Posted on: World Politics Review | February 1st, 2018

As Egypt’s presidential election draws closer, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has resolutely quashed any hope that it will allow even a hint of democratic legitimacy. Registration for the March election closed this week after authorities made sure every credible candidate was pushed out of the contest, either through arrest or intimidation. A token contender, whose party had already endorsed Sissi, was added at the last minute to avoid the embarrassment of a one-man race.

The spectacle has been thoroughly demoralizing not only for the opposition, but also for many of the Egyptians who welcomed Sissi nearly half a decade ago as a savior who could pull the country back from the increasingly illiberal policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that was elected in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The former military chief, who came to power in a 2013 coup on the heels of mass protests, credited his rise to the will of the people and was wildly popular at first. Yet he has shown he no longer trusts them to give him their support. And he is making sure no one in the powerful military mounts a challenge.

If this harsh latest chapter in Egypt has been startling, the international reaction to the crackdown has been no less remarkable. As authorities removed one by one the men who dared to run against Sissi, the outcry from the international community, including from Western democracies with close ties to Egypt, has remained decidedly subdued.

While human rights groups have spoken up unambiguously—Amnesty International decried what it called a “brazen attack” on freedom of expression and political participation—world leaders have kept their criticism to barely audible levels. A United Nations spokesman urged Egypt to ensure the election is “credible, inclusive and peaceful.” The European Union has been essentially silent on the matter. Just this week, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Brussels to discuss help for the Palestinians. The diplomats were all smiles, their official statements replete with praise. Mogherini lauded the “indispensable Egyptian role” in Gaza, calling it “extremely positive.” Clearly, democracy in Egypt is nowhere on the crowded list of European concerns.

The U.S. State Department used comparatively strong words about the pre-election crackdown. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington is watching developments closely and called for a “credible electoral process” that “needs to include the opportunity for citizens to participate freely in Egyptian elections.”

But the statements from the State Department briefing room were easily overshadowed by those of Vice President Mike Pence, who just visited Cairo, where he lavished praise on the Egyptian president and discussed the fight against terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There is no evidence that the elections came up, and it’s unlikely that the Trump administration, which has shown little inclination to speak up for democracy, would have brought it up in private.

It is clear that in the current geopolitical climate, no world leader is prepared to make stern demands on the Egyptian strongman. The high hopes of the Arab Spring veered off into civil war and chaos in most places, with the notable exception of Tunisia, and outside powers are once again more interested in stability than democracy, especially given the continuing attacks by extremists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

With two months to go before Sissi will almost certainly be re-elected by something approaching 100 percent of the vote, the field of candidates is all but deserted. Sissi has made sure there is no one in a position to mount even a remotely credible threat.

The elimination of candidates was so thorough, the democratic veil so threadbare, that on Sunday a group of prominent opposition leaders released a statement asking that the elections be scrapped. On Wednesday, a “visibly furious” Sissi, according to the Associated Press, threatened a harsher response to potential protests or attempts to disrupt the vote. “What happened seven or eight years ago will not be repeated,” he warned, referring to the popular protests that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak.

For a brief time, it appeared that Egypt might have a feebly competitive election, one in which candidates—most with military backgrounds—had at least an opportunity to present themselves to voters and put their names on the ballot. Instead, the country has seen an embarrassing string of aborted efforts.

Election preparations have been thoroughly demoralizing not only for the opposition, but also for many of the Egyptians who welcomed Sissi nearly half a decade ago as a savior.