Egypt's Sisi Turns to Putin Tactics to Win Reelection

A billboard in a street in central Cairo's Ramses district bearing the image of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as part of the campaign for his re-election in the polls scheduled for March 2018. Picture dated January 18, 2018. AMIR MAKAR/AFP/Getty

This article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

With an election looming, the incumbent president arrests and disqualifies all possible opponents, one after another.

Vladimir Putin? Yes, as we see in his treatment of Alexei Navalny. (The BBC tells part of that story here.)

And these moves by Putin have been widely denounced and seen for exactly what they are: a destruction of freedom and democracy in Russia.

The Russian human rights and democracy activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza (who was twice poisoned by Putin's thugs) raised the critical question in a Washington Post article entitled, "If Putin is so popular, why is he so afraid of competition?" Kara-Murza wrote this:

Western commentators who buy into the Kremlin line about Putin's "popularity" among Russian citizens would do well to remember that this assertion has never been tested in a free and fair election against credible opponents. As chess master and Putin critic Garry Kasparov once queried, if "there's one restaurant in town and it serves only one dish … is that dish 'popular'"?

In the absence of objective official indicators, one is left to look for empirical evidence of popular enthusiasm for Putin's rule. One such glimpse was offered on New Year's Eve, when activists in the Western Siberian city of Tyumen held a public meeting in support of Putin's nomination for president — announced in the local media, but not organized in the usual way, with compulsory attendance by state and municipal employees.

In a city of 740,000, this pro-Putin gathering was voluntarily attended by nine people. Stories such as this seem to confirm the simple (and self-evident) truth: that a leader with real popular support would not be afraid of real competition at the ballot box.

Now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt is doing exactly the same thing. The Washington Post reports that:

Egypt's military on Tuesday arrested former military chief of staff and presidential hopeful Sami Annan, leveling an array of serious allegations against him in what appears to be a calculated move by the armed forces and the incumbent to push him out of the race.

With his bid to win the presidency now all but dead, Annan becomes the latest presidential hopeful to be driven out of the race in an election virtually certain to be won by another graduate of Egypt's powerful military establishment, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi....

With Annan out of the race and possibly facing a court martial, only one serious presidential hopeful is left in the field: Prominent rights lawyer Khaled Ali, whose own candidacy could be at risk if his September conviction of making an obscene hand gesture in public is upheld on appeal, rendering him ineligible....

Two other presidential hopefuls have been forced to quit the race.

Former prime minister and air force general Ahmed Shafiq said he did not think he was the "ideal" man to lead the nation after days of harsh criticism, some personal, by the pro-el-Sissi media. Shafiq finished a close second in a 2012 election and his candidacy would have also livened up the 2018 race.

Another one is former lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat. He said he quit the race partially because he feared for the safety of his supporters. Sadat is a nephew of Egypt's late leader Anwar Sadat.

This is Putinesque: call an election (Egypt's is scheduled for March 26-28) and then use the police and military to be sure no one can run against you. The New York Times explained:

Mr. Anan, 69, was not considered a strong challenger to Mr. Sisi, a former general who has ruled Egypt with an iron grip since 2014, when he was elected with 97 percent of the vote. But his detention does suggest how far Mr. Sisi is willing to go to clear the field of challengers.

That Sisi feels it necessary to do this is a cautionary tale for Washington. How popular can this man be if he is afraid to let any serious opponent take him on?

Logically, someone who is popular will be happy to have that demonstrated by a smashing electoral victory. Sisi is acting like someone who knows he has lost the support of the Egyptian people.

So let's ask the same question that Kara-Murza asked about Putin:"If Sisi is so popular, why is he so afraid of competition?" And if he knows his popularity has disappeared, we in the United States should be equally aware--and that should inform American policy toward Sisi's regime.

We have tended to treat him like the popular leader who saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, because that's how many Egyptians saw him in 2013.

But that's five years ago and it seems clear to Sisi that more and more Egyptians now regard him as just another general, intent on staying in power forever, repressing any criticism, presiding over vast corruption and destroying the possibility of democracy in Egypt.

Kara-Murza said it plainly: "a leader with real popular support would not be afraid of real competition at the ballot box." The Egyptian people can see through Sisi. So should we.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.