro-Sisi campaign is the Nation’s Future Party. “We are all with you” and “beloved of millions,” read the party’s pro-Sisi banners.

Despite the president’s high-profile election campaign, public sentiment is marked by frustration. Grievances regarding the economy are most evident.

Magdy Gerges, an Egyptian in his 50s who works as a driver, said economic hardships were painful, but that he feels a sense of security under Sisi’s rule.

“I’m one of those who suffer from the high prices, but this man (Sisi) gives me something more important than food; that I feel safe whenever my daughters go out,” Gerges told CNN. “By the end of the day, we will manage with our income, but what good is money if there is no security?” he said.

Egypt's president Abdul Fatah El-Sisi talks to the press after a meeting at the Palace in Cairo, part of a visit of both Belgian and Spanish Prime Ministers (incoming and outgoing presidency of Europe) to Egypt, in Cairo, Friday 24 November 2023. The two heads of government have visited Israel and Palestine yesterday, to hold talks with political leaders on the war in Gaza. In Egypt, Sanchez and De Croo will meet the Egyptian president and visit the border crossing to the Gaza strip in Rafah.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt on November 24.Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA MAG/AFP/Getty Images

Gerges noted however that there are no other viable alternative candidates for voters to choose from, especially given the region’s precarious security situation.

“Even if we want to choose someone else, we have no alternative,” he said.

Another citizen, who asked to remain anonymous fearing reprisal from Egyptian authorities, questioned the legitimacy of Sunday’s election, saying polling stations will be empty since Sisi’s victory is clear.

“No one will come out to vote. People know the result in advance, so why this farce?” the man told CNN, saying it might have been better to “save these huge sums of money in the difficult economic conditions we are living in.”

Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment, said that with the current crisis in Gaza, Cairo might even see “potential for substantial economic assistance” from foreign nations, given the role it has played.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sits next to United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other UAE officials at the World Government Summit 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on February 13.

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Egypt has been struggling to dig itself out of a debt hole that experts say requires structural reforms to avert economic collapse. Cairo’s allies in the Persian Gulf, who for years bailed out the most populous Arab nation, had in recent months criticized Egypt, saying the days of blank cheques are now over.

Egypt’s economic woes are far from resolved. Inflation is still high, and a foreign currency crisis remains unremedied. The country is also yet to meet the terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion loan secured in December 2022 but which is yet to be disbursed.

Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute, said that the Egyptian pound is expected to devalue further. The dollar now trades officially at 31 Egyptian pounds, and if the government decides to further devalue the exchange rate after the elections, that will translate to higher inflation, a deepening of economic hardship for individuals and businesses, and a rise in poverty, he said.

“There is no short-term scenario that doesn’t mean more economic pain for the average Egyptian,” Kaldas added.

The election takes place from December 10 to December 12. Results are expected by December 18.

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