Egypt’s presidential election on 26-28 March will be as farcical as the elections held during former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Just two candidates are standing; the current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the leader of the Ghad party, Moussa Mostafa Moussa.
Moussa was rushed out as a candidate in the final days before nominations closed, getting his papers in just 15 minutes before the deadline. Every other declared candidate was arrested, barred from standing or withdrew following intimidation and threats to their supporters.
Moussa is a tame ‘opponent’ to Sisi. He is only standing to give the appearance of a genuine election, when repression has made this impossible.
Last August, Moussa formed a campaign called, ‘Supporters of President el-Sisi's nomination for a second term’. Until the week before the deadline, Ghad had not only endorsed Sisi but had been organising events supporting his re-election. So rushed was Moussa’s nomination that his Facebook page still included Sisi’s photo with the slogan, “We support you as president of Egypt”!
Potential candidates forced out
In December 201, Ahmed Qonsowa, an army officer, declared his intention to stand for the president’s office. He was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for breaking military regulations. He was charged with attempting to run for public office while in active service. Qonsowa apparently tried to resign on several occasions, only for his resignation to be rejected.
Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, was next to go. He was living in exile in the United Arab Emirates and after announcing his candidacy he was deported (“kidnapped”) for 24 hours in a Cairo hotel, according to his family, and then withdrew from the presidential race in early January.
Former military Chief of Staff, Sami Anan, was a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took over after Mubarak was deposed in February 2011. He was arrested on 23 January after declaring his intention to stand. His deputy, Hisham Genena, was severely injured after an attack by unidentified men outside his home on 27 January.
Mohamed Anwar Sadat, nephew of former president Anwar Sadat, then withdrew from standing. Finally, the only candidate with a record of campaigning for civil and workers’ rights, Khaled Ali, pulled out of the presidential contest on 24 January. Both Sadat and Ali implied that their supporters were being threatened. Ali might have been disqualified anyway, as he faces a three-month prison sentence, currently under appeal, for an alleged obscene hand gesture during a protest last year.
No election choice
Sisi is standing on his record of defeating the Muslim Brotherhood – “fighting terrorism” - in his words. The unpopularity of deposed president Mohammed Morsi’s government, prior to his ousting in 2013, fear of ISIS and, more recently, relative economic stabilisation, allowed Sisi to maintain some of his base of support.
Polls indicate a big majority for Sisi. But the turnout is likely to be low, as most people think the election will make little difference to them and the result is a foregone conclusion.
On the surface, Sisi had nothing to fear from any of the potential opponents. Apart from Khaled Ali, all were from military or ruling class backgrounds. Yet the ruthless pressure to get them to withdraw suggests uneasiness from the regime that opposition to Sisi’s rule will develop and could gather around even unlikely figures. It also suggests differences within the ruling class over how best to try to overcome Egypt’s long-term economic weaknesses and how to prevent mass opposition movements rebuilding in the future.
Economy growing - workers’ living standards falling
The country’s GDP growth has increased from 2 per cent in 2013 to an expected 4.5 per cent in 2018. There has been some recovery of tourism and growth of the oil and gas sectors. After the fall in the currency exchange rate, inflation peaked at 33 per cent in June 2017. It slowed to 26 per cent in November, but food and drink prices still rose by 32 per cent, hitting working class and poor people hardest.
Workers may hope for improvements in their low living standards, and in chronically under-funded public services, from an improving economy. But Egyptian capitalism is in a weak condition to concede higher wages and faced with competition from both more modern and lower-waged economies.
Throughout his time in power, Sisi attempted to divert attention from these issues with his ‘war on terror’. He took over from former president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, following mass demonstrations. The working class had no mass party and clear sighted socialist leadership to fill the power vacuum that followed.
Sisi subsequently brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, striking workers, investigative and opposition journalists, and other critics of the regime were labelled as “terrorists”, with many locked up and tortured.
Pro-business election programmes
Sisi’s election programme focuses on “…fighting the Brotherhood’s foreign campaigns which are backed by Qatari and Western media outlets”. It also promises “building more mega-development projects in Egypt…We have seen the inauguration of a second Suez Canal, a new administrative capital is being built and a final agreement on the Dabaa nuclear reactor has been signed.”
Building a new capital for government would help avoid the choking congestion of Cairo’s traffic, but would also make it harder for mass demonstrations outside ministry buildings, as occurred regularly between 2011 and 2013. Such ‘mega-projects’ are Sisi’s attempt to overcome the Egyptian capitalist class’s ongoing lack of investment for the modernisation of industries.
“I am a big supporter of President Al-Sisi,” Moussa told ‘Al-Ahram’ (22/2/18). “But once I decided to run I took the matter seriously. I want citizens to choose between two programmes.” However, they will find little to choose between them.
Moussa’s programme is also openly pro-business. “The Ghad Party is liberal and believes in the private sector, foreign investments and national capitalism,” his election platform states. “We will promote a privatisation programme which helps citizens become shareholders and turns loss-making companies into profitable businesses capable of generating revenues and creating new job opportunities…In addition to backing privatisation we want to phase out subsidies which place an intolerable strain on the national economy.”
Many important strikes against privatisation took place, both before and since 2011. Workers saw for themselves how state-owned industries were looted by private buyers and called for re-nationalisation, even though there was never any democratic workers’ control of state-owned industries.
Since 27 February, 2,300 workers at the National Cement Company in Helwan have been on strike and conducting a sit-in. They are fighting a cut to their monthly bonus, from 390 per cent to 75 per cent of their basic wage. One worker told ‘Mada Masr’ (5/3/18) his basic monthly pay was LE1500 (£61 sterling). With bonuses, he got LE6150 (£250) before deductions. After these cuts, this will fall to LE4500 (£184) and LE2625 (£107) in June.
Workers blamed this attack on their living standards as the result of rising natural gas prices after the fall in the value of the currency in November 2016. They also blame corruption. Their union, the General Syndicate for Construction and Timber Workers, is supporting the sit-in. “Officials, not workers, are the reason for these losses,” said union leader, Abdel Moneim al-Gamal. “And we demand their punishment.” The attack on workers’ wages may be a prelude to privatisation.
Independent workers’ organisations needed
The state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) organised a rally supporting Sisi in February. According to ‘Egypt Today’, most of those attending chanted, “We love you, Sisi” and raised pictures of the president. ETUF leaders have good cause to love Sisi. The Law on Freedom of Association was passed by parliament in December 2017, allowing the “imprisonment of any person who establishes or participates in the management or establishment” of any trade union other than the ETUF.
With just Sisi and Moussa left in the election, many opposition parties have correctly called for a boycott. However, an alternative needs to be built.
Immense difficulties now confront Egyptian workers and youth, with the lack of independent unions and political representation. Nevertheless new movements will develop to fight for rights at work, decent pay, jobs, housing, public services and democratic rights. Not one of these problems can be solved by feeble Egyptian capitalism.
The lessons of the 2011 uprising, that successfully overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and dictatorial regime but did not replace it with a workers’ government and socialist programme, need discussion by workers and youth opposed to Sisi’s dictatorship. As this January’s movements in Iran and Tunisia over sharp price rises, showed that new mass struggles can quickly develop.