The Egyptian presidential election has shown that the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi still enjoys support among the same constituencies that opposed the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013. However, there has been a noticeable transformation within the regime’s support circles. Part of it has shifted from an active and unreserved support in 2014 towards a passive and conditional one in 2018.
Where supporters of the regime once showed their support by taking to the streets in 2013 and readily casting their votes in the 2014 election, many did not turn out this time. While around 25.5 million votes were cast in favour of Sisi in 2014, he received only 24.3 million this time, despite the total number of citizens with the right to vote increasing from 53.9 million in 2014 to 59.1 million in 2018. Moreover, many voted for Sisi despite facing economic difficulties and they harbour high expectations for the regime to ease this hardship over the coming four years.
Support for the regime continues mainly due to its success on the security front. Over the last couple years, the regime has largely delivered on matters concerning security, particularly in mainland Egypt. The number of violent attacks outside North Sinai dropped from 671 in 2015 to 131 in 2016. Moreover, there were only three attacks outside North Sinai in the first quarter of 2017, in comparison to 75 attacks during the same period in 2016 and 261 during the first quarter of 2015.
However, the regime still faces many difficulties on an economic level and has therefore taken a number of austerity measures that include subsidy cuts and the liberalization of the exchange rate. Despite protective actions taken to soften the impact of these measures, particularly for the lower classes, many Egyptians have been severely and negatively affected by the high inflation rates produced by the austerity measures. Unlike the curve of violent attacks, the inflation curve has increased over the last couple of years; 2017 in particular was a difficult year for many Egyptians with the inflation rate reaching more than 30% in some months.
As for the opposition, there was almost no active resistance from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2018 elections, unlike in 2014 when the movement launched a large-scale campaign to discredit the electoral process. The Muslim Brotherhood has been weakened over the past four years, largely due to security crackdowns but also due to an internal dispute between the movement’s leaders, which has left the organization with two competing ‘guidance offices’ (the top executive body that formulates the policies of the movement) and disappointed rank-and-files.
The election also confirms the ongoing credibility crisis of the ‘secular’ political elite since they failed to manage the transitional period after the ouster of Mubarak in 2011. Left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi is a case in point: While he came in third place during the 2012 presidential elections with 4.8 million votes, Sabahi only received 757,511 votes when he ran against Sisi in 2014. Once again, in this election, leftist lawyer Khaled Ali had difficulties collecting the 25,000 signatures required to run for the post.
However, despite the weakness of the opposition figures, the number of invalid votes reached more than 1.7 million. This indicates that there is still a small but growing sector that is actively opposing the regime. While it is hard to know for sure how many of these invalid votes were intentional, their total appears to be growing alongside calls to boycott elections. The number of invalid votes during the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, when there were no calls to boycott, was 406,720. In the 2014 presidential elections, that number more than doubled to over one million. This time around, amid clear calls to boycott, the number of invalid votes cleared 1.7 million.
In summary, the 2018 elections in Egypt show that the regime still enjoys popular support, even if part of this support shifted to be more passive and conditional than the backing it enjoyed in 2014. The political opposition, both Islamic and secular, remains weak and is unlikely to present any challenge to Sisi during his second mandate. However, there is a small but growing number of active opposing voices, as shown by the number of invalid votes, that might constitute increased defiance if it reaches the regime’s passive supporters.
After restoring security in mainland Egypt in its first mandate, the regime’s main challenge in the coming four years will be to deliver on the economic level. The government will hence need to move more carefully when implementing its economic reforms, in order to avoid a situation where its passive supporters, who find themselves affected by economic grievances, move closer to the revolutionary bloc, similar to what occurred during Hosni Mubarak’s last years.
Dr Georges Fahmi, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa.