Egypt’s presidential election: To participate or boycott?

The essence of any election is to induce the greatest number of citizens to participate in the process and to feel that their votes matter! A Presidential election is a unique political event that instates respective countries’ leaders for the coming years – leaders who are supposed to rule their nations with the usual political diversification. However, Egypt’s 2018 Presidential election process and the part played by the Egyptian State in mobilizing citizens to vote have contributed significantly to the decision of many politicians to call for a boycott of the election.

Historically, Egypt’s most legitimate Presidential election took place in 2012; thirteen potential candidates competed for the Presidency in an election whose results contradicted most political experts’ predictions and came as a complete surprise. Roughly 24 million citizens, half of all eligible voters, were driven to participate in the two famous rounds of the election wherein all the candidates had an equal opportunity to present their programs – a unique election experience that was eventually spoiled.

The political conditions surrounding the 2018 Presidential election have basically skimmed off any fat that could have encouraged citizens to go through the hassle of confidential voting. The entire world already knows who will win the election – which discourages even the followers of the anticipated winner, President Al Sisi, from participating. We need to differentiate between having a popular Presidential candidate (a debatable subject) and creating sufficient motivation for Egyptians to vote.

Meanwhile, Dar Al-Ifta recently issued a Fatwa (a verdict in Islamic law) stating that Egyptians who refrain from voting in any election are considered “sinners”. The Egyptian State still insists on using the religion factor to influence political matters, dismissing both its enemy’s great expertise in mixing politics and religion, and the fact that the enemy’s supporters, who are driven by religion, are larger in number than the State’s potential voters. Using the Fatwa tool will backfire; it will raise the number of boycotters at the expense of voters.

That the State-owned media are running a heavy campaign in support of the President is well known. However, the true challenge in the upcoming Presidential election lies in physically moving millions of voters (who are naturally not motivated to vote) from their respective work venues to the polling stations, prompting them to vote and placing them in front of the ballot boxes where they will naturally vote for Al Sisi who has the better credentials.

Meanwhile, President Al Sisi’s supporters, regardless of their number and high social status, are often busy collecting their rewards. Being natural benefiters dissuades them from working on truly reaching out to citizens with strong arguments in support of their chosen candidate – a behavior that is expected to persist over the course of the election. The Egyptian State therefore needs either to come up with a clear economic incentive scheme to stimulate citizens to vote or to apply a penalty on boycotters (both improper, but workable, propositions).

Many politicians, including myself, had supported the idea of participating in the election by nominating an opposition candidate, regardless of the fact that President Al Sisi is certain to be re-elected. We valued the election experience itself, knowing that many politicians and activists would learn from it, which would enable them to perform better in future elections. Nevertheless, the Egyptian State has a different idea: running a one-horse race election and forcing citizens to follow the course it has designated.

Undermining the single horse in the election is a much easier task for Egyptians than presenting other horses and genuinely competing in the election process. Nonetheless, the present election scenario was designed by the State in the belief that highlighting Al Sisi’s solo strengths serves him better than giving him a true competitive advantage over other genuine candidates. The State’s accumulation of political faults is greater in magnitude than the diversified efforts of the opposition.

Over the past years, the Egyptian State has worked on distancing Egyptians from politics completely. It then orchestrated a dull election and now wants Egyptians to queue in front of polling stations to express their support for the President – an incompatible combination that is difficult to realize. Unknowingly, the Egyptian State is pushing its citizens to become more engaged in the underground politics from which Egypt has suffered most in recent decades – a sad path for our nation, but one that is apparently our political destiny; certainly not our choice.

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