Egypt’s Elections Give Sisi Chance to Tighten Grip

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Cairo, Egypt, October 10, 2015. (Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty Images)

Two years after the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of President Mohammed Morsi, and nearly three years since the dissolution of the country’s parliament, Egypt is scheduled to hold a new round of legislative elections. But the polls hold very little prospect for real political reform because the Brotherhood and a number of other opposition parties will not participate. With a large number of those contesting the election being pro-military and supportive of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the votes will likely only serve to consolidate his power.

The election will also be a drawn-out affair. Voting in governorates in the west, center, and south will begin tomorrow for voters abroad and on Sunday for voters within the country. A second phase will be held for Egyptians abroad from November 21 and on November 23 for voters in Egypt. Each phase will be followed by a run-off. The second phase will be the key voting period with the densely populated Nile Delta governorates and capital going to the polls.

According to outside observers, the election comes at a time of increasing uncertainty about the future of Egypt. Domestic media reports and statements from pro-regime parties and the military instead paint a picture of a country in a state of recovery. It is also supposedly one in which the state is taking a firm hand on critical security issues, chiefly the conflict in the Sinai Peninsula and rising Islamist extremism, and succeeding in leading the economy recovery. The election period is being presented as a major success, but is in fact merely papering over the cracks.

The forthcoming 596-seat House of Representatives will serve, at least in theory, as a check on the powerful executive branch of Egypt’s government. The legislature has the power to review all laws passed by Sisi since 2013. Under current circumstances, such an oversight mechanism is important, since Sisi has passed, introduced, or amended dozens of articles of legislation since 2014. However, its usefulness is hamstrung by the short timeframe within which the new legislature can review the various articles of law.

Egypt’s 2014 constitution grants the house a mere 15 days after it convenes to review all legislation. During this period it is highly unlikely that the parties will agree on which pieces of legislation to debate and review, let alone challenge. While there are stipulations outlining that legislation needs to be approved by the House of Representatives, laws passed by Sisi will likely remain in place well after the polls, given that the house is expected to be strongly in his favor. In the unlikely event that the House does challenge the validity of the laws or refuses to acknowledge those passed in the previous year, Sisi’s influence over the judiciary means any legal challenges could be overturned.

The House is expected to be dominated by groups that supported the military overthrow and banning of the Brotherhood, and are openly pro-Sisi. At a rally in the city of Qena earlier this month, one of the main coalitions running, the For the Love of Egypt coalition, was clear in its view of its role in the forthcoming legislature, namely to support the president in his plans for developing the country. Another major coalition, which is expected to fare well, is the Egyptian Front of Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. In addition, these and other coalitions are acquiring the support or membership of former members of the Mubarak-era ruling National Democratic Party, which was essentially an extension of the military, with numerous former senior officers joining it after retirement.

The Islamists, meanwhile, will be severely underrepresented. The Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organization and banned in 2013 and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, was dissolved and its members barred from running in national elections, in 2014. The second-largest Islamist group, at least on paper, is the al-Nour Party. This Salafist party will participate in the polls but it is not expected to achieve the large support it obtained during the 2011/2012 poll, when it garnered just over 7 million votes, placing it second behind the Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance for Egypt. The party’s support for Sisi has lost it some backing from its base.

The absence of the Brotherhood is significant: It received over 10 million votes (or 37.5%) during the 2011-2012 legislative election and continues to have wide and deep support among the Egyptian electorate, despite its current leadership frailties and banned status. Its ability to organize has been hampered, but it would be fair to say a large proportion of the voting public will feel participation in the polls is pointless. Some Brotherhood supporters will cast votes for Islamist candidates, but an overwhelming turnout during the vote, as was seen in the previous poll, is not expected and may well serve to delegitimize the election and the future legislature, even further.

The Islamist bloc has been severely undermined and eroded since 2013. Hundreds of Brotherhood and other opposition leaders are in jail or have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Demonstrations calling for Morsi’s release continue to be quashed and there are no signs of any impending negotiations that could end the impasse.

It is no surprise that Egypt is facing several pressing security concerns. The well-documented conflict  in the Sinai Peninsula continues and the threat of terrorism in urban centers remains elevated. Militants in both theaters, which include individuals linked to the Brotherhood and the so-called Islamic State, differ slightly on ideology but are united in their opposition to the military-backed regime. This polarization and tension can likely only be resolved through dialogue and eventually compromise and reform. However, with such deep divisions in Egyptian society and a large portion of the Egyptian polity, which has granted the military the mandate to stabilize the country and eliminate what it sees as threats, any detente is not anticipated.

The Sisi regime is expected to present the next House of Representatives as another step in Egypt’s transition back to stability and order. Many of the same faces ousted during the 2011 Arab Spring will again present themselves to the Egyptian public. The military, long viewed as a bulwark against instability and the “Islamist threat,” will benefit the most from a new parliament and from a president who wields considerable power and influence, including over the judiciary.

Egypt’s foreign allies, many Western, are also likely to hail the vote and congratulate the regime, as they did after Sisi’s 2014 presidential victory. These plaudits would in turn mask a long-term threat of a large pool of frustrated Egyptians who feel their 2011 revolution was hijacked and their hard-fought liberties curtailed, in turn providing new support for extremist viewpoints.