It would be a significant stretch to call Egypt’s recent election competitive. There were only two candidates on the ballot: current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and one of Sisi’s supporters. It would also be difficult to describe the environment in Egypt in the run up to the polls as free and fair, when several candidates dropped out of the race, citing the closed environment. Two of them were actually detained by the authorities.
Preliminary unconfirmed figures reported from Egypt’s state media on March 29 indicated that around 42 percent of the public turned out to vote during the elections, which were held from March 26 to March 28, as compared to the state’s reported 47.5 percent in 2014, the last presidential election. Of those voters, 92 percent voted for Sisi, with a number of news reports indicating strong state efforts to mobilize voters. Opposition groups claimed the exercise was unfair. Indeed, spoiled ballots reportedly exceeded the number of ballots cast for Sisi’s challenger by more than two to one—an even greater share than in 2014.
Rather than look at this as another step in some kind of pluralistic democratic transition in Egypt, it may be more fruitful to look to what comes next instead.
The best way to think about Sisi’s new term, his second, is as an extension of his first. Because of strong support within most state institutions for the incumbent, there was no doubt either inside or outside Egypt that he would remain president. Few expect any policy resets, like a call to open up space in civil society or developing larger social security nets for the country’s most vulnerable. The priorities for Sisi’s second term remain the same as the first: the economy and security.
A second term for Sisi also means he will begin to seriously consider who will follow him. He could groom a successor—who that would be is anyone’s guess at the moment. Or he could accept that someone he does not support could take the reins. That’s also rather difficult to imagine, given that the current administration has narrowed the space in Egypt for creating a genuine political alternative. Sisi may also just run for a third term. That would require an amendment to the constitution, which limits presidents to two terms; that, in turn, would require a public referendum.
As things stand now, Sisi would seem to have sufficient support from Egypt’s business elite, along with a substantial proportion of the networks of former President Hosni Mubarak. The opposition to Sisi beyond the state apparatus is also too weak to oppose such a move. Opposition from different actors such as disaffected former supporters, pro-revolutionary activists and political groups, and pro-Muslim Brotherhood stalwarts, does exist. But it is an open question as to whether they can muster enough support to thwart any move to change the constitution.
Yet, Sisi shouldn’t be too comfortable. The low voter turnout, despite his vigorous attempts to mobilize voters, suggested a significant level of public apathy. That should concern Cairo. In the medium to long term, such apathy can disrupt a healthy political system. Dissent exists in any political environment—but for it to be absorbed, it requires channels of political expression. If those avenues don’t exist, the consequences can be far more uncontrollable.
Looking abroad, there are certainly foreign-policy issues that should trouble the Sisi regime, including the Libyan quagmire, and the construction of the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, which is due to be completed later this year and could have serious consequences for Egypt’s access to Nile waters. Fortunately for Sisi, President Donald Trump has supported him, and that’s unlikely to change—even though there are some outstanding issues that need addressing. In particular, Washington is unimpressed with Egypt’s friendly relationship with North Korea. The Trump administration also wants to see Sisi lift its restrictions on foreign NGOs in Egypt, which has led to several American NGO workers being convicted in Egyptian courts.
Whatever bumps in the road currently exist, they’re likely to be smoothed over. Trump’s rhetoric towards Sisi has been flattering. And his latest national security adviser, John Bolton, is also supportive of Sisi. In Washington, Egypt is largely perceived as a linchpin of stability in a rather unstable region, a country that remains committed to the peace deal with Israel—an animating feature of U.S. support for Cairo for decades.
When it comes to Sisi’s relationship with Europe, it’s a mixed bag. But, as with the United States, all troubles are overcome by Egypt’s cooperation on curbing migration and taking on groups like the Islamic State. On both issues, most European governments see Cairo as being on the “right side”—even while all those governments regularly receive, and many publish, human rights reports pertaining to abuses allegedly committed by Cairo. Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have had disagreements with Egypt over the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. But, by and large, relations are good.
Should external partners of Cairo be more interested in encouraging different postures and policies, ones that might in turn create a more sustainable and just order? It’s an important question, but no state expressed such interest in encouraging such things in Sisi’s first term, and it’s doubtful that will change in his second. It’s doubtful that will change in his second term, unless there are significant changes domestically in Egypt.