Egyptian election appears wide open. Appearances are deceptive.

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (right) greets Copts at the new "Nativity of Christ" Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. Photo: The Egyptian Presidency / Handout via Reuters

Sensational stories have been making the news in Egypt, ahead of upcoming presidential elections set for 26-28 March 2018. To date, the list of presidential hopefuls includes three officers, a lawyer, and the nephew of a former president.

Western media have described several of these individuals as “potentially serious challengers” to incumbent President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who will be running for a second term. Two months before election day, however, most of the figures touted have withdrawn their candidacy or been disqualified, likely keeping the race — barring any surprises between now and the end of January — between Sisi and his long-time friend and colleague, General Sami Anan.

Born in 1948, Anan is a retired, old-school officer, known and respected by the Egyptian public since the mid-1990s. Trained at military schools in both Egypt and the Soviet Union, he steadily rose up the professional ladder, becoming Commander of Egyptian Air Defense in 2001, then Chief-of-Staff of the Egyptian Army in 2005, a job for which he was hand-picked by the then-President Hosni Mubarak.

Half a million troops were under Anan’s command when the anti-Mubarak revolution broke out in January 2011, but he happened to be on a work trip in the United States. On returning home, he managed to survive the political upheaval, taking a historical decision — along with 18 top generals — to facilitate the long-time president’s resignation on 11 February.

Anan served as vice-chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed  Forces until the summer of 2012, when he was retired by Egypt’s new president, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who hated Anan and his generation of Egyptian officers. Anan took a back seat, before re-emerging five years later as a presidential hopeful.

In many ways, he reminds Egyptians of better times and has escaped the whiff of corruption, nepotism, or autocracy. The officer class thinks fondly of him and so does the President, who has neither objected to his presidential bid nor aborted it, causing some tongues in Cairo to wag to the effect that – far from being a contender – Anan is actually being sponsored by Egyptian officialdom, with the aim of making the Sisi regime look democratic.

FILE PHOTO: Egypt's former army chief of staff Sami Anan speaks during a news conference at his office in Cairo, March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File photo

Egypt’s former army chief-of-staff Sami Anan. Photo: Reuters / Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Other nominees have not been so lucky, of course. Ex-MP Mohammad Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of former slain president Anwar al-Sadat, was nudged into withdrawing his candidacy after being held up by Egyptian security at Cairo Airport. “We will not fight a losing battle” he
said to his supporters, ending his presidential bid.

The second walkout was registered by Ahmad Shafik, a senior army officer turned one-month prime minister under Mubarak, who ran for president against Morsi back in 2012. Shafik fled to the UAE when Morsi threatened to have him locked up on charges of corruption, and it was from there that he announced his decision to run for president in November. Seemingly, however, that angered his Arab hosts, who are on excellent terms with President Sisi. He was subsequently deported to Cairo, where he is presently being held under dignified house arrest at the Marriot Hotel.

Many believed Shafik would have been a serious candidate, recalling that he won 12.3 million votes back in 2012. He campaigned on “stability” and on his war medals in the second Arab-Israeli war, of 1973.

A third candidate, Khaled Ali, has not been disqualified yet, but will be if his challenge against a conviction for making an “obscene” hand gesture after winning a court case against the government in 2016 is not upheld. He took part in the 2012 election and hopes to do so again,  “despite unfair competition conditions.”

Even with the right support banked, the major challenge remains of how to mobilize the Egyptian Street, which is kept under the watchful eye of the military and security services

A fourth candidate, Colonel Ahmad Konsowa, has also been crossed off after he was was recently jailed for posting a video of himself online in which, attired in military uniform, he expressed views critical of the government. His lawyer explained: “Konsowa is still a member of the  armed forces and affirms that he is proud of his services. He is not a rebel or a defector. He put himself forward as a candidate, as did Sisi.” The reference to Sisi alludes to the president’s announcement that he would run for office back in March 2014 – when he, like Konsowa, was still an army officer.

For any of these figures to make it to the final race, they need the backing of 20 parliamentarians, and/or the support of 25,000 eligible voters from acrosss at least 15 different Egyptian governorates. Ahmad Shafik would have been able to obtain such backing. So too, probably, would Sadat and Ali, but Konsowa, who is an obscure officer and no match for the seasoned generals and politicians, would not.

Even with the right support banked, though, the major challenge remains of how to mobilize the Egyptian Street, which is kept under the watchful eye of the military and security services. The media, meanwhile, remains in the hands of Egyptian officialdom and is campaigning aggressively for Sisi.

The Muslim Brotherhood, previously the most powerful force in the
country, was practically annihilated in 2013. The Salafi al-Nour Party remains an active player but is also greatly weakened. Sisi only agreed to give it a lifeline in return for help getting rid of Morsi.

Egyptian Copts will vote for Sisi – so terrified are they by the rise of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, and the likelihood that, with him gone, jihadis would overrun Egypt. As will millions of other Egyptians, young and old, who dislike the idea of compounding the crippling economic instability that has plagued Egypt since 2011.

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