Updated April 2 | Egyptians re-elected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi with 97 percent of the vote in what critics called a sham election. President Donald Trump congratulated El-Sissi and re-affirmed the countries’ strategic partnership.
Voters cast ballots Tuesday with fingers stained with purple ink, a way to avoid electoral fraud, as the three-day presidential election in Egypt continued.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is expected to win a second four-year term. His only opponent is one of his supporters.
Here’s what we’re watching during the election.
Who is Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi?
El-Sissi, former minister of defense, had a hand in the military coup that removed his predecessor Mohamed Morsi from office in 2013. Morsi was the first freely elected president in Egypt’s history, coming into power after nearly 18 months of military rule. Former leader Hosni Mubarak resigned in 2011 after nationwide protests.
In August 2012, former President Morsi appointed el-Sissi as minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Less than a year later, on July 1, 2013, el-Sissi delivered a statement broadcast nationwide that Morsi and his government had 48 hours to “meet the demands of the people,” or the military would intervene to restore order in the country. Two days later, el-Sissi ousted Morsi, suspended the constitution and installed an interim government.
El-Sissi retired from the military after 37 years and was elected president in June, 2014. Forty-seven percent of eligible Egyptians voted, according to the New York Times.
Who’s running against el-Sissi?
“Egypt is not unlike any authoritarian state, where leaders use elections to remind people of their pervasive power,” said Dalia Fahmy, an associate professor of political science at Long Island University and author of “Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism.”
“His campaign is nothing more than ‘I am here for you, I am your savior,’” Fahmy said. “When you’re the supreme leader, you paint the town red in your own image to remind people you have no real alternative; it quells the possibility of average citizens to imagine an alternative scenario,” she said.
Several other candidates were forced to withdraw from the race. Former military chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan was arrested in January for announcing his candidacy without seeking the military’s permission. Another potential contender, socialist and lawyer Khaled Ali, who also faced court challenges, withdrew from the race in January, saying “the opportunity for hope in this presidential election as gone.”
How does the public feel about el-Sissi? “It’s hard to tell in any country that isn’t free how to measure public opinion. I think it’s fair to say that he’s pretty popular,” said Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But you have to wonder, if you’re so popular why can’t you risk a contested election?”
The fact that two generals wanted to run against el-Sissi, including Anan the former military chief of staff, shows the military might have concerns about stability under el-Sissi, “so he will need to consolidate his support within the army,” Abrams said.
The important thing, said Michele Dunne, director and senior fellow of the the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment, is that “five serious candidates stood up and said they wanted to run.”
“It’s remarkable considering the level of repression, it’s remarkable considering the consequences,” she said.
Though those candidates have since backed down, there have been media reports of another military coup in preparation, Dunne said, worrying El-Sissi and making him more determined to eliminate any opposition. And analysts say even the emergence of opposition could signal a shift in support from the military and security apparatus that el-Sissi heavily relies on for support.
“The military stepped out of the way and allowed Mubarak to go, and at some point Sissi will become a liability to the military,” Fahmy said.
“Most people would assume they wouldn’t be doing this unless they had some support directly from the security apparatus,” said Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University.
What are the key issues?
The economy is one of the primary reasons why support for el-Sissi has fallen among the public, Dunne said.
Egyptian Member of Parliament Dalia Youssef told CNN that “Egyptians understand that the seven years we’ve gone through [since the 2011 Arab Spring] were harsh, that we had to go through economic reform, and that we’re on our way forward and we still have a long way to go.”
Though she told the news network she was “happy” el-Sissi was poised to win the election, she added that “I think we need new names out there, we need new candidates.”
Though the state points to foreign direct investment and GDP growth to indicate that the economy is improving, critics say these developments were funded through an increase in foreign and domestic debt, high inflation and a cut in subsidies. The cost of basic foods has skyrocketed, Fahmy said.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are asking el-Sissi to cut expenditures and subsidies for more economic stability, but in the short term, “it lowers the standard of living for the average Egyptian if gasoline and other commodities cost more,” said Abrams.
If el-Sissi isn’t able to improve the lot of the average Egyptian and he becomes unpopular, it’s possible the army would remove him, Abrams added.
Something to watch: turnout, repression
International organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have called the elections “neither free nor fair.” And at least 150 leaders called for a boycott of the elections, the Washington Post reported, noting that low turnout in 2014 prompted the government to extend polling hours and establish a holiday to get more people to cast ballots.
El-Sissi’s plan to use this year’s election to demonstrate strength has backfired, Lynch said: Now, concerns about low turnout show weakness. In the weeks leading up to the election, pro-government media have urged the nation’s 60 million eligible voters to visit to polls to give the election legitimacy.
Dunne said voter turnout in this election will could indicate how effective the state is at mobilizing people to vote. Employers may try to mobilize voters within their companies, Dunne said, and in the past the Egyptian state has used distribution of food or benefits as an incentive to vote.
“A lower-than-expected turnout could suggest [el-Sissi] lacks a mandate to take more of the tough steps needed to revive the economy,” Reuters reported.
One thing to watch after the election is whether el-Sissi will move to make an effort in Egypt’s Parliament to amend the constitution to remove term limits, Abrams said.
El-Sissi has also shown he is capable of a great deal of brutality, Dunne said, and has closed off all forms of non-violent expression by the people, including formal politics, civil society, the media and the arts.
“2018 is not 2011,” Fahmy said, referring to the beginning of the uprisings to oust Mubarak. “We have very different circumstances. Sissi has built 16 new prisons, not schools, not civilian infrastructure. … The political and social landscape is much worse,” she said.
Between January and May 2017, security forces arrested 15 journalists, according to Amnesty International Security forces arrested 240 political activists between April and September for posting content considered insulting to the president or joining unauthorized protests. Other opponents disappear completely, and there has been a spike in extrajudicial killings over the past year.
The fear is that Egypt will become ungovernable, and that the country could regress to the point of violence or civil conflict, Fahmy said.
“Sissi has shown everyone through this election that it is not possible to bring change through the ballot box.” This drives people to enact change in other ways,” Dunne said, not ruling out the possibility of a violent uprising.
“But Egyptians are reluctant to go that way,” she said, citing el-Sissi’s use of force against peaceful demonstrators.
“You have the perfect tinderbox for a push for change,” said Fahmy, citing the political and economic landscape of the country. “The question now is: will Sissi recognize that he has to address this?”