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Egypt’s faltering legitimacy: Sisi’s contested victory and pressing challenges

Article by Dr. Lucia Ardovini

April 4, 2018

Egypt’s faltering legitimacy: Sisi’s contested victory and pressing challenges

In Egypt polls have now closed after a three-day presidential election that has been characterised by unprecedented levels of repression and state-led propaganda –something that is very far from the cries for “fair and free elections” that resonated in Tahrir Square just over 7 years ago. In a result that comes as no surprise, President Abdel Fattah al Sisi is said to have achieved a landslide victory with 97% of the vote, securing another 4 years in power.[1] However, many are openly condemning the elections as a sham. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies has released a statement undersigned by other Human Rights organizations that denounces the National Elections Committee, stating that ‘the Commission has lost its political legitimacy by watching the electoral process as it transformed into a debacle (…) the pervasiveness of violence, repression, intimidation and persecution (…) renders this week’s election illegitimate, and its results cannot be recognised’.[2]  As the status quo remains untouched in Egypt once again this statement resonates with many, and the question determining the future of the country is whether or not these results are enough to keep up the illusion of Sisi’s legitimacy.


The circumstances surrounding these elections are all too familiar: Sisi was the only viable candidate, as his sole challenger, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, is the head of a party that endorsed Sisi before entering its own candidate seven minutes before the deadline for nominations.[3] Interestingly enough he allegedly only won less than 3% of the vote, which is also considerably less than the 1.76 million invalid ballots cast.[4] Sisi’s other four potential opponents, three of whom were from the military, were arrested, intimidated, or threatened into withdrawing. While this further de-legitimises the Electoral Commission’s claim that these have been ‘fair and free elections’, it also shows that there still is some opposition to Sisi’s regime despite the ever-escalating levels of state-led repression. Most importantly some of this opposition even comes, surprisingly, from within his own regime and certainly from within the circles of those who supported him in 2013 during the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood.


This time around, the regime’s harassment and targeting of potential opposition candidates has led to 150 political figures and 7 political parties calling for a national boycott of the presidential elections.[5] Voters’ turnout is said to have been around 41.5%, significantly lower than the 47% registered in the 2014 elections.[6] This is despite of the regime’s continuous call to the polls through its media agencies, which shows that the deep state was fully aware of just how much rested on these electoral results – namely, Sisi’s own legitimacy and credibility. In a push to increase turnout Egypt’s state news agencies have even reminded Egyptians that failing to vote was an offence punishable by fines up to $28 and there have been reports by international observers of citizens being bribed into voting.  [7]Sisi has apparently secured a landslide victory, but at what cost?


Stability VS Democracy: what do these elections really stand for?

These elections would be better described as a referendum on Sisi’s performance. Seven years after the Arab Uprisings and nearly five years after the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal from power, Sisi’s legitimacy is steadily crumbling away as the economy continues to collapse and the threat of domestic terrorism escalates at an alarming rate. With over 60,000 political prisoners and a set of anti-terrorism legislation that have seen the complete annihilation of political space, Egypt is now in the midst of the worst human rights crisis of its history so far. Human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings have now become the norm, alienating not only those defined as Islamists, but even the secular opposition that cheered Sisi’s coup d’etat in 2013. As the unprecedented wave of arrests even within the military shows, these elections have never been about the end result. Rather, what Sisi needs is not a popular endorsement, but one last illusion of legitimacy to consolidate the power of the deep state.


Several international media outlets have portrayed these elections as a choice between stability and democracy, but Maha Azzam, head of Egypt’s Revolutionary Council, argues that it is neither:


“What we have is the search for a mandate. A mandate to carry on a form of political repression that we have seen over the past 4 years and that we have seen over decades in Egypt. (…) There was only a short blip during 2011-2012, when we could have said that the beginnings of the democratic process could have gone underway, but they were interrupted by a military coup.”[8]


In addition, the unprecedented levels of repression and the way in which Sisi’s ruthlessly targeted any other military-affiliated candidate has shown the extent to which the armed forces remain Egypt’s most powerful institution. While Sisi came to power with their backing he must also be aware of the fact that the military could turn against him, as it happened to Mubarak and Morsi before him. While these are hard to corroborate, there have been rumours of dismissal and purges taking place within the armed forces all throughout his presidency, allegedly to contain discontent over Sisi’s controversial decision to ‘gift’ two islands to Saudi Arabia.[9] Moreover, the decision of former Prime Minister and air force commander Shafiq and chief of staff Annan to run against Sisi in these elections further show that there are deep cracks in the military, leading many to believe that Sisi will take advantage of this landslide victory to amend the constitution in his favour.


If anything, the events following 2011 have demonstrated that the military forces fear instability above all else,[10] and are prepared to force a change when the possibility of chaos and subsequent disruption to their power becomes too high. Sisi’s political survival therefore depends on how much popular support he manages to hold on to after these elections, as it could likely counter-balance the perceived costs of his removal.


The high cost of a landslide victory: where to next?

Sisi is arguably very aware of the threat that comes from its own military comrades, but what he probably does not realise yet is that his ‘triumph’ will come with a renewed set of domestic and international challenges. His victory will undoubtedly tighten autocracy’s grip on Egypt even more, putting the country into a worse state than it was in even after 30 years of Mubarak’s rule.  However, it will also raise the expectations of the millions of people that are still living under the poverty line in Egypt today, and whose lives have significantly worsened in the seven years that followed the Arab Uprisings.


The two main challenges that urgently need addressing are still represented by the economy and security. The ever-worsening state of the economy means that daily hardships are now being faced not only by Egypt’s poorest, but have become a reality even for those who under Mubarak belonged to the working/middle-class.[11] It is easy to draw a correlation between military rule and the drastic drop in economic and living conditions, with Egypt’s external debt under Sisi jumping from $38bn to more than $80bn, while taxes on hundreds of products and services have skyrocketed even further.[12]


Unless there is significant political change living conditions will continue to falter, adding to the same grievances that made the 2011 Uprisings a reality and that still remain unaddressed today. It would not be the first time Egypt witnesses a ‘revolution of the hungry’, especially now that its citizens have touched first-hand the change that popular mobilization can bring about. In addition, another serious concern is the steady decline in security conditions across the country, with insurgency and radicalization not being confined to the Sinai anymore. So far counterterrorism legislations have only restricted the rights of the average citizens and have achieved very little in terms of preventing or even containing violence from jihadists and rebel groups that have taken control of the country’s unpatrolled territories. While a decline in security conditions is less central in the outbreak of yet another round of popular uprisings, providing security is central to the armed forces’ image as the defender of the Egyptian nation, and failure to do so could lead to even lower levels of the regime’s perceived legitimacy.[13]


In conclusion, regardless of the legitimacy of Sisi’s landslide victory, what is clear is that Egypt needs structural change now more than ever. While Sisi is still backed by a considerable part of the population and by the military, the real test of power will be his ability to rise up to these challenges. Only then it will become clear whether or not these electoral results represent the further consolidation of the power of the deep state, or instead mark the beginning of its fragmentation.


Dr. Lucia Ardovini, Research Fellow –  MENA Programme – The Swedish Institute of International Affairs


[1] Hamza Hendawi, Egypt’s president wins re-election with 97 percent of vote, AP, April 2018,

[2] Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Rights groups: Egypt’s illegitimate presidential election must not be recognized, April 2018,

[3] Gail Buttorf, In Egypt, the opposition is calling for a boycott of this month’s election. Will it work? Washington Post, March 2018,

[4] Hendawi ibid,

[5] Egypt Independent, January 2018,

[6] Hendawi ibid,

[7] Al Jazeera,  Egypt’s elections come to a close with Sisi set to win, March 2018, See also Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef, For as Little as $3 a Vote, Egyptians Trudge to Election Stations, New York Times, March 2018,

[8] Egyptian Revolutionary Council on France 24, What next for Egypyt, March 2018,

[9] Hossam Bahgat, A Coup Busted, October 2015,

[10] Andrew Miller and Amy Hawthorne, Egypt’s Sham Election, March 2018, Foreign Affairs,

[11] Ahram Online, Egypt’s poverty rate surges to 27.8% in 2015: CAPMAS

October 2016,–in–CAPMAS-.aspx

[12] Taha Ozhan,  What Sisi’s ‘victory’ means for Egypt’s future, April 2018,

[13] Miller and Hawthorne ibid,

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