Egypt has a presidential election in March but it won’t be a contest. Weeks to the poll, every credible candidate against the country pharaonic president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has either been imprisoned or forced out of the race.
Sisi’s main challenger was Sami Anan, a former member of the Supreme Military Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF).
He was first barred from running, then arrested and imprisoned along with his principal aide and 30 of his campaign staff. He faces charges of incitement against the military, because he failed to quit his commission properly when he joined the race.
Sisi has banned the media from covering the investigation, blanketing an already opaque affair.
Another candidate, former prime minister, Ahmed Shafik withdrew after rumours spread that he was under arrest in a Cairo hotel.
A nephew of the late Anwar al-Sadat, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, mulled whether to run but demurred in January, saying that the climate of fear doesn’t allow a proper election.
Only Mussa Mustapha Mussa, a known Sisi supporter and candidate of the Ghad party is still in the race. The opposition is thinking about a boycott.
Egypt has a structural democratic deficit and it won’t be making a transition soon. At every election, Egypt faces two tests: Voter apathy and meddling by the armed forces.
Since the Free Officers deposed King Farouk in 1952, all but one — Mohammed Morsi — of Egypt’s six presidents have been military men. They invariably win with large margins but voter turnout is rarely above 50 per cent.
In 2014, Sisi won 97 per cent of the vote with a turnout of 47.5 per cent. Though Mohammed Morsi won the 2012 re-run with 51 per cent of the vote, his first round vote was 24.8 per cent against a turnout of 46.4 per cent. In 2005, Mubarak won 88.6 per cent of the vote with a turnout of 22.9 per cent.
Sisi’s actions are a sign that the military doesn’t want to risk another unpredictable civilian like Mohammed Morsi.
The Armed Forces are businessmen: The military runs a commercial empire that straddles every important economic sector, including pasta making.
That the economy is not doing well is a serious worry to them. Fortunately for Sisi, he has successfully deflected attention to security, which, for the armed forces, is an even bigger worry.
A stubborn Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai has also helped. In November 2017, an attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai killed 311 people and injured 122 others. A December 2017 attack on a Coptic church near Cairo killed 10 more. A further 75 were killed in attacks in April and May.
The government’s response has been brutal. The UK daily, The Independent, estimates that 60,000 people - many of them jobless youths- are in jail for ‘terrorism’.
Sisi’s anti-terrorism credentials sell well in the West. US President Donald Trump thinks Sisi has “done a tremendous job under trying circumstances.” France has concluded major arms deals with Egypt.
Meanwhile, a “grateful” Sisi has been busy bursting Western sanctions. Last year, a shipload of 30,000 North Korean rocket-propelled grenades was seized off the Egyptian Coast.
According to the Washington Post, quoting the UN, this was the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
So Sisi runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds: An ally of the West against Islamic State and a friend of North Korea when he needs contraband materiel.
The alliances of convenience in Egypt do not portend well for democracy. Sisi will be a shoo-in for president in March but the Egyptian state’s legitimacy crisis will not go away. One day it will bite.