Egypt's presidential election sparks a national conversation about the country's future

Although President Abdel Fattah El Sisi is expected a comfortable win if he runs, the vote is creating a political buzz unseen in the last decade

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi attends the 2023 Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Reuters
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Egypt's 2024 presidential elections is months away, but the approaching vote has given rise to a candid and spirited conversation around the nation's future. It is playing out against the backdrop of a crushing economic crisis and emboldened demands for political reform, according to politicians, commentators and activists.

While authorities continue to set boundaries for dissent, the level of tolerance they are showing for criticism of government policies would have been unthinkable just over a year ago.

The conversation around freedoms is a clear point of contention in Egypt, whether it is directly related to the elections, or motivated by authorities to defuse growing popular discontent over skyrocketing prices of food and other essential items.

But regardless of the motive, Egyptians are for now being treated to a level of freedom that - though carefully measured and closely monitored by authorities - has not been seen in a decade.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt's leader for the past 10 years, is yet to confirm whether he is running for another six-year term. It's almost certain that he will, and barring unforeseen circumstances, he is also poised for a comfortable win.

Even with the almost certain outcome of this election, the political buzz it is creating is dominating TV talk shows, newspaper columns and social media platforms, the main avenue of expression in Egypt in the past decade.

Many are openly criticising the government's perceived shortcomings, demanding a road map to beat the economic crisis, calling for more freedoms and urging Mr El Sisi to offer guarantees that the vote will be fair and transparent.

Commentators and politicians say that the explosion of popular politics offers a chance for Mr El Sisi and his government to embrace a credible electoral process that would erase memories of the 2018 vote, when the Egyptian leader ran against an obscure politician who entered the race at the last minute to prevent it from essentially becoming a one-man referendum of the type that Egypt had endured for decades.

Mr El Sisi's attempt at loosening his government's zero tolerance policy for dissent began in April last year when he called for a national dialogue, which began in May this year. It is mandated to make recommendations on Egypt's future, which are expected to be announced later this year.

Mr El Sisi has also ordered the release of hundreds of critics held in pretrial detention over the past year. Critics living in exile abroad were allowed to return home and criticism, albeit carefully measured, of the president's economic policies is somewhat tolerated. Some online news sites with critical content have become accessible again.

“The (political) climate has generally been eased. The tone of criticism is growing louder and louder, especially on social media,” said Negad Al Borai, a veteran rights campaigner and a member of the 19 national dialogue's board of trustees.

“But you cannot link this to the election because, at the end of the day, this will be a somewhat controlled election that will not produce any surprises,” added Mr Al Borai.

But despite the releases, many more journalists and activists remain behind bars.

Not everyone is optimistic or prepared to put their faith in the current government.

Khaled Dawoud, chief spokesman for the opposition, 12-party Civil Democratic Movement, questions the benefits gained from the ongoing political buzz. He is sceptical of the government's sincerity.

“It's a mixed bag. We cannot belittle the fact that many have been released from jail, but many more are still locked up and the arrests have not stopped. What we need is to fully resolve the issue of pretrial detention,” he said. “Additionally, we need to know that we can exercise our constitutional rights without fearing arrest.”

Beside political criticism, Mr El Sisi has responded to questions over his handling of the economy by seizing every available opportunity to boast that his time in office has seen Egypt morph into a modern state with reliable, cutting-edge roads, power stations and new cities.

He has also used the examples of the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of desert acres, the growing use of clean and renewable energy, modern modes of transport and an ambitious multi-billion dollar drive to improve the quality of life in rural areas as proof of the progress the country has made during his term.

That is exactly what the 68-year-old leader did in his latest address to the nation on June 30, sounding like a candidate for public office on the campaign trail.

“Many have been vexed as to the source of the popular will and resolve that transformed Egypt in a matter of a few years; from a nation facing a dangerous schism and the prospect of internal strife to a homogenous one where people enjoy priceless security and stability,” Mr El Sisi said, alluding to the 10 years since the military, then led by him, removed the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, from power.

Many of Mr El Sisi's achievements are beyond doubt, say his supporters, who insist that bread and fuel shortages predominant during the rule of past presidents have vanished with him at the helm. No power cuts, either, under Mr El Sisi's watch, they say, and security has been restored after years of turmoil that paralysed Egypt following the removals of Mr Morsi in 2013 and autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak before him.

“No one can question the sincerity of this regime regardless of its mistakes and shortcomings,” said Mustafa El Fiqi, a retired diplomat who served as an aide to Mubarak and is now an author, a regular talk show guest and a supporter of the president.

But even he was critical.

“The margin of freedom is below our expectations … people are in dire (economic) straits and there are always people who are building barriers that stop facts the president should know about from reaching him,” Mr El Fiqi said during a recent candid television interview.

Four politicians have already declared their intention to run for president, and several others have hinted that they would like to put themselves forward, but are waiting for the government to offer guarantees of a fair election. Those waiting in the wings include the only female candidate, veteran politician Gameela Ismail.

Three of the four candidates are known supporters of president El Sisi, something that raises the possibility of a partial repeat of the 2018 vote.

The fourth declared hopeful is outspoken former lawmaker Ahmed Al Tantawy, who claims that more than a dozen of his family members and supporters were detained when he announced his return home from exile in Lebanon two months ago.

One of the three other candidates is Abdel Sanad Yamamah, leader of the opposition Wafd party, arguably Egypt's oldest political force and the most influential in the first half of the last century. It will be the first time the liberal party has participated in presidential elections in more than a decade.

Mr Yamamah defended the government's proclaimed improvement on its rights record, saying: “I see that there is open opposition in many platforms and that there is movement on the front of expressing views, and that was not happening a year ago. The president has opened windows for freedoms that were once very tiny.”

Mr Yamamah's comments drew a sharp rebuke from the nation's most respected statesman, former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

“To praise the policies and the president and then run against him is political absurdity that Wafdists and their party must not be involved in,” Mr Moussa, a Wafd supporter himself, tweeted last week.

“Electing a head of state is a serious matter, not a joke,” said the 86-year-old career diplomat, who ran for president in 2012 but was eliminated when he came fifth in the first round.

It seems that what Mr Moussa was trying to achieve is to serve a warning against a repeat of the 2018 election, when Mr El Sisi's sole challenger – Moussa Mustafa Moussa – had no qualms about stating his unconditional support and admiration for the president during his campaign.

Mr El Sisi thanked him then for his “classy” performance after sweeping to a clear victory with 97.08 per cent of the votes.

Mohammed Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and a former member of parliament, was among several 2018 hopefuls who dropped out of the race, claiming they feared for the safety of their supporters.

He is pondering a run in the coming election, but has been reluctant to declare his candidacy.

In an open letter to President El Sisi published online late last month, he demanded guarantees to “safeguard the transparency and fairness of the election” and encourage hopefuls hesitant to announce their candidacy to come forward.

Some unlikely figures are also amongst those who have been emboldened by the approaching elections to put forward their demands to the government. Amr Adeeb, arguably the most popular TV talk show host in the Arab world, is one of them.

“We don't have an active political life. We need freedom and the ability to express ourselves and make change,” he said recently, arguing that current stability and security that Egypt enjoys denies the government an excuse to suppress freedoms.

“Let the fresh air in and let us talk and debate,” said Mr Adeeb, an avid El Sisi supporter.

Updated: July 20, 2023, 2:00 AM