Authoritarian elections are rarely cliffhangers. In fact, the defining feature of an authoritarian regime is that its leadership and fundamental direction lie beyond electoral contestation. But elections can offer insight into some of the inner workings of a regime — however unattractive they might be.
Egypt’s 2018 presidential election is certainly authoritarian since any viable candidate other than the incumbent, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been harshly hounded from political life. At this point only al-Sisi and one other candidate — an utterly marginal figure who, before being shoved into the contest, was an al-Sisi supporter — are on the ballot. This arrangement will only add to the dullness of an electoral campaign whose outcome is certain. The main question about the election is whether and when the constitution will be amended to allow al-Sisi to seek a third term in 2022.
Yet the electoral process has revealed how the current Egyptian regime is consolidating itself. This election differs from some previous ones, in which the regime had negotiated (or imposed) terms on its political opposition in order to limit contestation. Instead, this election communicates that there is no legitimate opposition. It also indicates something about the regime’s inner workings. The unmistakable sounds of a clash among key institutions seem to indicate that the presidency is struggling to re-establish its dominance in the Egyptian state. It may win in a way that consolidates the regime in the short run, but not in a way that offers an attractive long-term path for the country.
Lessons Learned After 2011
In the authoritarian system that evolved under presidents Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, elections were always on schedule — and even ahead of schedule when the Supreme Constitutional Court forced the dissolution of two parliaments. Those parliamentary elections allowed independent and opposition party candidates to run. The precise rules were in constant flux, determined by regime interests (in coaxing in some opposition actors, excluding others, and always leaving the regime a majority in parliament), court rulings (especially the Supreme Constitutional Court’s insistence on preserving a role for independents), and opposition parties (which constantly threatened boycotts to undermine the reputation of the elections, sometimes obtaining minor concessions).
This system extended to Mubarak’s final presidential election in 2006. Previous elections had offered Egyptians only a single candidate, but in 2005, a second candidate was allowed to enter. This system was carefully designed to allow opposition to run but ensured that it would lose.
Only in parliamentary and presidential votes in 2011 and 2012 did Egypt’s elections have uncertain results. However, the authoritarian regime that has been constructed since 2013 is not about to allow such competitiveness. Political opposition — and indeed, most politics — has been suppressed harshly. Parliamentary deputies elected in 2015 compete to enshrine the regime’s authoritarian impulses in legislation. The regime chose a parliamentary speaker who keeps a tight hold on the body in case an oppositional thought crosses a wayward deputy’s mind. Demonstrations, dissent in the press, coverage of the Sinai insurgency, and even criticism of some state officials or bodies are now crimes.
Changes in the State
Mubarak’s fall and the tumult of 2011-2013 altered the way the Egyptian state functions. Key state actors — the judiciary, the military, sectors of the internal security apparatus, the religious establishment — escaped the presidency’s control and realized autonomy. When the military leadership designated one of its own to be elected president in 2014, a restored presidency returned to Egyptian political life. But the relationship between the presidency and these state institutions — even the military — was unclear. Since then, Egyptian politics has consisted of the jockeying among these institutions.
The presidency is gradually rebuilding itself. The judiciary is somewhat subdued after purges and personnel changes. While still capable of defying regime wishes sometimes, leading judicial actors now to understand that an excessively bold ruling might be their last. In the security apparatus, the presidency seems to be slowly making personnel changes to ensure that loyalists staff the top ranks.
This explains some of the peculiarities of the 2018 presidential campaign. Potential civilian challengers were harassed by security forces or threatened with legal action. One was charged with using an obscene gesture in a public protest and is now engaged in potentially disqualifying legal proceedings. More ominously, two prominent former generals were detained (one illegally, the other by the military itself) to be kept off the ballot. A prominent former judge and head of the State Audit Bureau, who had signed up with one campaign, was beaten and then arrested for his public statements.
The Presidency’s Position
In February, al-Sisi addressed a large crowd, including many military officers, in a tone that seemed edgy, angry, and menacing. While the tone and content unnerved some observers, the rhetoric and actions seem to suggest that the regime is struggling to maintain control of the state. However, the opacity of current struggles renders any judgment difficult. But it seems more likely that the presidential efforts are succeeding, at least for now. The noise of the efforts to ensure that there is less a presidential election than a ratification of another al-Sisi term could well be the sounds of regime consolidation.
A presidency that spent four years eliminating politics is now curtailing some of the autonomous power centers within the Egyptian state. Egypt’s international interlocutors fall into two groups: those who embrace this change and those who are resigned to it. If — as those in the latter camp fear — Egypt’s political trajectory offers little more to do than disguise the insurgency, polarization, poverty, and stagnation that still afflict the country, western powers may wish they had crafted a different approach.
Dr. Nathan J. Brown is a Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs and the Department of Political Science at George Washington University (GWU). Brown also serves as Director of GWU’s Institute for Middle East Studies. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Policy.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP