October 4, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10822

Egyptian Intellectuals Voice Hope And Concerns Ahead Of 2023 Presidential Election On Traditional And Social Media

October 4, 2023
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 10822

As Egypt's presidential elections, scheduled for December 2023, draw near, Egyptian intellectuals find themselves divided into two distinct groups: the hopefuls and the skeptics. These groups have openly expressed their optimism, or pessimism, on social media platforms and on traditional media outlets. It is widely believed that the incumbent authoritarian leader, President Abd El-Fatah El-Sissi, will emerge as the winner, whether the election is fair or rigged. He does, after all, firmly control government institutions and resources. Yet there is a growing segment of society that believes his main potential opponent, former Egyptian Member of Parliament Ahmed Altantawy, might stand a chance.

The skeptics, on the other hand, argue that, based on past experiences, candidates like Mr. Altantawy have been strategically used to lend legitimacy to the election process and quell  rising frustration and discontent among the public. Recent news reports have alleged attempts to hack Altantawy's phone and the arrest of some of his supporters. The more pessimistic commentators have even proposed that all presidential candidates should withdraw from the race unless the regime provides assurances and implements concrete measures to ensure a fair and transparent election. These measures may include international supervision.

Meanwhile, President El-Sissi's supporters are unwavering in their conviction that his leadership, experience, and achievements will be the driving force behind Egyptian voters' decision to reelect him for another term. This report aims to shed light on the ongoing discourse surrounding the upcoming elections, presenting various viewpoints, positions, and sentiments expressed by Egyptian intellectuals on both social media and traditional media platforms.

On September 26, 2023, a prominent Egyptian novelist in the United States, Alaa Al-Aswany, discussed the current political situation in Egypt in a video on his YouTube channel.[1] He expressed doubts about the authenticity of the candidacy of former MP Ahmad Altantawy, who had announced his intention to run for president. Altantawy is currently in the process of collecting the required authorizations to officially become a presidential candidate.

In the video, Al-Aswany stated that he does not understand why Mr. Altantawy is allowed to repeatedly criticize El-Sissi without facing arrest, while others, including prominent figures in the country, have been silenced. Responding to those who argue that the regime knew that arresting Altantawy would be considered a scandal since he is a presidential candidate, he said: "Wasn't the arrest of Hisham Qassem [a liberal political activist] a scandal? And wasn't the arrest of Counselor Hisham Genena a scandal? Wasn't the arrest of Sami Anan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian army, a scandal? The Egyptian regime does not care about scandals because scandals constantly occur. I have not found an answer to this question, and I reiterate that I do not doubt Mr. Altantawy's integrity, but it is my right to ask."

Next, he expressed concern that Altantawy might not ultimately challenge the president. There is precedent: The 2014 presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi persisted in running against El-Sissi, but allowed the regime to tamper with the election results by pulling his representatives from election centers at the last minute.

Al-Aswani then questioned why Mr. Altantawy still insists on running, even after his request to ensure election integrity was dismissed. He said: "Mr. Altantawy has requested guarantees to ensure the fairness of the elections, and I fully agree with him on the importance of these guarantees. These guarantees have been excluded in a manner that I consider humiliating, as they were not discussed by anyone. He presented them to the Supreme Electoral Commission, which was appointed by El-Sissi, and no attention was paid to these guarantees. What is the next step when I request guarantees and they are not responded to? Should I continue and participate in the elections? What I know is that when you request guarantees and they are not taken seriously, you will withdraw from the elections on the grounds that organizing elections without guarantees is like a joke."

After asking Mr. Altantawy what he would do after his request was neglected, Al-Aswani continued: "Why don't you mobilize your supporters to demand international supervision of the elections? Instead of following the same path as Hamdeen Sabahi and others, where the election results had been fabricated, why don't we request international supervision? It is not shameful, and in reality, there will be no fair elections in Egypt without international supervision."

Defending his argument in favor of international supervision, he mentioned that German Members of Parliament had monitored the last presidential elections in the United States, saying: "And this is something that can be verified. The United States did not claim that it undermined its sovereignty; on the contrary, members of the German parliament came and observed the elections, and they wrote reports that were useful in refuting Trump's claims of election fraud. Therefore, international supervision is not a source of shame, and does not infringe on national sovereignty."

Similar doubts and concerns were expressed by human rights lawyer Gamal Eid in a post titled, "Elections or a Charade? Should We Be With Altantawy or Not?" published on his X account (formerly known as Twitter), which is followed by over 1.4 million people. In the post, Eid argued that the authorities in Egypt don't seem to intend to hold a fair and transparent election. However, he hoped that he would be proven wrong, as the candidacy of Mr. Altantawy, whom he highly praised for his integrity and political experience, in the presidential race could be a chance to improve electoral integrity in Egypt.

Eid described Altantawy as "the only real opportunity, if the conditions and guarantees of the elections are met," but then returned to his initial argument: "However, as I mentioned, there is no indication of the state and authority respecting the principles of political integrity and the rule of law. This is evident in the campaigns of arresting and detaining Altantawy's supporters, the cheap smear campaigns against him, and the selection of civil organizations to monitor these elections. There are doubts about the neutrality of many of them, especially the international organizations, some of which have a tainted history of bestowing false legitimacy upon the elections of numerous authoritarian regimes."

Eid then put forward two suggestions. The first suggestion, to help ensure a fair election, is for all other presidential candidates to withdraw from the race except Mr. Altantawy, with the hope that all the opposition votes would consolidate behind him. The second suggestion he proposed is for all candidates to withdraw in the event of a fraudulent election, a scenario he strongly believes is likely.

Defending his proposals, with which he believes many Egyptians agree, he stated: "I believe, without exaggeration, that millions of people are adopting this stance. Many of them criticize Ahmed Altantawy, not because of a lack of integrity, but due to a lack of confidence in a sincere political will to conduct fair elections. People fear that, even with good intentions, he might end up as an observer or a participant in a poorly scripted drama."[2]

The U.S.-based pro-Muslim Brotherhood journalist Ayat Oraby believes that the upcoming election has been carefully orchestrated to legitimize the rule of President Abd El-Fatah El-Sissi. She asserts that Mr. Altantawy is part of this scheme, which is aimed, she contends, at alleviating mounting frustration and discontent in Egypt.

On September 25, 2023, she published a post on her X (Twitter) account titled, "The Military's Elections... The Lifeline of the Coup," in which she presented her argument about why the election date was moved up to late 2023 from April 2024. She wrote: “The truth is that the coup's authority in Egypt is facing a severe crisis, especially as the barrier of fear begins to break for some. We have started hearing complaints and lamentations from Egyptians from all walks of life on social media platforms. This indicates an unprecedented simmering discontent on the verge of exploding in Egypt. It seems that international intelligence agencies have advised El-Sisi to advance the election date. In addition, they have offered some concessions that may alleviate the impact of economic disasters on the people to some extent. They have also opened the door for a significant number of candidates, so that Egypt appears as a country conducting genuine elections."

Accusing Altantawy of being promoted by the military to replace Hamdeen Sabahi, she argued that Altantawy was brought onto the scene and allowed to level harsh criticism against the regime to enable President El-Sisi "to transform the state of stagnation that may precede the storm, or at least that may indicate the possibility of a storm, into a state of engagement and interaction. He wants to convert the anger against the coup into electoral adrenaline. He aims to turn the revolution into opposition. He seeks to change the coup supporter into a rival candidate."[3]

Other Egyptian intellectuals hold different views. They believe that President El-Sissi will win the elections because he is genuinely supported by the majority of Egyptians who believe in his leadership. One of these is journalist Mohamed Shazly, the former editor-in-chief of the state-subsidized newspaper Al-Ahram, who stated on "Al-Jazeera Live" that: "these elections are leaning in favor of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for many reasons, and not due to the harassment that some people mention. However, there is a very broad segment of the Egyptian population that wants El-Sisi to continue in office to complete the journey that has already begun and must continue, without stopping at this point. This is the opinion of many Egyptians on the streets, and it is not just my opinion, but a widespread public sentiment that supports this."[4]

Egyptians hopeful for this election, predominantly younger people, have been vocal in their support for Altantawy's challenge for the presidency, despite facing intimidation and harassment. They are actively participating in hashtags such as #HopeLives, #MyAuthorizationForAhmadAltantawy, and #AhmadAltantawyPresidentOfEgypt. They share photos of Altantawy surrounded by his supporters. For example, on September 29, 2023, Egyptian journalist Abdelrahman Matar, shared[5] a video showing a group of young women shouting, "Altantawy and Hope Live."

Additionally, an Egyptian writer and YouTuber known as "the professor" shared a video on his X account on September 29, 2023, showing people echoing similar chants that were shouted during the January 25, 2011, uprising in Egypt. He commented: "Altantawy has rekindled people's dreams, encouraging them to voice and openly declare them, after they had been suppressed for ten years."[6]

Among those hopeful individuals is Egyptian-American scholar Mamoun Fandy, who expressed his support for Mr. Altantawy. He stated in a post published on his X account on September 29, 2023, that: "The chant, 'Bread, Freedom, Social Justice' signifies that January has not perished, and that there are strong men concealed beneath the ashes. As for those who appeared on television screens during January but are absent now, they will return when they are certain of the possibility of victory. They will come and ride the wave; just wait a bit for them. However, our focus must remain on solidarity and the objective, rather than division. There is a glimmer of hope."[7]

All of these positions were addressed by Mr. Altantawy on September 7, 2023, during a press conference. He began: "I am grateful to those who believe earnestly in my candidacy. I respect the hesitant, extend understanding to the skeptics, and forgive those who wrong me. Those involved in public affairs should have an open heart for what may burden the hearts of others."[8]

Supporters of President El-Sissi have repeatedly attempted to tarnish Mr. Altantawy's image and accuse him of intending to reintroduce the Muslim Brotherhood to the political scene in Egypt. This accusation is based on his stated position that he would treat all Egyptians based on the rule of law and the constitution, without categorizing them according to their political affiliations. Mustapha Bakri, an Egyptian MP and a strong supporter of President El-Sissi, has called on all presidential candidates, including Mr. Altantawy, to clearly state their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and to recognize the group as a terrorist organization.

Bakri spoke on his program, which aired on pro-regime Sada Elbalad TV channel, stating: "I ask the potential candidate, Mr. Ahmed Altantawy, when will you announce that you are against the Muslim Brotherhood? I challenge you [to state] publicly that you will never declare yourself against the Muslim Brotherhood and their terrorism. I have seen many of your interviews where you evade giving a clear answer by referring to the constitution and the law. Don't you know that the constitution and the law are against the Muslim Brotherhood?"[9]

While acknowledging the rights of Egyptians to hope and dream for a better future, veteran Egyptian politician Mustafa Al-Fiqi expressed his support for President El-Sissi, whom he described as the "best option." He justified his stance by characterizing other candidates as "difficult, very dark, and very bleak" alternatives. In an interview aired on MBC Egypt, he stated: "I am one of his supporters under these circumstances, and undoubtedly he is the best choice because the alternatives are extremely difficult, very dark, and could be very bleak in these circumstances. I won't say that there might be something better than what exists, but I say that he is the president necessary [for the country]. He must continue his path until we reach something better than what we are currently experiencing."[10]


[1], September 26, 2023.

[2], September 20, 2023.

[3], September 25, 2023.

[4], September 26, 2023.

[5], September 29, 2023.

[6], September 29, 2023.

[7], September 29, 2023.

[8], September 7, 2023.

[9], September 29, 2023.

[10], September 19, 2023.

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