Voice of Egypt's opposition grows louder as presidential election nears

Largest coalition says wholesale change is needed for country to recover from economic crisis

All indications are that Abdel Fattah El Sisi will run for president again in Egypt's elections next year. AFP
Powered by automated translation

The voice of Egypt's political opposition is increasing in volume, with the largest coalition of pro-democracy parties saying change is the only way out of the economic crisis crushing the most populous Arab state.

Emboldened by carefully measured freedom granted by the government, an unusually outspoken statement by the coalition is focused on the economy and the need for next year's presidential election to be a genuine contest on a level playing field, with opposition candidates allowed to campaign freely and without bias in the media's election coverage.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has yet to say whether he intends to seek a third term in office. However, all indications suggest he will.

Pro-government parties are voicing support for Mr El Sisi to run for another term. Loyal talk show hosts are pouring lavish praise on his achievements while demonising his critics or likely challengers. Giant street billboards, paid for by his supporters, declare the Egyptian leader the safest pair of hands to move the country forward and protect it. At least a dozen Facebook pages in support of Mr El Sisi have cropped up in recent days.

Re-election would extend Mr El Sisi's presidency to 16 years, the second longest after the 29 years Hosni Mubarak held office before he was forced to step down by a popular uprising in 2011.

“The forthcoming election offers a rare and real opportunity to effect a peaceful and democratic shift that safeguards the nation against social explosions whose outcome, if they do happen, will be unpredictable,” the 11-party opposition coalition said in its statement.

“We demand change because it has become an urgent necessity to pluck the nation out of its economic, social, cultural and political slumps.”

The statement made no mention of Mr El Sisi by name and did not contain any language to suggest it was advocating an uprising.

Ahmed Tantawi, a former politician who has declared his intention to run for president, echoed the idea that change was needed to spare Egypt's 105 million people from damaging upheaval.

“We are campaigning to head off an inevitable explosion that's destined to take place if the status quo remains unchanged,” Mr Tantawi wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Mr El Sisi has made security and the economy his top priorities since taking office in 2014.

He oversaw the fight against terrorist attacks that swept the country in the years immediately after the ousting in 2013 of president Mohamed Morsi. He also engineered a multibillion-dollar drive to overhaul infrastructure and build cities, including a new capital in the desert east of Cairo and another on the Mediterranean that now serves as the summer seat of the government.

His government has significantly expanded the nation's road network, contracted a Russian company to build Egypt's first nuclear power station and Germany's Siemens to build several state-of-the-art power stations. He has introduced new and clean modes of transport, including a Cairo monorail and a fast train linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. New seaports have been built and the existing rail service, accident-prone and suffering from decades of neglect and abuse, is undergoing a major overhaul.

Mr El Sisi says his government is not responsible for the economic crisis – record inflation, the loss of half of the Egyptian pound's value and a damaging foreign currency crunch – which he blames entirely on the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.

He has also blamed Egypt's rapid population growth.

He has repeatedly said the mega infrastructure projects were sorely needed after decades of negligence and that they prepared the country, especially in the case of power, roads and ports, for an inflow of new investment.

However, his critics insist many of the projects were unnecessary or could have waited until key sectors such as education and health – both in a poor state – were improved first.

“The only way (there is no other) to pull through Egypt's economic and other problems … is for the Egyptian state to embrace the deep, wise, practical and tried popular proverb of 'better leave making bread for the baker even if he eats half of it',” prominent commentator and author Ibrahim Issa wrote this week on X, in a thinly veiled criticism of the perceived sidelining of the private sector and the military's heavy involvement in economic activity.

But Egypt's opposition parties are perennially divided, often squabbling over ideology or their response to authorities. And while the economic difficulties faced by most Egyptians could potentially make them ready to vote for a change of direction, they have little faith in the opposition and can barely stomach a fresh round of turmoil at a time when they are only just recovering from the years of instability since the 2011 uprising.

Mr El Sisi also continues to enjoy a respectable level of popular support, according to experts, including key demographics such as women and the large Christian community. His patriotic rhetoric and frequent warnings against instability also resonate with many Egyptians.

“The coming presidential election is the only available window available to the Egyptian people to bring peaceful change,” wrote Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University and a key opposition figure. “It will be a death sentence for the political [opposition] elite if it is unable to organise its ranks to seize this opportunity."

Mr El Sisi's only opponent in the last election in 2018 was an obscure politician who openly supported the president and never criticised his policies.

Updated: September 12, 2023, 4:43 PM