On Egyptian democracy: it would be a good idea

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Earlier this month Egypt’s authorities announced the dates for the nation’s next presidential poll. Yet before the starting pistol has been fired, the winner seems not in doubt. The country’s current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, will almost certainly be his nation’s next president. A growing list of potential candidates has either withdrawn their bids or has seen them blocked. The man with the best chance of tapping the discontent in the Arab world’s most populous nation had been Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general who narrowly lost the country’s only free presidential election in 2012. His lawyer took to Twitter to claim that the government had forced him to pull out.

This is a profoundly depressing but wholly expected turn of events in Egypt. Now the main threat from within the establishment is a former military chief of staff, though doubts linger over whether he will end up on the ballot. The army is reported to be secretly buying up private media groups to back a Sisi presidential run. All the signs point to the election being little more than a rerun of the 2014 poll, when Mr Sisi won 96% of the vote. Ludicrously, Mr Sisi’s opponent in that two-person contest finished third behind the spoiled ballots. Mr Sisi, a former head of the army, is coy about running again but everyone expects he will.

 

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Egypt is at present a sham democracy. Real power resides with the army, which has lurked in the shadows but overseen an often brutal crackdown on opponents since 2013. The military came to power by toppling the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and killing more than 800 protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump lavishes praise on Mr Sisi’s government. Thankfully the US State Department has fingered its “unlawful killings and torture”. Last week Egyptian authorities executed five inmates – four of whom had links with the Muslim Brotherhood – despite credible claims of them having unfair trials. This looks like a warning to rivals that Egyptian politics is deadly rather than deadly serious.

 

Western political leaders should fear that Egypt is in danger of becoming a failed state. They are wrong to turn a blind eye to Mr Sisi’s excesses. His hardline policies have been the midwife to the birth of violent militant organisations. Terrorists have struck at both security and civilian targets with bombings and high-profile assassinations. In Sinai, a war of Mr Sisi’s own making has soaked the sand with blood and provided a redoubt for Islamic State.

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was the high point of the Arab spring. It offered the opportunity for the Egyptian state to include the citizenry in the decision-making process by liberalising politics. Mr Sisi has instead pushed through painful austerity measures while putting society in a stranglehold. Democratic politics would have ensured that there would have been some public buy-in for the bitter economic medicine Egyptians have had to swallow in recent months. A currency devaluation has led to steep price hikes in essentials and the country is mired in debt. Predictably Egypt was one of four nations out of 115 surveyed by Gallup where the public rated their lives worse every year since 2014.

Mr Sisi should be concerned about what is going on in his country. Yet he seems absorbed in monuments to himself: a new administrative capital city is hardly the most pressing of Egypt’s problems given poverty rates have jumped 25% in two years. When people see their lives headed in the wrong direction, they want to be able to effect change. Egypt’s presidential election should give voters a chance to do so.

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