by Neville Teller

            If all goes according to plan, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will be re-confirmed in office before the end of the year, and will – heaven willing – be in power until 2030 at least.  Whether he will then retire gracefully from the political scene, only time will tell.  When he was last re-elected, in 2018, Egypt’s constitution specified that the president could serve no more than two terms, each of four years.  But constitutions can be amended.  By 2019 any president of Egypt could serve three terms, and the presidential term of office was extended to six years.

   On September 30 the Egyptian public could not avoid the launch of a three-day government-backed national conference titled “The Story of a Homeland”, broadcast in its entirety by the Extra News TV channel, which is reputed to have close links to Egyptian security agencies.  The event was staged at the Al-Massa Hotel in the prestigious New Administrative Capital, under the patronage and in the presence of the president, with the country’s leading politicians and a large number of representatives of Egyptian society in attendance.

It was toward the end of the event, during which a range of projects implemented over the past 9 years had been heavily promoted, that Sisi announced that he would be standing as a candidate in the forthcoming presidential election.  His term of office would not end officially until March 2024, but he had decided to bring the vote forward by six months. 

In the hours leading up to Sisi’s announcement, correspondents reported patriotic music blaring from speakers across the capital, where convoys of buses shrink-wrapped with campaign slogans blocked major streets.  The sails of boats on the Nile were emblazoned with Sisi’s photo and with slogans including “yes to stability”.

The National Elections Authority has stipulated that the presidential election will be held over three days – December 10-12 ­– with the result being announced on December 18.   In the unlikely event of no candidate receiving more than 50% of the vote (in 2018 Sisi was reported to have secured 97%), a runoff would be held over January 8-10.

The qualification criteria for aspiring presidential candidates are formidable. Anyone wishing to stand must secure the backing of either 20 members of parliament or at least 25,000 members of the public drawn from 15 different governorates.  All nominations had to be registered by October 14. 

Opposition politician Ahmed al-Tantawi, acknowledged to be Sisi’s most formidable opponent, said early on that he will run, and accused security agencies of arresting some of his supporters. 

Other candidates announcing their bids include Farid Zahran, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party; Abdel-Sanad Yamama, head of the Wafd Party; and Gameela Ismail, head of the liberal Constitution (Dostour) Party.

Opposition parties said that individuals seeking to support anti-Sisi candidates have been obstructed from doing so. During a press conference on October 4, individuals provided details  of how they had been blocked in various ways.          Rania el-Sheik said she had been trying to register to support Tantawi when a scuffle broke out at the notary’s office provoked, she said, by “thugs”. “In every place, public employees have pre-determined reasons [for obstructing the process]” she declared. “The system is down, the internet isn’t working, the power is cut, your ID card isn’t showing for us.”

          Tantawi’s campaign team has complained that people trying to register support for him have been blocked, and that more than 80 of his supporters have been arrested. Tantawi himself has repeatedly accused the regime of harassing and detaining his supporters, preventing them from filing nominations and tapping his phone. His campaign has been posting videos of him accompanying supporters to registry offices.

          “In the end, they won‘t be able to say ‘sorry, you don’t have enough nominations’,” he told supporters.

          Magdy Hamdan, a Conservative Party official, said he was also blocked from submitting his endorsement at one notary’s office. When he tried to enter a second, a group of men brought in some rubbish collectors and beggars and began spraying them – and him – with water.

          Egypt’s National Election Authority has said it has investigated complaints and that such allegations are baseless. The final list of qualified candidates will be released on November 9.

          Egypt is in the midst of an economic crisis. Record inflation and a shortage of foreign currency has caused the Egyptian pound to lose more than 50% of its value against the dollar in the last 18 months. Foreign debt has soared to a record high of $165.4 billion this year, which experts say has been largely used to fund a range of megaprojects including the new $58-billionNew Administrative Capital. In consequence the country’s external debt bill has tripled in the past ten years, and about half the 2023/24 budget is allocated to debt servicing.

          Prior to the crisis, roughly 30% of the population was already living below the poverty line, with an additional 30% considered vulnerable to poverty. More recently Egypt has been hit hard from the fallout from the war in Ukraine. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, and has traditionally purchased most of its grain from eastern Europe.

          These are not circumstances in which any democratic government would choose to go to the country. Given the choice, most would strive to put a package of reform measures in place in the hope of improving matters. One reason why Sisi might have decided on an early election (thus depriving himself of six months in power) is that he adjudged that by March 2024 the situation is likely to have become worse rather than better, with a consequential loss of public support. On the other hand economic relief might be forthcoming from a deal with the US. Word has it that the US might waive a chunk of debt repayment in exchange for Egypt agreeing to allow a certain number of Gazan refugees into Egypt by way of the Rafah crossing.

          Given his grip on power, Sisi will certainly win his third term in office, but he knows that a long, hard, uphill struggle lies ahead.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."