March 20, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1381

Egypt's Presidential Elections Part II: Opposition Calls For Boycotting Elections, Criticizes Persecution Of Candidates

March 20, 2018 | By C. Meital*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1381


In advance of Egypt's presidential elections, set for late March 2018, the Egyptian regime has been acting to thwart the candidacies of Egyptian public figures. This comes against the backdrop of its repression of opposition elements and its obstruction of registration for potential candidates.[1] In protest against the absence of fair elections in the country, Egypt's opposition movements have called on citizens to boycott the elections – and this call has come under harsh criticism from pro-regime political circles and the establishment media. Additionally, the regime has mobilized religious institutions such as Dar Al-Iftaa, Egypt's fatwa institution, to counter the call for a boycott, and these institutions have come out against those calling for a boycott, branding them "traitors."

In light of these events, opposition activists and Egyptian journalists published articles attacking the regime's persecution of candidates, and the current situation in which a win for the incumbent President ʿAbd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi is certain, and called for democratic and fair elections.

Al-Sisi gets 99.9% of the vote (Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, February 27, 2018)

This report will review the opposition's calls for boycotting the elections, the regime's countermeasures, the oppositionists' criticism of the regime's harassment and persecution of the candidates, and calls for fair elections in the country.

Opposition Calls For Boycotting Elections: The Regime Has Stripped The Elections Of All Meaning

On January 23, 2018, following the arrest of presidential candidate and former chief-of-staff Sami 'Anan on charges of violating a military law that prohibits his candidacy, Strong Egypt party chairman 'Abd Al-Mon'eim Al-Fotouh, tweeted that all Egyptians should boycott the elections.[2]

Former MP Muhammad Anwar Al-Sadat, who had considered running but ultimately decided not to, also said that the elections should be boycotted, and called for a silent march to the presidential palace where the demonstrators would meet with the president and present their demands to him.[3] 

Other Egyptian politicians, including Al-Sadat and Al-Fotuoh; Hisham Geneina and Hazem Husni, both associates of Sami 'Anan; and oppositionist Essam Heggy,[4] published, on January 28, a communiqué condemning the regime's measures against the various candidates, and demanded that the election cycle be halted in light of what they called "the expropriation of the Egyptians' right to free presidential elections."[5]

On January 30, the Civil Democratic Movement, which unites seven opposition movements and over 150 public figures, held a press conference at which it called for boycotting the elections, under the slogan "Stay Home." Prominent oppositionist Hamdeen Sabahi, who had run for president in 2012 and again in 2014, called on citizens to espouse this slogan on election day, and not to go to the polls.[6]

On February 7, 2018, Egyptian political activists, including officials from the campaign of Khaled 'Ali, who had already dropped out of the race, and several activists from the opposition April 6 Youth Movement, announced their solidarity with the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) in its call for a boycott, in light, they said, of the regime's attempts to silence the CDM with lawsuits. They stressed that boycotting the elections is "a constitutional right and expression of a position vis-à-vis the miserable [electoral] system, and against a country that has stripped elections of their meaning and closed all doors to any attempts [to bring about a situation in which] real elections are held."[7]

 A Muslim Brotherhood (MB) faction affiliated with the organization's old guard, headed by Mahmoud 'Izzat,[8] also called for boycotting the elections. In an announcement published March 4, 2018, the faction stated that the MB opposed the "farce of the elections" and that "participation in any farce that is part of the lies of the military coup [regime] constitutes, in addition to a threat to the future of Egypt, a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and of the honorable men in prison."[9]

The Regime Mobilizes Religious Institutions, Media: Boycotting The Elections Is Treason, Support For Terrorism 

To counter the calls for boycotting the elections, the regime mobilized the Egyptian religious institutions and the state media. Thus, Dr. Khaled 'Amran, secretary-general of the fatwa division at Dar Al-Iftaa, the Egyptian fatwa-issuing body, declared, on January 29, that failure to vote in the election constitutes treason.[10] Egyptian Religious Endowments Minister Muhammad Mukhtar Gum'a stated that "active participation [i.e. voting] in the elections is a religious and national demand."[11]

Al-Azhar clerics also called on Egyptian citizens to go to the polls. For example, Dr. Ahmad Karima, lecturer in Islamic law at Al-AzharUniversity, said that those calling for boycotting the elections are in effect calling for corruption and political instability in the country. Likewise, Muhammad Al-Shahat Al-Gundi, member of the Academy for Islamic Research and also an Al-AzharUniversity lecturer, called the elections a public matter that concerns the entire nation, and added that anyone calling for boycotting them is committing a great crime because he is sabotaging the interests of the nation. Sheikh Saleh Muhammad Al-Azhari, member of the Fatwa Committee at Al-Azhar, said that those calling for a boycott are sinners, because they are calling for adopting a negative attitude to the state. He added that voting is like [the reciting of] the Shahada [the Muslim declaration of faith]  and is a religious obligation for all citizens.[12]

In addition to senior Muslim clerics, the regime also recruited the Coptic religious establishment to persuade the public of go to the polls. On March 12, 2018, Egypt's official Al-Sharq Al-Awsat news agency held a conference titled "Together We Will Elect Our President and Fight the Conspiracies," attended by  Endowments Ministry officials; the General Bishop Armia, who is also president of the Coptic Orthodox Culture Center; the speaker of parliament, and representatives of various parties. Bishop Armia said: "All Egyptians must maintain a positive outlook and participate in the upcoming presidential election. Anyone who refuses to participate in the elections is like a soldier fleeing the battle field." He added: "The upcoming period will be sensitive and requires all Egyptians to be proactive."[13]  

Pro-regime political elements and media also spoke out against the opposition call for a boycott. On February 10, several pro-regime parties met at the Al-Wafd party headquarters and decided, inter alia, to launch a popular counter-campaign, "Egypt First – Go Out And Participate," to encourage people to vote.[14][15]

The government daily Al-Ahram and the regime-affiliated Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' published articles attacking the oppositionists calling for a boycott. For example, in a February 4 article, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' journalist Karim 'Abd Al-Salam called them "hypocritical conspirators who are more of a fifth column of the traitorous MB."[16] Similarly, in a February 1 article, Dandarawi Al-Harawi, acting editor of Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', labeled oppositionist Hamdeen Sabahi, who had called for a boycott, "a danger to state security and stability."[17]

Journalist Muhammad Murad wrote in Al-Ahram that boycotting the elections meant supporting the terrorism that Egypt is fighting.[18] Dr. Ahmad Fuad Al-Nour wrote, on February 12: "The talk of a boycott serves the interests of the enemies of the June 30 [2013 revolution, i.e. the removal of the MB government], who want to bring back the blocked streets and squares, the power outages... the lines for fuel and cooking gas, the destroyed roads and public transportation... and the spreading slums. On the eve of the elections, we must stress to everyone the real [i.e. tiny] number of these [pro-boycott] voices, and not abandon the polls to an organized minority..."[19] Likewise, Egyptian media figure 'Azmi Mujahed, on his February 6 program on Al-'Asima TV, said that those calling for a boycott are "traitors" and "mercenaries."[20]

On the other hand, opposition writers were angered by the regime's use of Dar Al-Iftaa against oppositionists calling for a boycott. For example, Al-Misriyyoun board chairman Gamal Sultan wrote in response to Dar Al-Iftaa official Khaled 'Amran's statement that failure to vote was treason: "I was shocked by what was published last night in the newspapers, about the fatwa by Egypt's Dar Al-Iftaa concerning the upcoming presidential elections... I don't know where Dar Al-Iftaa came up with this nonsense, and who brought it into this loathsome swamp. Today, eight Egyptian parties met, and at a press conference [announced their] decision to boycott the elections and refrain from voting. [By doing so,] are they... violating the religious ban, and are all their members criminals, because they sinned against the religion of Islam by deciding to boycott the elections?...

"The political authorities and the relevant apparatuses should keep their hands off Dar Al-Iftaa and the official religious institutions... The official religious institutions belong to the state, not to the government or the current regime – they are the property of the entire homeland and it is best that they remain far from the political sea and its mire..." [21]

With all candidates behind bars, President Al-Sisi remains on top (Al-Quds Al-Arabi , London, January 25, 2018)

Egyptian Writers Come Out Against Repression, Persecution Of Candidates, And Call For Fair Elections

In light of the regime's repressive measures and persecution, Egyptian writers lamented the sad situation of the current election cycle, criticized the regime's harassment of candidates, and stressed the importance of democracy and free elections as a cornerstone of the state.

April 6 Youth Movement: The Current Elections Are The Worst Yet, Because Of The Repression of The Opposition

In a January 20 article in the Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, Ahmad Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, condemned the repression of the opposition in Egypt and stated that the current regime was even more  predatory than the Mubarak regime: "The current presidential elections are the worst – they have no guarantors, and no local or international oversight. This is in addition to the implementation of emergency law; the closure of the public sphere [to political activism]; the arrests, imprisonment, and suffering in inhuman conditions that we know about; and the politically-biased [court] sentences [meted out] because of [the regime's] fear of any opposition activity. Likewise, the current regime's nature is more predatory than the Mubarak [regime], which tried to show a measure of liberalism in order to alleviate Western pressure..."[22]

In another article published February 26, Maher focused on the steps taken to restrict all potential rivals to Al-Sisi, and expressed pessimism about any change in the situation in Egypt. He wrote: "Until a month ago, I was one of those who espoused the idea of leveraging this farce of an election to create an additional opportunity [to institute change in Egypt] and to regroup the stream of the January [revolution], despite the stringent rules and conditions [for candidacy]. But even this door closed. [The elections] very nearly became a real electoral system when Sami 'Anan threw his hat into the ring. But he was arrested, and before he was arrested, another military candidate, officer Ahmed Konsowa, as well as [candidate] Ahmad Shafiq, were placed under house arrest, after Shafiq was threatened with [accusations related to] old matters.

"This [harassment] did not stop at presidential candidates; former judge Hisham Geneina, one of 'Anan's deputies, was also arrested, and after that the journalist who interviewed him was too. The terror [continues to] rise... With no warning, Muhammad Al-Qassas, deputy chairman of the Strong Egypt party, was arrested, and a few days later party chairman 'Abd Al-Mon'eim Al-Fotouh was arrested as well, and accused of having joined the MB...

"After all this, what will happen [next]? All the paths are now closed, to the point where even chatter and frank conversation at isolated, closed party headquarters, or at a café, are no longer permitted... It seems that there is a point to, or a place for, attempting from within the regime to carry out reforms or to try to stop [the repression]... There are those, and among them the writer of these lines, who tend towards pessimism... This grim situation will continue, and the situation in the region so far is helping this..."[23]

Egyptian Opposition: The Al-Sisi Regime Is Not Allowing Democratic Elections Or Genuine Competition

'Amru Hamzawy, a veteran opposition activist and a political science lecturer known for his activism against the Mubarak regime and his opposition to the Al-Sisi regime, wrote in the Al-Sourouq daily that the Al-Sisi regime is preventing democratic elections and real competition by persecuting candidates, and that Al-Sisi is now the only candidate and the sure winner. He added that by its actions, the regime is making it clear that it bans all pluralism and open up the public sphere [to political activism]. He wrote:

"After forcing Sami 'Anan to withdraw his candidacy, and forcing [Khaled] 'Ali to do likewise, the 2018 presidential election cycle has become a reelection of the incumbent – the only candidate and the sure winner... The dissipation of the early signs of [the opportunity to] run for president in 2018 reflects the current regime's complete lack of desire to use elections as a democratic tool – since a certain type of potential candidate – such as Shafiq and 'Anan – are prohibited; pluralism and real competition are also forbidden... and the leveraging of the elections to open up the public sphere  and to intensify the voices of protest against any economic or social situation – i.e., what Khaled Ali was striving for – are also prohibited.

"By persecuting candidates other [than Al-Sisi], and in contrast to [a situation of] genuine competition, the regime is creating a situation of... the president of the republic's absolute control over the apparatuses of the executive and legislative authorities; the security apparatuses' ability to continue closing the public sphere [to political activism] without tackling greater challenges or dangers; and great weakness among the opposition and its parties..."[24]

Al-Misriyyoun Editor: After The Candidates Have Dropped Out, The Results Are Already Decided – Al-Sisi's The Winner

Al-Misriyyoun acting editor Mahmoud Sultan wrote cynically that the election outcome was already known: "After the dramatic exits of Shafiq, 'Anan, and Khaled Ali from the race, we can already tell President Al-Sisi: Congratulations on your [re]election, Mr. President!.. That's that. The president has been [re]elected... The election outcome does not interest me because it has already been decided..."[25]

Senior Writer: It's A Referendum On A Single Candidate, Not Rivalry Of Several Candidates – And This Tragedy Damages The Democratic Experience

Criticism of the absence of genuine competition in fair and democratic elections also came from non-opposition Egyptian journalists. For example, Muhammad Amin, senior writer and chairman of the Al-Masri Al-Yawm board of trustees expressed his support for President Al-Sisi and praised his achievements, but at the same time criticized the Egyptian MPs who hastened to support him for a second term, and thus harmed the democratic experience. He expressed fear of poor voter turnout, and of a situation in which Al-Sisi would be the only candidate, who, under the Egyptian constitution, would need support from only 5% of those who vote in order to be declared the winner. [26] He wrote:

"Do the representatives of the people want a referendum instead of presidential elections? Does the fact that the president is the most suitable candidate mean that no one should run against him?... Why are they hastening to follow this path? How has the parliament become [a place] for signing forms declaring loyalty to the president? How is it that the Egyptian parliament looks this way? Don't you fear that people will call it [mere] show [elections]?

"No one disagrees that Al-Sisi is the most suitable [candidate] at this time, but he is certainly not the only [candidate]... There is no way around holding elections. Oh you who rush [to support the president as the sole candidate] – do you understand the severity of what is happening? The elections are threatened, because they will take place without the public. No one will manage to draw the masses!

"It is a tragedy that the people has turned its back on the presidential elections. It is a tragedy that the democratic experience has lost its fire. Those who hasten [to support the president] in parliament and in the state apparatuses are not serving him. Those who have led the campaign with the claim that 'the president should be pressured' [into a second term] have not served the [democratic] experience. We are talking, therefore, about the [mere] 5% [of the vote] that is needed for [re]appointing [the president]. Where is the remaining 90% who voted for Al-Sisi the first time?

"Running against a president doesn't insult him at all – it doesn't detract from his efforts, and it isn't defiance against him. Who said that elections constitute humiliation or defiance? The democratic experience in the world must not begin or end without elections. The people's polling places have their say, whether to confirm another term for the president and give him an opportunity to continue, or to replace him because he is unsuitable for the next phase..."[27]

Egyptian Author: The President Must Leave Room For Rivalry Without Harassing His Rivals

In the Al-Wafd party daily, Egyptian author Dr. 'Azza Ahmad Haikal also expressed support for President Al-Sisi's achievements. Like Muhammad Amin, she stressed that candidates running against the president detracted nothing from his status, but instead strengthened his chances for reelection. She wrote: "President Al-Sisi, the politicians, and the security elements... should propose rivals for him, so that the [Egyptian] election system will not look to the world as if... it is valueless and weak, and without competition. An [additional] candidate's run will take nothing away from President Al-Sisi's capability or status, but will strengthen his chances of [re]election...

"Rivalry [among several candidates]... will prove that democracy and free elections are one of the foundations of the Egyptian state, and that Al-Sisi is not a military president who came [to power] by means of a coup – but the opposite, that he is a civilian president who respects the constitution and believes in multiple parties... [The president] and his political government must leave room for competition and for presidential candidates, without [them having to] fear and without harassing [them], and the media must not go overboard in finding fault, in insults, and in attacking anyone considering running, but there must be professional, moral, and political standards and rules so that [the elections] will not become a comedy... and the object of ridicule."[28]


*C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[2] @DrAbolfotoh, January 23, 2018. It should be noted that 'Abd Al-Mon'eim Al-Fotuoh was arrested recently after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera TV in which he spoke about the pressure to which the opposition in Egypt was being subjected by Egyptian security apparatuses. He was charged with connection to the Muslim Brotherhood and with intent to harm the Egyptian regime, and was also added the Egypt's terror list. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 14 and 21, 2018; Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 21, 2018; Al-Rabi Al-Jadid (London, February 23, 2018.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 29, 2018.

[4] Egyptian-American space astronomer Essam Heggy, who served as science advisor to acting Egyptian president 'Adli Mansour, heads the Presidential Staff Initiative and in 2016 announced his desire to run for president of Egypt, but then changed his mind., May 14, 2017; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 9, 2017.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 29, 2018. It should be noted that on February 4, Al-Sadat issued another announcement, calling for a general national dialogue and asking the president to respond to this initiative., February 4, 2018.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 31, 2018. In response, Egyptian Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadeq ordered an investigation against Sabahi and another 12 politicians for anti-regime incitement., February 5, 2018.

[7] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), February 7, 2018.

[8] The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has two main factions – the old guard leadership, headed by Mahmoud 'Izzat, with whom MB Deputy General Guide Ibrahim Muneir is also affiliated, and the younger faction, considered more violent, that is at odds with the former in various areas.

[9], March 4, 2018.

[10] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 30, 2018.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 4, 2018.

[12] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 5, 2018.

[13] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 13, 2018.

[14] Al-Watan (Egypt), February 11, 2018.

[15] Al-Yawm Al-Saba' (Egypt), February 4, 2018.

[16] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 4, 2018.

[17] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 1, 2018.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 9, 2018.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 12, 2018.

[20] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), February 7, 2018.

[21] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), January 30, 2018.

[22] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 20, 2018.

[23] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), February 26, 2018.

[24] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 26, 2018.

[25] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), January 25, 2018.

[26] According to Section 36 of the 2014 Egyptian Presidential Election Law, presidential elections will be held even if there is only one candidate, and if this is the case, his victory will be announced if he receives 5% of the vote.

[27] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 11, 2018.

[28] Al-Wafd (Egypt), January 8, 2018.

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