A President of the Egyptian Military's Choosing

8 MINS READJan 24, 2018 | 16:07 GMT
A billboard in Cairo touts the re-election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As elections approach in March, his opponents from across the political spectrum have found themselves under pressure from the country's military council.

Egyptians drive past a billboard bearing the image of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, as part of the campaign for his re-election in the upcoming polls scheduled for March 2018, on January 22, 2018, in Cairo.

  • Military leaders, who remain firmly in control of Egypt's political system, are backing incumbent President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in an effort to provide continuity on economic and security reform.
  • Al-Sisi's popularity and the military council's ability to sideline serious competitors have made the outcome of March's presidential election basically a foregone conclusion.
  • Its practice of exerting heavy influence over which candidates can run in the elections could erode the military's ability to stifle popular dissent in the long term as it makes its controlling role more obvious.

In Egypt, where the military reigns supreme, a popular election looms in late March. Although the Supreme Council of Armed Forces remains the ultimate arbiter of power and authority over the government in Cairo, seven years ago, a surge of popular will shook its grip and shifted the Egyptian government. Since the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the subsequent ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, the military government has had to take popular pressure into account in ways it had not before, even as it tightens its hold on the overall governmental system.

Regardless of class or region, Egyptians in 2018 share similar concerns over the country's stagnant economy and growing security threats, and candidates running for president will argue over how to best address them. The military wants to ensure that whoever wins Egypt's 2018 presidential election can manage the popular dissent that has continued to simmer since the Arab Spring. Of the two presidential elections held since then, the military views 2012's as disastrous for ushering in Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood leader, who would be ousted by the military a year later, captured an unprecedented share of the first-round vote, 25 percent, against four other candidates and captured the presidency with a narrow 51.7 percent of the second-round vote. From the military's point of view, Egypt's course was righted when Abdel Fatah al-Sisi won the presidency in 2014. Al-Sisi's margin of victory (he captured 97 percent of the vote) was more typical of elections during Mubarak's era, as well of those under his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser. It is more likely that the 2018 result will more closely follow the pattern set in 2014 than in 2012, including a likely victory by al-Sisi, who has the military council's blessing.

Still, popular elections, even in a tightly controlled system like Egypt's, are a rare opportunity for a populace to air grievances, which Egyptians have in abundance. The depth of public discontent could destabilize the government if it weren't on firmer foundations, but fortunately for al-Sisi, the Egyptian system of governance is somewhat insulated from such pressures. Even though Mubarak fell following the powerful and unprecedented 2011 protests, the system did not fall with him. Shortly after Morsi's shocking victory in 2012, the military council amended the Egyptian Constitution, granting itself presidential and legislative powers, including veto powers over constitutional legislation it deems not representative of the country's interests. Many of these extra powers underscore the reality that the military government is even stronger now on paper than it was before 2011's surge of civilian dissent. The military and government institutions also maintain a heavy hand over popular media, and the continually renewed state of emergency gives the military legal cover to reinforce its grip.

Limiting the Voters' Options

Although Egypt's military cannot control who votes and for whom, it can limit who runs for office. It has been known to use intimidation or even legal charges to sideline candidates it deems undesirable. Late last month, army Col. Ahmed Konsowa, who had announced his candidacy for president, was sentenced to six years in prison for campaigning while still serving in the armed forces. Had the military council desired, though, it could have used a technicality to ignore the infraction and allowed him to run anyway. Another potential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era official who had run for president in 2012 and had expressed interest in running again in 2018, announced two weeks ago that he would not stand for election after all. It is widely thought that he had been warned that he would not be allowed to run.

The council's willingness to clear the playing field for al-Sisi was made even more apparent this week with the detention of Sami Annan, a former general and longtime military chief of staff under Mubarak. Annan, who had announced his 2018 candidacy mere hours after al-Sisi did, had been viewed as a strong challenger to the sitting president. During the five-minute speech announcing his candidacy, Annan made a direct attack on al-Sisi's administration, echoing critiques he had levied against the Egyptian government's counterterrorism strategy in recent years. With a military sheen and his background with the Mubarak administration (an era that many Egyptians now recall fondly, at least for its stability), Annan could have been a force to reckon with. But evidently, his penchant for criticism of the current administration proved too threatening for the military's leaders, leading to the decision to sideline him.

For many Egyptians, the lingering lesson of 2011 is the realization that they cannot be completely controlled by the system, and that they do have a voice.

Rumblings Over Oppression

When official campaigning begins Feb. 24, al-Sisi and a handful of contenders (more than 20 potential candidates have emerged, pending their ability to accrue the required 25,000 signatures to put them officially on the ballot) will spar over the economy, security, social issues and Egyptian foreign relations. Although no one contender could easily topple the incumbent al-Sisi, the campaign season will reveal some of the military council's uneasiness in being able to fully contain dissent behind the scenes in Egypt's political system. For many Egyptians, the lingering lesson of 2011 is the realization that they cannot be completely controlled by the system, and that they do have a voice. Those who have been successful in submitting their candidacies have complained about Egypt's oppressive political climate, grievances that tap a nerve among many Egyptians. One former candidate, the nephew of former President Anwar Sadat, withdrew his name from contention on Jan. 15, citing the environment of "fear" surrounding the elections. Two days later, current opposition candidate Khaled Ali complained that his campaign workers have been subject to systematic intimidation. These claims aren't lost on Egyptians, who, thanks to social media, can vent their displeasure about the government in a way unheard of before 2011.

True to the diversity of Egypt's 90 million-plus population, the presidential candidates who are running have wide-ranging appeal. In recent public appearances, al-Sisi, who announced his candidacy for re-election on Jan. 19, has focused on talking points that address Egyptians' expectations that the country's foundering economy and the terrorist threat will be addressed. Al-Sisi, of course, is following a strategy of courting votes based on successful security and economic policies. Befittingly, he announced his candidacy at the end of a conference focused on development projects in the Egyptian "homeland." As tightly controlled as the Egyptian government system currently is, al-Sisi retains real, true popularity. But he has struggled to come up with workable solutions for Egypt's security issues, and the increasing numbers of militant attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and in urban centers has created frustration among Egyptian civilians. This point of weakness for his administration will no doubt come under fire during the campaign, and was a talking point of Annan's before he was detained.

Likely Candidates Emerge

Among the candidates al-Sisi may face is celebrity lawyer Mortada Mansour, the owner of the Zamalek sporting club and a member of parliament, who has begun obtaining the required signatures for ballot access. Mansour has promised he would shut down Facebook in Egypt, an unpopular position among middle-class Egyptians but one that could attract favor from the military council and the rest of the government. In 2014's election, Mansour dropped out of the race to support al-Sisi, a maneuver that he could repeat in the upcoming campaign as well.

Human rights lawyer Ali, the independent firebrand and public protester extraordinaire, is perhaps the strongest representative of the secular opposition in the presidential field. (Another intriguing candidate who fits this category is professor Mona Price, but as a woman in Egypt, she faces another kind of uphill battle entirely.) The government, which is trying to nip Ali's candidacy in the bud, has brought charges against him that could disqualify him or lead to him dropping out. While Ali continues to fight those charges in court, his campaign has become a platform for revolutionary rhetoric popular with the secular educated youth and middle class in Egypt. But even in the post-2011 era, in which airing political dissent is allowed, direct condemnation of the government is barely tolerated and remains punishable by law, so Ali is walking a fine line. On Jan. 25, it will be evident whether Ali's campaign has the power to draw Egyptians to the streets. He has been encouraging people to march to commemorate the Arab Spring revolution and the civilian demands for better governance.

While the results of Egypt's presidential election are unlikely to shock anyone (al-Sisi is widely expected to win) the rhetoric uttered, the media coverage offered and the number of attendees at campaign events will signal who and what Egyptians are demanding. As the military council pushes al-Sisi forward as its one true option, it has demonstrated that it will pull out all the stops to intimidate and control the electoral playing field.


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