A little over a month ago, for the first time in four years, Egypt held parliamentary elections. Since a popular revolution toppled President Mubarak in 2011, political participation in Egypt had risen immensely. Yet on October 18, 2015, few turned out to vote, leaving the lines at polls short or nonexistent. In spite of the government’s insistence that these elections were part of Egypt’s democratic transition, the low turnout indicates an erosion of political participation that has challenged the legitimacy of the nascent government.
What determines political legitimacy?
Determining a leader’s political legitimacy in a democratic context boils down to two things: winning a free, democratic election and reflecting the will of the people. A candidate should fulfill both requisites to be considered a legitimate leader. Mohammed Morsi was the first democratically-elected leader of Egypt, but he failed to restore security, fix the economy, and answer the people’s calls for social justice and rights. Despite winning a democratic election, Morsi’s inability to deliver positive results weakened his legitimacy as president and led to renewed popular protests, followed by a military takeover a year later.
Legitimacy of President al-Sisi
President al-Sisi’s popular support is based on inflated numbers, rather than reliable data. Baseera, the Egyptian Center for Public Research, conducted a poll in May 2014 and found that 87% would participate in the presidential election, with 76% saying they would vote for al-Sisi. Following the election, which took place from May 26-28, election officials announced that 47.5% of 53 million voters participated, with al-Sisi winning 96% of the vote. But according to the Pew Research Center, which also conducted a public opinion poll in May 2014, only 54% of Egyptians favored al-Sisi prior to the presidential election. While that does indicate enough support to win an election, it does not corroborate the Egyptian center’s nor the election officials’ findings, which suggests that those poll results were inflated to reflect the notion that al-Sisi has a high favorability among Egyptians. In spite of these supposedly high poll numbers, however, the government’s actions during the presidential election conveyed a sense of desperation to bolster voter turnout. It created a public holiday, extended the election, and imposed heavy fines, which undermined the credibility of the results. As a result, Egypt’s road to democracy began with a questionable electoral process that was staged against the backdrop of repression.
The parliamentary election on October 18th was yet another attempt to show that al-Sisi’s government promotes democracy and is “overwhelmingly” favored by the Egyptian people. But in this case, no amount of encouragement or public holidays could convince the people to vote. The reality is that al-Sisi is not as popular as he claims to be.
In spite of a lack of popular support, al-Sisi remains in power. Unlike his predecessor, he has addressed the need to restore security and stability to Egypt, which are essential to preventing further political and economic turmoil. But in doing so, he has oppressed the Egyptian people by controlling the press, banning demonstrations, crushing political opposition, and imprisoning thousands. In other words, al-Sisi values security over democracy, using the threat of terrorism as justification for his ever-expanding emergency powers and repressive tactics. These actions contradict his claims that he is a genuinely popular leader of a budding democracy, greatly diminishing his legitimacy as president.
It is evident that al-Sisi is in power not because the Egyptian people overwhelmingly approve of him, but because he has become too powerful to remove. The underlying purpose of the parliamentary election was to deliver a legislature loyal to al-Sisi’s regime. His regime would then amend the Constitution to reduce the legislature’s power and increase those of the president, removing the possibility of impeachment and further consolidating his power to ensure the longevity of his rule.
In other words, al-Sisi is not a legitimate democratic leader. From the beginning, he has used his power to manipulate the system so that he would come out on top. And now that he is at the helm, he has continued to use his immense executive power to stifle and shut down avenues through which the Egyptian people can voice their opinions and effect change. Even though he has addressed the demands for security and stability, the nearly 72% of Egyptians have expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s direction. For all his talk of a country transitioning to a democracy, the questionable elections and increasingly repressive measures indicate otherwise. These things do not represent a progression towards democracy, but rather a return to authoritarianism.