Economic overhaul looms for El Sisi after unprecedented turn-out in Egyptian elections

Unofficial forecasts say the leader secured 95 per cent of the vote

An Egyptian woman casts her vote at a polling station in the Zamalek district of Egypt's capital Cairo during the presidential elections. AFP
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With the elections out of the way, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi will now have to turn his attention to the challenges of overhauling an economy being devastated by record inflation, a depreciating currency and a crippling foreign currency crunch.

Three days of voting closed on Tuesday night. The National Election Commission said turn-out was unprecedented and forecast that it would stand at about 45 per cent when all votes are counted.

There are 67 million registered voters in Egypt, a country of 105 million people. The election's final result will be announced on December 18. Unofficial forecasts in some local media say Mr El Sisi has secured a landslide victory with up to 95 per cent of the vote.

Mr El Sisi, first elected in 2014, is virtually certain to secure a comfortable win against the three relatively unknown politicians who challenged him. When his win is officially announced, and barring any unforeseen circumstances, the 69-year-old will rule Egypt until 2030.

By then, he will have served 16 years in office. Under the constitution, he is not allowed to seek re-election in 2030. The president's ability to run for a third term was secured by constitutional amendments proposed in 2018 by a parliament packed with his supporters.

The changes, adopted in a nationwide referendum in 2019, extended presidential terms from four to six years but kept at two the number of terms a president can serve. A clause added to the constitution, however, disregarded the four years Mr El Sisi served between 2014 and 2018.

The election, Mr El Sisi's third, was a mostly lacklustre affair since it was held with most Egyptians preoccupied with the Israel-Gaza war next door and the economic crisis that has decimated the poor and the middle class.

With the outcome virtually a foregone conclusion, the focus of Mr El Sisi's campaign was to secure a decent turn-out that could be used as a renewed mandate for the president to tackle the nation's economic woes.

The powerful state and pro-El Sisi media launched an all-out campaign to portray voting as a national duty and the election as a symbol of Egypt's democracy and the patriotism of its people, a narrative repeated by the president's three challengers.

A social media blitz by supporters of Mr El Sisi emphasised Egypt's need for his years of experience at the helm and praised his leadership at a time when Egypt faced a multitude of crises.

That Egypt is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in living memory has been explained away by supporters as part of a global phenomenon caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. The crisis, they insist, cannot be blamed on Mr El Sisi's government.

But with a majority of Egyptians struggling to make ends meet in the face of soaring prices, Mr El Sisi's government is likely to be hesitant to introduce a new round of reforms such as raising taxes or reducing state subsidies on utilities such as electricity.

This leaves a multibillion rescue package from Egypt's regional and international allies as a highly likely solution to the crisis. Analysts believe extending such a package is justified given that Egypt's economy has to various degrees been hit by war or instability in all of its four neighbours: Sudan, Libya, Gaza and Israel.

Egypt, for example, needs more than $40 billion in 2024 to service its staggering $165 billion in foreign debt. It may also have to devalue its currency for the fourth time since March 2022 to meet the IMF's demand for a genuinely flexible foreign exchange regime.

Also awaiting action is meeting the IMF's demand that the footprint of the state and the military in the economy is significantly reduced, thus allowing the private sector to participate more actively in the economy.

A $3 billion IMF programme reached late last year has gone off track over Egypt's reluctance to float its currency and delays in the privatisation of state assets. All three main rating agencies, meanwhile, have downgraded Egypt's sovereign rating further into junk territory.

Significantly, Egyptians this week are bitterly complaining about the soaring prices of basic food items such as sugar and onions. Moreover, media reports said daily power cuts lasting up to two hours were due to return on Wednesday after their suspension during the three-day election.

“Egypt is too big to be allowed to fail,” said a senior international banker based in Egypt. “But not allowing it to fail is costing more and more with every passing day.”

Updated: December 13, 2023, 3:48 PM