Egypt’s Undemocratic Election
Under Sisi’s iron fist, only one candidate is allowed to run.
If there was any doubt that Egypt’s upcoming presidential election will be neither free nor fair, the arrest of former military chief of staff Sami Anan shortly after announcing that he would run for president has made it crystal clear.
The March vote will in no way confirm President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s popularity among the Egyptian people. This election campaign is merely an extension of the internal power struggle among the military and the regime’s security services, and it has nothing to do with democratic mechanisms worthy of the name.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Anan returned to the political scene. In a video announcement that was released on his Facebook page after midnight, the Hosni Mubarak-era general declared his intention to run in the upcoming presidential election.
“From now on, [Sisi] is only a candidate among other candidates,” he stated in a confident and matter-of-fact tone, as if he were responding to the president’s threats made hours earlier against the “corrupt,” whom Sisi warned against trying to “come near this chair.”
Just a few days later, Sisi’s angry threats came to fruition. Anan was arrested on Tuesday morning after a statement attributed to the military was read on state television. It accused Anan of violating regulations by attempting to run for election without prior permission from the army and of “incitement against the armed forces with the aim of creating a rift” between the army and the Egyptian people. Sisi’s fears about even a semi-free electoral process, and his doubts about his chances against a candidate with Anan’s stature, were plain to see.
The president has been encouraging Egyptians to vote. “Choose whoever you want but vote,” he said during the same conference that was held before Anan announced he was entering the race. The cosmetic appearance of a democratic election is useful for his internal and international image as long as his victory is guaranteed.
The three days between Anan’s declaration and his arrest gave many activists a ray of hope and created excitement that hasn’t been seen in years. Nearly four years under Sisi have left many Egyptians so desperate that they saw another military general’s announcement as a positive sign, and it is hard to blame them. Years of extrajudicial arrests of activists and opponents, enforced disappearances and killings, lengthy political detentions, and plenty of prison and death sentences have left Egyptians craving an alternative. The silencing of dissidents has been accompanied, on the economic side, by price hikes and an inflation rate that exceeds 20 percent.
Anan had named two prominent figures as aides, Hisham Geneina and Hazem Hosny. The first is the former chief of a state anti-corruption body who was sacked by Sisi after claiming that the cost of corruption in state institutions had reached billions of dollars. The second is a prominent pro-democracy academic known for his sharp criticism of Sisi’s rule. Even Anan’s choice of words for his filmed declaration was praised by some as standing in stark contrast with Sisi’s patriarchal discourse (“Do not listen to anyone else but me,” the president once said in a speech). Anan repeatedly addressed his audience as “sovereigns in a sovereign homeland.”
But Anan comes from the very same armed forces that Sisi belongs to, just as his predecessors Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Gamal Abdel Nasser did. In the current moment of despair in Egypt, it seems easy to forget what everyone knows — that the army and its leadership have enjoyed an undemocratically privileged status and immunization from public or parliamentary accountability since Nasser and the Free Officers ousted the country’s monarchy in 1952.
The only civilian to make it to the presidential office in modern Egyptian history, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by the army in 2013 following mass protests against his rule. During his single year in office, Morsi constantly appeased the army and the police by praising them and turned a blind eye to their human rights violations, but it did not help him win the support of the powerful military and security services.
Anan’s political orientations and his stance on human rights have been clear ever since he served as second in command for the military council that ruled Egypt after Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and until Morsi was elected president in 2012. The council’s interim rule was marked by killings of protesters, virginity tests conducted on female opponents, and the infamous Maspero massacre in which armed military vehicles were seen driving into crowds of Coptic Orthodox Christians.
Anan’s candidacy and the abrupt way in which it was shut down could be an indicator of divisions among the security agencies: the police, the homeland security agency, the army, military intelligence, and the general intelligence service. Anan’s announcement to run was foreshadowed earlier in the same week by Sisi’s decision to oust the head of the General Intelligence Service and appoint a loyalist to temporarily lead the spy agency. Sisi was a longtime chief of the military intelligence service before he became defense chief and then president. Many observers have speculated that there is a power struggle between a military intelligence staff that is loyal to Sisi and the General Intelligence Service, which may not be. Sisi seems to be succeeding in infiltrating the latter body with his loyalists. His son currently holds a position in the General Intelligence Service, and he reportedly accompanied his recently ousted boss on a visit to Washington.
It is hard to know with accuracy the details of the relationships among security agencies given the lack of transparency about state institutions in Egypt. But one cannot ignore the abrupt reshuffles that recently took place within them or the awkward incident of yet another high-ranking Mubarak-era military official, Ahmed Shafik, announcing his intention to run for president and then mysteriously retreating a few weeks later.
Anan likely made sure that he had some support from within the regime’s power circles before announcing his presidential bid, but his candidacy is now increasingly uncertain. Just as his initial announcement never reflected true democratic competition, his arrest demonstrates that military and security agencies with little accountability are resolving their internal differences by putting forward candidates to create the facade of a democratic election. The Egyptian people do have some agency, but they are not allowed to know what is going on inside these decision-making circles.
A small but influential group of pro-democracy activists tried to cling to the electoral process as a narrow window of opportunity. By supporting a third candidate, the human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, they aimed to use the election to open up the crippled political sphere and create a space for youth and democrats in politics.
The arrest of Anan pushed Ali to announce his withdrawal from the race. Ali’s campaign team was already enduring a crackdown and continuous obstacles, especially from the state bureaucratic bodies through which he had to complete the 25,000 official endorsement forms that were legally required for his candidacy.
Ali’s popularity was always limited. He won less than 1 percent of the vote when he ran in 2012. This popularity might have increased after he filed a famous lawsuit against Sisi’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, arguably given up in return for Saudi aid and support. Even so, he never posed a serious electoral threat to Sisi. Anan was the serious challenger, and like Shafik, he had to be stopped.
Anan’s arrest proves yet again that there will be no hope for democratization in Egypt without a dismantling of the regime’s kleptocratic powers and a radical reformation of the security agencies that have immunized themselves from real public oversight and accountability for decades.
Many committed democrats tried to be optimistic when Morsi was ousted in 2013. They wanted to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist conservatism was gone and that Sisi wouldn’t dare to defy the people’s will again after he saw them take to the streets en masse in 2011 and 2013. They learned the hard way that they were wrong — that military rule is military rule and that a regime where the security agencies call the shots is the antithesis of democracy.