Egyptian regime under pressure to switch order of elections

The landslide approval of a new constitution will increase calls for presidential poll to be held before a parliament is elected

Supporters of Egypt’s defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate this week at the end of the second day of voting in Egypt’s constitutional referendum, in the Shubra district of Cairo. Photograph: Ed Giles/Getty Images

Supporters of Egypt’s defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate this week at the end of the second day of voting in Egypt’s constitutional referendum, in the Shubra district of Cairo. Photograph: Ed Giles/Getty Images


The landslide 97.7 per cent vote for Egypt’s new constitution in this week’s referendum is exerting pressure on the military-backed interim government to reverse the order set in the roadmap adopted last July following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi.

It had been intended to hold parliamentary elections in the next stage of the process, ahead of a presidential poll, but the election of a new president may now take place as early as April, with the vote for a new parliament to follow.

The authorities, political forces and many Egyptians who voted in favour of the new constitution support this change, although some critics argue that the president might assume sweeping powers if there is no parliament to check him.

Others contend that he could postpone the parliamentary election indefinitely if no deadline is fixed.

Pressure to change the order of the polls has, in turn, sharply increased pressure from the public, the military and the politico-commercial elite, dubbed the “oligarchs,” on army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to stand for the presidency.

According to a source with military connections, Sisi is reluctant to run but “has been cornered” by the these powerful elements and the country’s desperate economic situation.

Secular Egyptians
It is expected that Sisi will call upon secular Egyptians to once again take to the squares and streets across the country on January 25th, the third anniversary of the launch of the uprising against 30-year president Hosni Mubarak.

The purpose of this show of public support will be to counter planned Muslim Brotherhood protests against the removal of Morsi and to endorse the general’s bid for the presidency.

So far, he has several potential rivals for the top job, including leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran against Morsi in 2012 and lost; moderate fundamentalist Abdel Moneim Abou El- Fattouh; and former foreign minister Amr Moussa. As the soldier “hero” who toppled Morsi, Sisi is the overwhelming favourite.

If he does stand, he will have to do so as a civilian, analyst Hisham Kassem told The Irish Times. “If he steps out of the army camp, he will be on his own” facing Egypt’s monumental problems. To succeed, he would have to reform the country’s institutions, ministries, police force and judiciary, as well as tackle corruption and effect improvements in the economy.

The next president will also have to “remove subsidies [on flour and fuel], impose taxation and deal with the ‘grey economy’,” said Kassem. These would be very unpopular with the poor, who face a 20 per cent annual rise in the cost of food, and the business class, who resists taxation, and could prompt widespread protests.

Advocates of postponing the parliamentary poll until after a president is in place hold that Egypt’s weak traditional opposition and new political parties require more time to organise and form mergers and alliances ahead of a campaign.

75% independents
Their task may be made more difficult by the fact that 25 per cent of deputies in the new unicameral parliament are to represent parties while 75 per cent are to be independents.

Commentator Youssef Zaki pointed out that the parties most likely to succeed will be Mubarak’s National Democratic party (NDP), the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the ultra-orthodox Salafi Nour party, which could field “independents” as well as party men as they have done for decades.

The NDP machine remains in largely in place. The Brotherhood has been outlawed but not, so far, its Freedom and Justice Party. Nour abandoned the Brotherhood to support the new constitution and is, therefore, considered the chief fundamentalist grouping.

Zaki predicted that the new people’s assembly could look very much like the 2005 parliament, which was dominated by the NDP with a 20 per cent Brotherhood representation by “independents” and a few members from other parties.

He believes “nobody can fix Egypt” at present, particularly because of the deeply entrenched old order, dominated by the oligarchs, and the economic crisis.

Over the past three years, Egypt has spent $20 billion of its foreign exchange reserves, which now stand at about $17 billion.

Since the fall of Morsi, Egypt has received $12 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. However this heavy borrowing has increased government debt as a percentage of GDP and elicited warnings from benefactors that Egypt must find urgent solutions to its financial problems.

Instead of opting for austerity, the interim government drew up a $4.2 billion stimulus plan in August 2013 and pumped money into the economy by raising the public sector minimum wage and pensions and lowering the key interest rate by 1 per cent. The aim – to promote investment and growth.

A further stimulus package worth $3.4 billion is expected this year. The government intends to focus on infrastructure and uncompleted projects that could benefit the populace.

Low growth rate
While the World Bank has predicted that Egypt’s growth rate will increase from 2 per cent in 2013 to 2.2 per cent in 2014, the increase is still much lower than the pre-uprising rate of about 5.1 per cent and far below the rate needed to meet the demands of the country’s swelling resident population of 83 million.

Tourism has fallen dramatically. Few tourists come to Cairo, fewer go to visit the sites at Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt, and those who book package tours to the Red Sea resorts pay reduced full board and room rates and spend little or nothing in shops, restaurants or other facilities.

Meanwhile, Brotherhood cadres and supporters loyal to the jailed senior leadership retain the capacity to act as spoilers by continuing the campaign against the post-Morsi order.

However, Brotherhood protests are diminishing in size while violence perpetrated by radical jihadis and others has given credibility to the accusation that the Brotherhood is a “terrorist” organisation, justifying the crackdown by the army and security forces.

Violence has prompted disaffected members of the Brotherhood to abandon the 85-year old movement, join the Nour party or form their own groupings. This is with the aim of reaching an accommodation with the authorities and the majority of Egyptians, alienated by the Brotherhood’s behaviour since the 2011 uprising.

Regional rivalry
To complicate the situation further, the country is also caught up in the regional rivalry between Saudis and Qataris.

Riyadh supports the military backed government against the Brotherhood and Doha backs the Brotherhood, while Gulf-financed jihadi elements strike the army in Sinai and the security forces and government facilities elsewhere.

In spite of the existential challenges Egypt faces, commentators consulted by The Irish Times are optimistic and insist that the country will survive and overcome its problems in five or 10 years.

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