Still Mr. 97 Percent, Egypt's El-Sisi Defeats Token Opponent

(Bloomberg) -- Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi cruised to a second term as Egypt’s president, scooping up more than 97 percent of valid votes in an election where the only other candidate was a little-known supporter.

Mousa Mostafa Mousa’s last-minute bid was widely considered a token gesture to avoid a one-man race seven years after the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. Of some 60 million registered voters, nearly 25 million, or 41 percent, cast ballots compared to 47 percent in the 2014 election that cemented the ex-general in office, according to results announced by the National Election Authority on Monday.

El-Sisi secured roughly the same proportion of votes as at the height of his popularity in 2014, a year after he led the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi following mass protests. After El-Sisi’s re-election was confirmed, state TV aired patriotic music and images of people celebrating in the street.

As all credible challengers were barred, arrested or withdrew before campaigning began, the election was widely seen as a referendum on the policies that defined El-Sisi’s first term: reviving the economy and combating terrorism.

El-Sisi’s Egypt

Hosts of Egypt’s popular evening talk shows said attention should now turn to El-Sisi’s upcoming tasks, with prominent host Lamees El-Hadidi saying Egyptians were waiting for the fruit of economic reforms and more political freedoms.

“This bloc that supported its president waits for much,” she said. “It waits for him to implement political reform with the same courage that he implemented economic reform, opening up the public sphere, more freedoms, activating the role of political parties and rights groups and listening to other opinions without anger.”

Under El-Sisi, Egypt launched economic reforms that were lauded by the International Monetary Fund but proved painful for ordinary people in a country where more than 27 percent lived in poverty even before the measures. Annual inflation fell to 14.4 percent in February, its lowest level since October 2016, after hovering around 30 percent for much of last year following the flotation of the pound.

El-Sisi has sought to crush militants based in northern Sinai, including a local Islamic State affiliate. But assaults on tourists, mosques and churches have set back efforts to attract investment and battered tourism, a source of foreign currency.

Second Term

Security served as the justification for the ex-army chief’s crackdown on the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other dissenters. Hundreds of opponents have been killed since 2013 and thousands arrested.

Nevertheless, El-Sisi commands widespread admiration among those who value stability after years of upheaval. Some, on the street and in parliament, are already talking about him staying beyond the constitutional limit of two four-year terms.

“His second term will be his last unless he moves to amend the constitution, which would require a referendum. That is something we should pay close attention to over the next year,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and Royal United Services Institute.

El-Sisi’s landslide was reminiscent of the margins Arab autocrats claimed before the 2011 Arab Spring. Rights groups and the United Nations accused him of escalating his crackdown ahead of the vote.

Though U.S. President Donald Trump called to congratulate El-Sisi, the State Department in a statement noted “reports of constraints on freedoms of expression and association in the run-up to the elections.”

“We will continue to encourage a broadening of opportunities for political participation for Egyptians, and emphasize the importance of the protection of human rights,” it said.

Turnout was widely seen as the true test of El-Sisi’s popularity and concerted efforts were made to encourage participation.

Youths wearing T-shirts with nationalist slogans or pictures of El-Sisi milled outside many polling stations, some breaking into dance. One provincial governor pledged added services for the district with the highest turnout, while some voters said they were offered food or rides to polling stations.

There was no indication the efforts were sanctioned or organized by central government, though the elections authority warned that people would be fined 500 pounds ($23) for not voting.

Authorities chafed at suggestions the election was anything but fair.

“What distinguished your turnout was that it wasn’t driven by promises or threats, but by your love for the homeland,” Lasheen Ibrahim, head of the National Election Authority, said as he presented the results.

The authority filed complaints against the local al-Masry al-Youm newspaper and over a pickup of a New York Times election story. It said the outlets had published false news and insulted the elections. Reuters withdrew a story on vote-buying, saying it did not meet its own standards. The State Information Service said it complained about the article and would monitor foreign coverage.

El-Sisi’s rival, Mousa, barely bothered campaigning while Cairo was plastered with billboards of the president.

In his victory speech, El-Sisi thanked Egyptians for renewing his term and said he would work to “achieve development and stability and provide the necessary standard of living”.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.