Sisi’s Plebiscitary Election

by Mona El-Ghobashy | published March 25, 2018

Since January, international media and rights groups have decried the escalating repression ahead of Egypt’s March 26-28 presidential election. Fourteen rights organizations have demanded that the United States and European Union “denounce these farcical elections.” [1] In a letter to former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, ten senators worried that the government’s manipulation “will make it impossible for the Egyptian people to participate in a legitimate democratic exercise.” [2] Pundits indulged their habit of Egypt Kremlinology, speculating on the disposition of the incumbent Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi; “Egypt’s Paranoid President,” headlined The Economist. [3] Yet condemnation and pearl-clutching missives are no substitute for understanding why al-Sisi is going through the effort of an election cleansed of competitors, bereft of voter choice and without impact on who rules. Why is al-Sisi organizing an unambiguous farce in which his sole opponent is an obscure toady gleaned from the scrap heap of fourth-rate politicians?

One might reasonably point out that sham presidential elections are not new to Egypt. They were pioneered by Hosni Mubarak in 2005 as a dry run for the subsequent cycle of multi-candidate elections scheduled for September 2011, that were to include his son Gamal as the chief contender. As it happened, a national uprising put paid to that plan and enabled the first competitive presidential elections in republican Egypt in 2012. The politician who narrowly won that contest, Mohamed Morsi, has been in solitary confinement since his July 2013 ouster and arrest by al-Sisi, where he has suffered a loss of sight in one eye among other debilities. [4] We could draw a straight line from Mubarak to al-Sisi, passing over the Morsi interlude as a blip in the deeper structure of Egyptian authoritarianism. But that would be to miss the direct connection between al-Sisi’s mode of rule and the democratic mass politics that he works daily to extinguish.

As the general who seized power from the country’s first freely elected president, al-Sisi cannot seriously be expected to create the conditions for a free, competitive poll. Nor can we pretend that pressure from his foreign patrons will make him see the error of his ways and suddenly accede to honest elections. At the same time, it is not an option for al-Sisi to dispense with elections altogether, forfeiting the crucial optics of popular participation. Al-Sisi’s rationale for toppling and then personally replacing Morsi is that he and fellow military generals are more popular, more competent and more qualified to rule Egypt. That claim requires some visible manifestation, hence al-Sisi’s interest in mass displays of public adulation. Recall the flag-waving crowds of 2013 and 2014, brandishing posters of al-Sisi, effusing confidence in the military as heroic slayers of the villainous Muslim Brothers and saviors of Egypt from impending civil war. The form of popular investiture that al-Sisi seeks is an older, forgotten mode of legitimation, elections-as-acclamation rather than elections-as-competition.

One Word, Two Meanings

If democratic elections are about “elites who propose themselves” rather than “impose themselves,” as Italian parliamentarian and theorist Norberto Bobbio phrases it, [5] it is not a contradiction in terms to speak of acclamatory elections. Such elections are a fixture in the annals of autocracy, to project an organic unity with “the people”, dramatize the weakness and isolation of opposition groups, and earn certificates of good conduct from foreign patrons no longer able to tolerate client regimes unadorned by limited elections. Acclamatory elections are not simply corruptions of competitive elections. In the hands of military oligarchs such as al-Sisi, the concept of elections as a contest for freely cast votes is replaced with a counter-concept of elections as a pledge of allegiance to an unmatched leader. Instead of going where the voters are and wooing them, acclamatory elections require voters to herd at polling stations and express their fealty en bloc. Like the herding of fellaheen to the polls during the monarchy and the bussing of civil servants during the Mubarak regime, elections in the time of al-Sisi are about political domination, not voter attitudes and choices

Unlike Mubarak, however, who went through the motions of wooing humble citizens, al-Sisi has no truck with that kind of political theater. Where Mubarak doffed his necktie and took afternoon tea at the home of fake fellaheen while campaigning in 2005, al-Sisi put on his cap and fatigues in both 2014 and 2018. His campaign has consisted of appearing in person only before military and police audiences, leaving the get-out-the-vote scutwork to the 549 members of parliament (out of 596) who filed nominations to support him. The message is that he is thoroughly consumed in the fight against terrorism, his regime’s core ideology, and the role of citizens is to turn up in droves at polling stations to gratefully cheer him on.

The achievement of national elections during the 2011-2012 juncture—the March 2011 referendum, the November-December 2011 legislative poll, the May-June 2012 presidential elections, the December 2012 constitutional referendum—is that their results registered the political attitudes and choices of voters, not the wishes of rulers. For the first time, analysts saw real turnout figures and pored over district-level results undistorted by government falsification. [6] It was the beginning of an electoral sociology, [7] complete with conflicting interpretations of results, meaningful debates about voters’ multiple motivations and declining turnout, and at last, data about the geography of support for the Muslim Brothers after years of groundless speculation. [8] By definition, a military regime exists to suppress all this valuable information, by canceling the procedures that generate it.

For al-Sisi, his fellow generals, and their Gulf and Israeli backers, acclamatory elections are but one part of the existential project to permanently undo the citizen assertiveness and leader accountability made possible by the revolutionary situation. Recalling that time on his recent trip to Egypt, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman rejoiced, “I prayed to God that Egypt would not collapse. What I saw today confirmed to me that God answered my prayer.” [9] For Egyptians, the Saudi-blessed counter-revolution has meant a systematic program of enforced demobilization backed by state violence. Under the omnibus “defending public order,” protest, expression and association are subject to intense government regulation. The Muslim Brothers have been designated a terrorist organization in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and a “counter-terrorism” law in Egypt criminalizes peaceful acts of civil disobedience and satirical dissident speech, facilitating detentions and forced disappearances at an unprecedented rate. [10] Unending police impunity, [11] a vengeful judicial system and freshly built prisons await anti-coup activists. [12] UN human rights specialists have flagged a pattern of death sentences based on unfair trials. [13] Egypt has become the kind of place where a teacher turns in a student for having a political insignia on his ruler; [14] police fatally shoot an activist commemorating the January 25 revolution with flowers; [15] and an 18-year-old student spends 800 days in pre-trial detention, for wearing a T-shirt that reads, “A Nation Without Torture.” [16]

Elections as Cheerleading

In theory, al-Sisi could have carried out a conventional putsch—arresting the embattled civilian president in the wee hours, seizing strategic installations, and filling the capital’s streets with tanks. Instead, he and fellow generals worked hard and in the full light of day, coordinating with civilian opponents of Morsi, recruiting pliant “youth leaders” to front the anti-Morsi opposition, and facilitating the countrywide June 30 protests demanding early presidential elections. During the protests, the military commissioned a movie director to film the capital’s anti-Morsi crowds, later broadcasting the footage as evidence of the military’s popular backing. They bathed Tahrir Square in flags while military helicopters traced hearts in the sky, and instructed their publicists to claim spurious numbers of 17 million and 34 million demonstrators on the march. The point was to outdo the 13.2 million votes cast for Morsi, supplanting carefully counted ballots with wildly inflated protest figures. To wrest the highest state office back from civilian interlopers, the military exploited the currency of popular mobilization generalized by the uprising, if only to avoid pariah status in an international order that frowns on the old-fashioned coup-making of secrecy, surprise, and force. Operating in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval loaded with democratic aspirations, the generals exploited the polysemy inherent in ‘rule by the people,’ replacing the practices of popular sovereignty with the optics of popular acclamation.

In the weeks after the July 3 coup, al-Sisi moved to simultaneously crush anti-coup street resistance while demanding pro-coup demonstrations. He called for a mass protest on July 24, 2013 to certify unaccountable state violence. “I’m asking you to show the world, if violence is sought or terrorism is sought, the military and the police are authorized to confront this,” he intoned. [17] The unprovoked confrontation ensued on August 14, 2013, when military and police violently disbanded the two huge sit-ins of Morsi supporters in Rabaa’ and al-Nahda, a planned operation that Human Rights Watch called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day.” [18] When al-Sisi put himself up for a plebiscitary election in May 2014, it was framed in the same mode of enthusiastic popular vivats for a hero who had rescued Egypt from terrorism and restored social peace. Al-Sisi’s victory was dramatized by an unreal opponent. Hamdeen Sabahy, the dark horse who came in third in the first round of the 2012 elections, with 20.7 percent of the vote, was dragooned into service as al-Sisi’s sole challenger. The result: 96.9 percent of the vote for al-Sisi and 3.9 percent for Sabahy. “The announced result is an insult to the intelligence of the Egyptians,” Sabahy complained. [19] Even more important was the announced turnout figure: 47.5 percent of 53 million voters, closely tracking the 46.4 percent turnout for the first round of the 2012 presidential poll.

The 2014 acclamation anointing al-Sisi as president had as one of its goals superceding the 2012 vote, casting it as so much meaningless formalism transcended by a more authentic expression of the popular will. In this al-Sisi tapped into the argument then popular among anti-Morsi intellectuals, who had chastised international media for calling the 2013 coup a coup, complaining that the Muslim Brothers’ mantra that the ouster of the first democratically elected president is the end of democracy is a gross abuse of the essential meaning of democracy and a reflection of the trivialization of democratic processes by reducing them to electoral politics only.” [20] Just as he appropriated the uprising’s mode of demand-making crowds regularly filling streets, al-Sisi reworked the cliché that the Muslim Brothers fetishized elections, using it as a repudiation of competitive elections in toto. In place of voter queues and fingers stained with indelible ink, state television and the pro-government private media broadcast some voters dancing in front of polling stations and exaggeratedly kissing photos of al-Sisi. The army and police seized Tahrir Square and turned it into an exclusive space for pro-al-Sisi throngs. After election commissioners announced the results, journalists chanted “Sisi!” and took over the podium, dancing to pro-army songs. [21] Such performances are foreign to competitive elections, but necessary for hail-the-leader plebiscites. To be sure, during the presidential election in 2012, voters expressed intense emotions of joy, ambivalence and trepidation. Morsi supporters filled Tahrir Square and erupted in deafening celebration as the final results were read out. Yet there is a difference between genuine joy at winning an unpredictable race and prescribed joy at the end of a scripted operation.

Specters of 2012

In the lead-up to his second plebiscitarian election, al-Sisi has unexpectedly had to contend with the germ of competition stubbornly binding itself to the procedure of elections. Starting in December 2017, he began serially eliminating rivals as they emerged from different quarters. Unlike Vladimir Putin, with his seven challengers in the March 2018 Russian elections and Hosni Mubarak, with his suave management of liberal politician Ayman Nour’s unwelcome candidacy in 2005, al-Sisi is not willing to take the controlled risk of a multi-candidate contest, even if the outcome is not in doubt. This may be because all but two of the potential challengers are known quantities, having been on the ballot during the first round of the 2012 election. [22] Their re-emergence reflects different currents of opposition generated by al-Sisi’s own policies. Allowing them to run would have shifted the election from an endorsement of his prowess to an uncontained appraisal of his record.

First to emerge was Ahmed Shafiq, the former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister who narrowly lost to Mohamed Morsi in 2012, with 48.3 percent of the vote to Morsi’s 51.7 percent. In a video broadcast on Al Jazeera in late November from his Dubai exile, Shafiq fixated on the lack of tangible economic improvements as his electoral plank. Left unchecked, Shafiq could have rallied the cross-class constituency that supported him in 2012, a bloc desiring upgraded elite rule and fearful of handing state power to political unknowns, especially Islamists. In short order, the UAE authorities deported him to Cairo, where he was whisked away by security agents at the airport and kept incommunicado in a luxury hotel suite until January 8, when he issued a statement on Twitter declaring, “I have seen that I will not be the ideal person to lead the state’s affairs during the coming period.” [23]

Next arose a very different would-be candidate, a man who was the youngest presidential contender in 2012 with a following among young secular activists and progressive intellectuals. Human rights lawyer Khaled Ali had an unexpected second brush at national prominence in 2016, when he led the legal challenge to what is arguably al-Sisi’s costliest foreign policy blunder: the handover of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The campaign led to embarrassing court rulings against the transfer and spirited public protests, tarring al-Sisi as an unreliable custodian of national territory and prompting an angry public debate about Egypt’s dwarfed stature relative to its Gulf benefactors. The controversy burnished Ali’s national standing, and he began collecting the 25,000 citizen endorsements required to get on the ballot. Citing arrests among his campaigners and obstructions in assembling the paperwork, Ali formally withdrew from the election on January 24.

Another threat to al-Sisi came from the fourth vote-getter in the 2012 poll, although he had steered clear of the 2018 election. Former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh was an enthusiastic participant in the June 30 anti-Morsi protests but had kept a low profile after the July 3 coup. He broke his silence this February, granting a series of hard-hitting television interviews in London to Al Jazeera and other outlets in which he lambasted al-Sisi and called for a boycott of the upcoming poll. Within hours of his return to Cairo, he was arrested, placed on the terrorism list, and his assets confiscated. The domestic intelligence service alleges that Abul Fotouh possessed documents that included “how to mobilize crowds” and “bringing down the political and legal state’s legitimacy.” [24] Abul Fotouh’s articulate straight talk was perhaps the most direct criticism of al-Sisi by a credible public figure in the past five years, puncturing the miasma of al-Sisi sycophancy in the Egyptian public sphere and potentially inspiring others.

Sami Anan’s thwarted candidacy has received the lion’s share of attention, because it hints at what often happens to putschist militaries but has heretofore been invisible in Egypt: emergent splits within the military. Once the Pentagon’s favorite for a leadership role in post-Mubarak Egypt, [25] military chief of staff Anan was discredited by his management of the transition, along with Mohamed Husein Tantawi, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Morsi sidelined Anan in August 2012 when the latter picked al-Sisi as his defense minister, but that was not to be the end of Anan’s public presence. He resurfaced ever so briefly during the 2014 election as a potential candidate, but backed out quietly when fellow generals prevailed upon him to keep the curtain drawn on their internal rivalries. He was not so cooperative this year, presenting himself to the public in a prepared video statement similar to Shafiq’s, and reportedly apprising US and Saudi figures of his bid. [26] Three days later, military men pulled Anan out of his car, bundled him into a van headed to a military prison, and ransacked his residence and confiscated documents.

Why such a public humiliation for a fellow military oligarch? In the video, Anan named the taboo of al-Sisi’s rights record, announcing former anti-corruption head Hisham Geneina as his “vice president for human rights.” When Geneina was himself attacked by armed men on his way to submit a legal challenge to Anan’s disqualification, he gave a recorded video interview to a journalist (later also detained) that revealed why Anan had to be silenced so peremptorily. Propped up in bed, his eye badly bruised and swollen from the knife attack, Geneina calmly made the explosive announcement that Anan possessed videotapes of heated SCAF discussions from autumn 2011 that shed light on the role of military intelligence in the mass murder of unarmed protesters. The events in question are the Maspero massacre of 24 Coptic protesters in October and three times as many protesters in November-December near Tahrir Square. The chief of military intelligence during both massacres was al-Sisi.

Besides pointing to grumblings against al-Sisi among those with the capacity to unseat him, Anan’s venture represents two more threats. In his explicit inclusion of Geneina and academic Hazem Hosny as his two deputies, Anan addressed a segment of both the domestic public and foreign patrons who have lost confidence in exclusive military rule and its paltry returns under al-Sisi, and who would be receptive to a new, joint civilian-military stewardship. After all, al-Sisi’s key claim of eradicating terrorism is belied by continued inability to prevent major Islamic State attacks, despite using overwhelming military force in Sinai, even relying on secret Israeli airstrikes, and using heavy armored vehicles to demolish whole neighborhoods and evict residents. [27] Anan and Geneina also placed on the public radar, albeit fleetingly, a matter that has well and truly been buried under all the anti-terror bluster: the succession of state killings of unarmed civilians from January 2011 to the present, when al-Sisi was director of military intelligence, then defense minister, then president. The human rights community in Egypt and abroad has long tracked the role of military intelligence in state killings, torture and disappearances. [28] The broader public remains in the dark, cowed or captive to the official creed that the state protects the population.

The Limits of Acclamation

Four years into his rule, with unpopular foreign policies, no letup in militant attacks, no improvement in economic conditions, and the evaporation of the savior mystique that carried him through the first election, al-Sisi continues to demand comprehensive turnout. In 2014, he reckoned that 80 percent of voters would show up, but the announced figure was 47.5 percent, despite the panicked addition of a third voting day, making election days public holidays, and threatening to fine abstainers. This year, he told a police audience, “If (all Egyptians) vote and a third say ‘No’, that would be a lot better than if half that number turn out and all of them say ‘Yes.’” [29] This drops all pretenses that the election is anything but a plebiscite, and points to an interest not in unanimous approval, but in universal attendance with a serviceable minority of naysayers. That minority can then be instrumentalized as a token of al-Sisi’s power and a testament to the credibility of the process, as if to say: the process was free and fair, and there’s a ‘No’ vote to prove it.

Yet the demand for a huge turnout works at cross-purposes with the bedrock of al-Sisi’s rule: To demobilize the political energies and open conflicts that characterized the 2011-2012 revolutionary situation, when nearly every state institution, public policy and power relation was the object of intense struggles of uncertain settlement. From day one of his July 3 coup, al-Sisi has directed a relentless campaign to depoliticize and incapacitate the population, riveting the old relations of deference and subordination between those who rule and those coerced to obey. But plebiscitary elections are part of a different type of autocratic rule, one that orchestrates continuous and diverse performances of citizen enthusiasm and state-identification. One brand of autocracy thrives on filling streets, stadiums and polling stations with painstakingly organized chanting crowds; the other wants to clear the streets, divert citizens into the minutiae of private life, smash any hint of political organization (including a state party) and disengage the public entirely from independent interest in public affairs.

Of course, it is of no concern to al-Sisi that his regime is a mash-up of two different modes of autocracy, but he cannot escape the tension inherent in plebiscitary elections: The coding of voter abstention as a form of dissent, a refusal to obey the diktat of the leader to render legitimate what is illegitimate. Just as protests of various types continue [30] and a biting culture of al-Sisi ridicule [31] thrives despite the prosecutorial atmosphere, nonvoting and disputes about its true extent will serve as a marker of the refusal to accept the official version of reality. Plebiscitary elections require a field purged of all alternatives, but they cannot efface alternative understandings of reality, alternative conceptions of political power, or alternative interpretations of what the elections mean once the results are announced and the state-orchestrated pageant is over. Ironically, with every performance of popular acclamation, the official version of reality invites its own negation, multiplying rather than tamping down doubts about the declared turnout, vote shares and the invulnerability of a ruling group that refuses to submit even to controlled competition. Telegraphing his desired vote distribution even before the first vote is cast, al-Sisi wrecks even the semblance that the poll registers rates of popular approval. By pushing the ruler-centered rather than voter-centered meaning of elections, scripted plebiscites dredge up the very dispositions they are meant to suppress: disbelief, doubt, derision.


[1] Human Rights Watch, February 13, 2018.
[2] “Rubio, Menendez, Colleagues Urge Secretary Tillerson to Reaffirm U.S. Commitment to Democracy, Human Rights in Egypt,” March 7, 2018; https://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?id=2DDE5730-2B5A-416C-B103-7D29CBC0DB53
[3] The Economist, March 8, 2018.
[4] Associated Press, March 6, 2018.
[5] Norberto Bobbio, “The Future of Democracy,” Telos 61 (1984): 3-16.
[6] Eric Schewe, “A First Look at First Round Egypt Presidential Election District Results,” July 26, 2012; https://ericschewe.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/a-first-look-at-first-round-egypt-presidential-district-results/
[7] Bernard Rougier and Hala Bayoumi, “The Electoral Sociology of the Egyptian Vote in the 2011-2013 Sequence,” in Bernard Rougier and Stéphane Lacroix, Eds., Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion, and Social Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 139-159.
[8] Jeffrey Martini and Stephen Worman, “Voting Patterns in Post-Mubarak Egypt,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2013); https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR223.html
[9] Reuters, March 15, 2018.
[10] Amnesty International, July 13, 2016.
[11] Human Rights Watch, September 5, 2017
[14] The Guardian, December 10, 2013.
[15] Vice, February 24, 2015.
[16] BBC News, January 25, 2017.
[17] New York Times, July 24, 2013.
[18] Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2014.
[19] CNN, June 4, 2014.
[20] Global Fund for Women, July 8, 2013.
[21] Reuters, June 3, 2014.
[22] The other two disqualified would-be candidates are army colonel Ahmed Qonsowa (sentenced to a six-year prison term by a military court) and former parliamentarian Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, who withdrew after the security services blocked his campaign from holding press conferences.
[23] Reuters, January 7, 2018.
[24] Human Rights Watch, February 26, 2018.
[25] New York Times, March 10, 2011.
[26] Abdo Moussa, “The One Candidate Elections and Renewal of Authoritarian Facades in Egypt,” (Doha: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, January 2018); https://www.dohainstitute.org/ar/Lists/ACRPS-PDFDocumentLibrary/The-one-Candidate-Elections-and-Renewal-of-Authoritarian-Facades-in-Egypt.pdf
[27] Human Rights Watch, September 22, 2015.
[28] The Guardian, April 10, 2013.
[29] Reuters, March 15, 2018.
[31] Agencia EFE, March 10, 2018.
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