Hope without illusion: Preparing for Egypt’s 2018 presidential elections It will not be the end of the road if we seek to be taken seriously as competitors

One of the most pressing concerns for those in what we’ll call the democratic current in Egypt — by which we mean those who have been or are politically engaged in oppositional groups, parties and movements since and before 2011, and their supporters — is the absence of a long-term vision, meaning we are easily distracted by minor details at the expense of larger ambitions.

The presidential election process is set to begin 120 days before the end of the current presidential term, according to the constitution, meaning nominations will begin in March 2018. In 10 months, therefore, we will discover whether or not President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will keep his promise of stepping down if the people reject him.

Though we don’t believe that elections in themselves are particularly significant, they can be a tool for resistance and a vehicle for applying political pressure. They also, of course, have the potential to be used to suppress oppositional forces or political actors that are pushing for change.

We started this exploration of what should be done in the run up to the elections in the hope of highlighting the weaknesses of continuing to view political events in Egypt through the lens of 2011 or 2013, and in doing so, we consulted others from across the political spectrum.

On the domestic front

Many political parties and movements have suffered from large drops in their membership in the last few years, the likes of which party leaders say were not even seen under President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. “We are unable to afford rent for our offices and we can’t find new members,” one leader comments.

This could partly be attributed to general political frustration, but is also the result of security action beyond street crackdowns, including increasing numbers of arrests and the disappearances of oppositional figures from their homes. Additionally, many of those who were politically active in 2011, or who were university graduates at the time of the January 25 revolution, have dispersed — some have traveled overseas and others are preoccupied with their careers and families. There has been a noticeable lack of younger recruits to the political arena, and even those offered government support tend to lose in university elections.

It also doesn’t seem likely there will be another wave of mass street demonstrations anytime soon, despite the financial crisis. This could be due to the perceived negative outcome of the January 2011 revolution, or a reaction to the intimidation tactics of the current regime, or both. It might also be explained by the absence of a political representative who offers a viable alternative, such as the role played previously by the National Association for Change (formerly headed by Mohamed ElBaradei).

One of the differences today compared to 2011 is that the military establishment is more explicitly pulling the strings, both politically and economically. In 2011 this was the role of politicians, even if they had military backgrounds. Additionally, the circles of direct beneficiaries within the police, military and judiciary have expanded, making it more complex to find weaknesses through which to enact radical challenges, such as in 2011, when the Armed Forces’ desire to obstruct the inheritance of power from former President Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal motivated its intervention in support of revolutionaries.

This doesn’t remove all possibility of benefiting from conflicts and crises within the current regime, such as ongoing confrontations with the judiciary, it just requires strategy and planning.

We must also consider how we measure “political success,” and consider the journey as one of learning and building, not merely of winning and losing. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, participated as individuals in the elections of 1976 and as a group since 1984. If it weren’t for their vast experience of participation in rigged elections under dictatorial regimes, and of building support amid these power structures, they may not have been ready to enter the political scene with such success in 2012.

Oppositional actors must ensure they are taken seriously by political forces both within Egypt and outside it. Currently the regime does not consult or negotiate with oppositional figures much because they are not seen as serious contenders. The Muslim Brotherhood was taken seriously precisely because of its huge support base. To boycott the upcoming elections could lead to further political paralysis for oppositional figures.

The international scene

The rise of the right wing internationally, including US President Donald Trump’s rise to power, signals a worrying tendency towards supporting global tyrants and dictators in the interests of security. Trump has increasingly criticized the ways in which former US President Barack Obama’s administration related to the Arab Spring uprisings.

Sisi has struck deals with a growing right-wing contingent in the US and Europe in return for checks on migration flows and regional stability.

Egyptians are also wary of the situations in Syria and Iraq, and the growth of the Islamic State in the region. The violence in Syria in particular has raised the ceiling of international acquiescence, making the matter of toppling tyrants, however grave their actions are perceived to be, a complex debate.

Gulf nations, while unhappy about certain dynamics in Egypt, continue to support the current regime because they lack alternatives and many of their interests are aligned.

It is therefore not merely a question of whether or not the current regime has legitimacy, when such legitimacy is ensured through violence, or at least the threat of it. Sisi largely enjoys the support of the state apparatus and security forces, and still has a wide popular support base. Internationally, he has garnered support through diplomatic visits and economic and political deals with a growing right-wing contingent in the US and Europe, in return for things like checks on migration flows and regional stability.

But there does seem to be greater reluctance by international actors to challenge repression than previously, which means there is not likely to be such international outrage over the violent suppression of dissent as there was over the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, for example, unless such repression expands beyond Egypt’s borders or includes vast numbers of people.

Given how unlikely it is there will be meaningful international pressure for drastic change or nationwide protests, though Egypt does have a habit of surprising us all, it is a pertinent time to take a step back and examine the political lessons of the last few years in the run up to the 2018 presidential elections. We will consider the following:

  • Do revolutions have a role to play in politics?
  • Is it possible to topple a dictator without a revolution?
  • In practice, what is a plausible scenario in which we might win or benefit?

Do revolutions have a role to play in politics?

No one has the luxury of determining whether or when a revolution will take place, nor does anyone have the ability to decide if and when millions will be mobilized and take to the streets. 2011 was spurred not just by the will of the people, but in response to the actions of politicians.

History has taught us that violent and peaceful revolutions produce varying levels of change.

Some within the democratic current consider involvement in formal politics to be a less revolutionary instrument for change. Yet, serious political work under a dictatorship is a very real struggle. We are all aware that, despite arrests under Mubarak, the price of political involvement today is even greater.

We must come to terms with the reality that a revolution does not necessarily mean total victory over the old regime. History has taught us that peaceful revolutions, or even those that deploy a degree of violence, produce varying levels of change.

Despite its violence, for example, the French revolution led, after two years, to a change from monarchy to constitutional state in 1791. The Russian revolution in 1905, similarly ended with the Tsar’s acceptance of partial reforms.

Quick, radical changes often only come about as a result of heavy violence. In 1792, when the second wave of the French revolution brought down the monarchy, the cost was not only the destruction of the country, but revolutionaries themselves were transformed into butchers who killed one another. Still, the monarchy was restored again in 1799.

Similarly, in Russia, the price of radical change was a civil war that caused the deaths of 1.5 million people. Revolutionaries became killers and the Red Army executed a quarter of a million citizens without trial before the Stalinist dictatorship was founded.

And today we have the legacies of ongoing violent conflict in Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries in the region.

Is it possible to topple a dictator without a revolution?

Dozens of the most violent and corrupt regimes have been toppled through elections and peaceful resistance. General Augusto Pinochet, for example, who ruled Chile for 17 years, during which he killed and tortured tens of thousands of people and exiled half a million out of a population of 11 million, was toppled by a referendum not a revolution — though declassified papers have since shown that the anti-Pinochet campaign was supported by the US government. Pinochet died in 2006 before he was brought to trial.

Pinochet, September 1986

Of course this is neither easy nor assured, relying on internal and external factors and often requiring painful concessions. No tyrant has ever willingly or peacefully surrendered power through a sudden divine revelation, but elections can apply pressure. Here are some conclusions we have drawn from the lessons of history, though of course each example is far more complex than the brief summaries below.

Step 1: Defeat

Regimes musts be placed under enough pressure that their legitimacy and popularity are questioned.

This defeat could be a military loss, such as the Argentinian military’s loss of the Falkland Islands to England. It could also be a security defeat, such as the Nigerian regime’s inability to confront Boko Haram, or a civil defeat, such as in the case of the financial crisis in Chile.

The integrity of free and fair elections must be seized, not granted.

Step 2: Ensuring the integrity of the elections

Dozens of demonstrations took place in Chile between 1983 and the referendum of 1988, with the support of trade unions and political organizations demanding the presence of electoral oversight at the polls. Such demands were met, though, with heavy loss of life and arrests. Pressure was also applied as a result of business representatives shifting their allegiances and international intervention from the Pope.

In Gambia, popular participation and international pressure ensured the integrity of the 2016 elections, as well as the escape of the head of the electoral committee from the country when the sitting president demanded a recount. The same judges who had been his allies for a quarter of a century rejected his request, as he had lost popular credibility.

Similar pressures ensured the presence of electoral observers during the elections in Nigeria.

Step 3: Offering a viable alternative

Egypt’s upcoming elections are not likely to be a run of the mill, democratic process. They are taking place under a repressive regime and as such, any progress is a step forward. Any political alternative must be perceived safe enough to attract support.

The regime will never permit an alternative to run that poses a threat to its popular support base or international allies.

Transformation in Chile only took place after the extreme leftist opposition was isolated and the duality of the military and communist party was challenged in the form of new players that made up the Chilean National Agreement Front in 1985. The front was comprised of 11 parties and movements, and its spokesperson Gabriel Valdés was a popularly acceptable figure, as he was a former minister in the government of the Christian Democratic party that ruled the country prior to Pinochet and Salvador Allende. This party was previously supportive of the coup against Pinochet, which is how it was able to take a middle ground and credibly propose the first candidate for the presidential elections.

In Nigeria, the four main oppositional parties came together to form the “All Nigeria People’s Party” and nominate one candidate for the presidential elections —Muhammadu Buhari, a former military man who ruled the country 30 years ago, making him an acceptable candidate to both the military and civilians. Buhari had lost the presidential elections three times previously (in 2004, 2007 and 2011), increasing his popularity and experience. In 2015, he completely changed his approach: After speaking previously of applying Sharia, a cause for conflict in a country where half the population is not Muslim, he shifted to focus on confronting corruption and terrorism.

Muhammadu Buhari

A similar story unfolded in Gambia, where a coalition of seven oppositional parties agreed on one candidate: Adama Barrow, a businessman educated in the UK and close to the historical leader who ruled the country after independence — Dawda Jawara. Barrow was a substitute for the previous party leader, who prior to the elections was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly killing his opponent. Instead of backing down, the opposition quickly proposed a replacement.

Any political alternative must be perceived safe enough to attract support.

Step 4: Negotiation and painful compromise

There is no place for idealism in politics; rather, one should pragmatically weigh the balance of power and assess the risks and rewards.

Pinochet did not concede power in Chile after he lost the elections. It took a year of negotiations, including guarantees for the military and his appointment to the senate for life — thus granting him effective immunity from prosecution — for him to leave office.

In Gambia, Yahya Jammeh refused to acknowledge the results of the 2016 elections, protecting himself behind military leaders that he promoted. He only left in January 2017 after the West African group Ecowas threatened military intervention and after he received a guarantee he could leave the country without being pursued. Before heading to the airport, Jammeh seized US$11 million in cash from Gambia’s Central bank.

President Yahya Jammeh

In Nigeria, Buhari refrained from leveling accusations of corruption against his predecessor Jonathan and his associates, instead saying, “He is a worthy opponent. I extend my hand of fellowship to him.”

The Argentinian precedent is different. Raul Alfonsín, the first democratic president, supported the publication of a fact-finding report that documented the forced disappearances of 9,000 people, leading to demands that the military be held accountable. In response, the military began a rebellion that pushed Alfonsín to retreat and issue laws protecting military interests, pardoning all personnel below the rank of Colonel. Public anger was placated a little with the imprisonment of the leader of the coup, Jorge Videla, who was jailed in 1985 until his death in 2013.

In Brazil, the military issued laws in its interests before surrendering power. The first reports about crimes committed under military rule did not appear until 2013, 27 years after the country’s gradual democratic transition.

Difficulties in holding those in power accountable arise mainly in states that have experienced civil as well as political divisions. For example, in 1991 the Lebanese Parliament issued a law pardoning all those involved in political crimes after 1975. Similarly, transitional justice in South Africa was and is restricted to documenting events in return for amnesty.

In practice, what is a plausible scenario in which we might win or benefit?

Let’s see what we can glean by applying what we have just learned.

Step 1: Defeat

There have been some moments already in which the current regime’s legitimacy and power has been challenged. For example, in the defeat over the government’s attempt to cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, and the negative effects of the financial crisis on the general population.

But such defeat is not necessarily significant in and of itself. In some nations there have been way more severe circumstances that have not resulted in political change, for example in Sudan, where Omar al-Bashir continues to rule, and in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is still in power.

Step 2: Ensuring the integrity of the elections

One of the most important ways of ensuring the acceptance and chances of a viable candidate is to avoid provoking the regime into unifying its forces against them, as happened with the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. If this were to occur, pro-regime judges might be motivated to amend election laws and expel independent observers, and supporters may attempt to influence voters.

Oppositional forces must unite in demanding electoral guarantees, the most important of which is to prevent any negative changes to the country’s electoral laws, which currently guarantee the presence of observers during the vote count — one of the most valuable remaining achievements of the January 2011 revolution.

There is also the possibility of launching an on-the-ground movement — similar to that of the National Association for Change in the past — that is not restricted to online campaigning, but includes door-to-door canvassing in the governorates and garners the support of symbolic figures.

When the elections actually commence, it is important to have a representative at every ballot box, as the Muslim Brotherhood did in 2012, when they observed every voting booth and vote count via a network of delegates and operating rooms that were centralized and local. Brotherhood representatives collected reports of voter numbers from judges before they were officially released, and in this way were able to keep an eye on electoral fraud.

Although this level of support among democratic forces may be unrealistic, it is not impossible. The number of subcommittees in Egypt today is 11,081, meaning just over 11,000 delegates would be required to observe, and just over half this number again to provide logistical and administrative support.

The first step is to attract attention. All political parties have records of thousands of people who are non-active members. It should be a priority to reach out to them first. Then there is the issue of leaders with some experience of electoral processes. They would need to be capable of setting up operating hubs, training others, dealing with security restrictions and navigating the logistics of districts and rural areas — transport, supplies for volunteers, and so on. This is a full-time job and would require resources and funding.

When the elections commence, it is important to have a representative at every ballot box, as the Muslim Brotherhood did in 2012.

In 2014, Hamdeen Sabbahi’s delegates only covered a small number of voting stations. After facing severe challenges, the campaign announced the withdrawal of the delegates, and although they raised suspicions of fraud post elections, they were not able to offer proof.

We have a long way to go, but to start with, any candidate must either collect 30,000 signatures from 15 governorates or find 30,000 citizens who are willing to go to the notary office and pay the fees to register.

In the past, many volunteers have offered their services freely. Also, there is precedent with the recent popularly sourced funds for the Tiran and Sanafir protesters’ bail — which amounted to LE4,700,000 — showing that money can be collected for campaigns people believe in. Many of those who were involved in the January 2011 revolution are working in financially rewarding roles, both in Egypt and overseas, and they may contribute financially to a campaign that is organized and promoted properly.

Step 3: Providing an acceptable alternative

This is essential, not just in terms of a potential candidate, but also a network of support. For many reasons, Egypt’s current political parties have lost their momentum, each burdened by the history of the last few years. Whatever this new political entity looks like, it must be capable of attracting millions of dissatisfied people and finding common demands and identities despite the differences that persist.

The candidate that is chosen must be able to present a strong front as a statesperson that is able to employ both a reformist discourse and revolutionary zeal. They must not pose a threat to those who support the current regime, but distance themselves to some extent from the slogans of the past, reflecting the priorities of the people in terms of security, health, education and strengthening the role of local governorates. They must also be able to work with a variety of people, from both the old guard and the new.

Whoever is chosen will likely have to face threats from the current regime, electoral fraud, or worse. This requires a mind that knows when to push forward and when to retreat. For example, heavy electoral fraud may present a good opportunity to rally popular support, but it may also be necessary to withdraw in order to save lives and preserve energy for future battles.

The candidate must not pose a threat to those who support the current regime, but distance themselves from the slogans of the past.

A viable candidate could also be someone from within the machinery of the state that is willing to partner with agents for change. This might include representatives from non-military state institutions, such as former ambassadors from the Foreign Ministry, former judges or former officials from the finance or investment ministries, as such people have often played the role of intermediaries in democratic transitions in the past.

It could also include a candidate from revolutionary circles, or a well-known figure that is able to reintroduce themselves as an effective statesperson.

Step 4: Negotiation and mutual compromise

As we have outlined, different countries have had varying experiences of transitional periods that have required negotiation and compromise. Simply changing the president of a nation through an election is a big step, but if the mechanisms of the state do not radically change, as we have learned, there will not be significant change.

As it stands, however, we, as political opposition, have already been painfully defeated — targeted, detained and worse. Any attempt at softening this defeat can therefore be perceived as a victory.

Whatever the outcome of the 2018 elections, it will not be the end of the road if we seek to be taken seriously as competitors. It is all useful experience in preparing for parliamentary and local elections, and refreshing party support; perhaps even for participation in the 2022 presidential elections.

One should not despair in politics, but neither should we hold on to any illusions that things will magically change. Victory is not yet theirs or ours, and therefore hope is not yet defeated.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

Abdelrahman Mansour and Mohamed Aboelgheitit 

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