Cairo, Egypt – With presidential elections fast approaching, Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has officially declared his candidacy. But the field of potential candidates is thinning out as senior political figures and even candidates question the vote’s fairness.
Interim President Adly Mansour has recently been holding meetings at the Ittihadiya presidential palace with attendees whom he referred to as “top political figures”, in order to defuse criticism surrounding the country’s new election law.
The long-awaited law, issued earlier in March, defines the rules governing the elections – but has prompted criticism from politicians and campaigners alike, for placing the Higher Presidential Elections Commission beyond judicial appeal.
“We have mounted our objection to this because the commission being above judicial review is unconstitutional. We are afraid the law will spoil the integrity of the elections,” a senior campaigner for a presidential hopeful told Al Jazeera.
Prominent left-wing politician and human rights campaigner, Khaled Ali, went further when he officially announced that he wouldn’t be standing in the elections, describing the vote a “farce”, and calling for the military to stay clear of politics.
Mansour’s legal and constitutional affairs adviser, Ali Awad, however, says the law does not violate the constitution. “The courts’ judges agreed that making the commission’s decisions immune to appeals does not contravene Article 97 of the new constitution,” he said in a statement.
The presidential elections are required to be held between February 17 and April 18, according to the constitution passed by popular referendum in January.
The first, and thus far only, contender to Sisi to have officially announced is Hamdeen Sabbahy, the leader of the Egyptian Popular Current party and a supporter of the principles of Egypt’s nationalist second President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
When he stood in the 2012 elections that brought Mohamed Morsi to power, Sabbahy came third behind Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Sabbahy had been arrested 17 times during Mubarak’s tenure for expressions of political dissent.
“Sisi is very popular but a good minister of defence is not necessarily going to make a good president, especially given what we’ve seen over the past few months,” a senior Sabbahy campaigner told Al Jazeera.
Sabbahy has claimed he is contesting the elections in order to represent the principles of Egypt’s 2011 uprisings against Hosni Mubarak.
“We think if the elections are fair, then we stand a good chance this time,” a member of his campaign team said.
The Sabbahy campaign has been holding meetings with other political forces over the past month, including talks with the Dostour and Wafd parties, in order to build a wider political consensus around Sabbahy’s bid.
“We’re not seeking conflict with the army and we are not legitimising a show of democracy. If there are real signs that the vote will not be fair then we will withdraw from the race,” the campaign said.
The Field Marshal
The man considered most likely to win the elections is Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Last July, Sisi, who was the military intelligence chief under Mubarak, ousted forme President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, and has since amassed significant public support.
Regardless of what happens on election day, this is not an environment that offers an even political field in which those challenging the wielders of power have a meaningful chance to win.
Joshua Stacher, assistant professor of Middle East Politics at Kent State University and the author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria, says Sisi’s delayed announcement may have been a tactic designed to keep any potential opposition at a disadvantage.
“Delaying the declaration is an old trick that incumbents like to use. When Sisi is the undeclared candidate there’s no clarity and anyone who wants to contest this and build a ‘no’ campaign can’t effectively organise,” he says.
Stacher adds: “Sisi is actually pretty weak. He’s the CEO of Military Inc, but Military Inc has a board and it’s the board that is making these decisions,” he tells Al Jazeera.
The general is not the only military figure to have hinted at running in the elections. Two former generals expressed interest and then subsequently announced that they will not stand.
Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general who came in a close second to Morsi in the 2012 poll, originally said he would run in this year’s elections if Sisi decided not to stand.
But after a tape in which Shafiq described Sisi’s impending nomination as constituting “ignorance and inexperience” was released on March 13, Shafiq confirmed that he will not run and publicly backed the Sisi campaign.
“It’s nonsense that the armed forces support a candidate for presidency. It’s unprecedented,” Shafiq said in the recording. “I have taken myself out of this loop because the election is going to be a farce… They will fix everything for him… This is going to be a comedy show.”
Retired General Sami Anan, who was second in command of the armed forces under former Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi when the military took power in 2011, had assembled a large campaign team positioning him to run in the elections.
But he then claimed to have survived an assassination attempt near his campaign headquarters on March 10, and three days later announced that he will not run in the elections.
Anan says the decision was not made as a result of pressure from Sisi’s supporters, but “for the sake of the country’s unity”.
Founded in 2012, the Strong Egypt Party’s presidential candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, has said it will boycott the vote, saying it will “not take part in deceiving the people”.
The Salafist al-Nour party and centrist Wafd party have both announced that they do not plan to field a candidate themselves, but have not yet declared whether they will support another political campaign.
Likewise the Dostour party, which was founded by the prominent lawyer, diplomat, and nobel laureate Mohamed Elbaradei, has said it will not field a candidate. The party’s leader Halla Shukrallah said they will not nominate anyone to run, but will support a civilian candidate with democratic credentials.
Ultimately, the political conditions imposed on Egypt by the security apparatus make any meaningful election difficult, according to Hesham Sallam, a fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.
“A good part of Egypt’s political community is in prison, the use of deadly violence against expressions of political dissent is chronic, and politically motivated prosecution of anti-military activists is prevalent,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Regardless of what happens on election day, this is not an environment that offers an even political field in which those challenging the wielders of power have a meaningful chance to win.”
Due to security concerns amid the ongoing detention of Al Jazeera journalists, we are not naming our correspondents in Egypt at this time.