x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Despite pessimism, Egypt’s presidential race can offer hope

While it's almost a foregone conclusion that El Sisi will win in a presidential race, competing with him can make a difference.

Egyptian politics appears to be in some sort of suspended animation. Most commentators are waiting for an announcement from the defence minister, Field Marshal Abdal Fattah El Sisi, on his prospective run for the presidency.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that he will run, and that he will win. There are unanswered questions, however. Why has he not yet declared his decision to run? What are the ramifications of other presidential candidates running alongside?

A few days ago, Egyptian media announced that FM El Sisi met with Amr Moussa, a former presidential candidate who is expected by some to run for the presidency again. In 2012, Mr Moussa was seen as the front-runner for the presidency, owing to his reputation and early polling numbers. His own team was certain that he had the support of the former Mubarak networks and the discreet support of the military leadership.

Two years later, Mr Moussa met with a potential candidate who definitely has the support of that configuration of backers. After Mr Moussa left the meeting, he made it clear: FM El Sisi will run. Why haven’t Egyptians heard this from the defence minister himself?

FM El Sisi is not in a rush to announce his candidacy. The presidential election law is not yet complete and the official opening of nominations has not taken place. More than that, FM El Sisi the defence minister is a known quantity, and it is widely expected that he will run. A declaration to that effect changes little.

But FM El Sisi the politician is not known at all. Little is known about his political views, his economic policies or his advisory team. What sort of cabinet will FM El Sisi present to the Egyptian people as the group that will take Egypt through this troubled period in history? In particular, whom does he intend to appoint as prime minister? Was that the subject of his meeting with Mr Moussa, who is rumoured to have already ruled himself out for such a position?

All of these questions remain unanswered, and that is probably the main reason why FM El Sisi has not announced his decision. The defence minister will want to ensure that the military institution is in order, including a successor, before he leaves it.

He will also want to ensure that the next institutions he intends to occupy – the presidential palace and the Egyptian government – are lined up with all his ducks in a row before he makes this decision public and officially begins a campaign.

Delaying an announcement does not hurt him; announcing it without being able to make his entire programme crystal clear does.

Once he announces it, does that mean his ascension is a foregone conclusion? One imagines so. It seems far-fetched that anyone could defeat him, given the array of forces rallied up behind him before he even announces his candidacy. Big businesses, the media sector, former Mubarak networks. He even has the military leadership’s mandate. If he were to lose, it would be monumental not only for him, but also for all those backers.

Given these realities, why then would anyone else run?

As it stands at the moment, four of the major candidates from the 2012 elections are not running. Mr Moussa is unlikely to run, as is Ahmad Shafiq. Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh has already ruled out the possibility of running for the presidency. Mohammad Morsi is on trial, having been removed as president in July after widespread protests. One candidate from 2012 remains: the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi, who had come in third.

If he does run, it’s not clear if Mr Sabahi’s team actually thinks he can win the elections. But they will give it their best shot for two reasons. The first is on the off chance something unpredictable happens to FM El Sisi’s presidential campaign, Mr Sabahi will be there to pick up support. It’s unlikely, but the possibility exists.

The second reason is that the team might believe that any competition is better than no competition, and that it is better for a Sabahi campaign to exist, rather than allow the presidential election to become essentially an inauguration of FM El Sisi. Of course, Mr Sabahi will certainly face considerable opposition. Still, Mr Sabahi’s team may have made the calculation that this is worth it.

That mindset might make for a very interesting campaign. It makes it seem that Mr Sabahi has nothing to lose. As such, Egyptians may actually have something to be quite grateful for. If Mr Sabahi’s team realise it is incredibly unlikely he wins, they won’t shy away from talking about issues that his supporters care deeply about.

In an interview on a popular private channel on Wednesday, Mr Sabahi brought up the allegations of torture in prisons and the many thousands who have been arrested and detained. Others have mentioned these issues, including Mr Abul Futuh, but Mr Sabahi would do so as the de facto challenger to FM El Sisi. That alone will bring those issues to the forefront of the Egyptian media.

If a Sabahi presidential campaign has only the effect of highlighting some human rights abuses to the Egyptian public, and placing them at the centre of a presidential campaign discussion, that will be quite an accomplishment. A presidential campaign that has to at least engage with those issues might, indeed, be better than a campaign that doesn’t mention them at all.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer