Egypt’s Election Contest Between Generals, Tycoons

Egypt’s parliamentary elections are really a competition between the army and big business.

Egyptians returned to the polls on Saturday for parliamentary elections that will stretch into December of this year. But this first democratic exercise since army chief Abdul Fatah Sisi legitimized his coup in 2014 is little more than a competition between the only two constituencies in the Arab country that have any real power: the military and big business.

Many genuine opposition parties are boycotting the first legislative elections since 2011-2012 when the Muslim Brotherhood won a plurality of the seats in Egypt’s parliament.

Running are retired army officers and businessmen hoping for influence in the military-led government as well as an assortment of leftist and Islamist parties that are likely to split the anti-Sisi vote (assuming the elections are fair).

Sisi has ruled by decree since parliament was dissolved by the nation’s highest court in late 2012. The justices’ decision came after the Muslim Brotherhood of President Mohamed Morsi had tried to reinstate parliament and was followed the next year by Morsi’s removal in a coup.

Disappointed tycoons

Although Sisi has restored some stability to the country and enacted reforms that previous governments shied away from — including cuts in energy subsidies and labor reforms — business leaders are dissatisfied, the news agency Reuters reports. They say the pace of reform has slowed and Sisi seems more interested in using the military to oversee large infrastructure projects than giving room to the private sector.

Sisi champions the success of a “New Suez Canal” — an extension of the vital waterway — and unveiled plans in March to build a new city east of Cairo that should help relief congestion in what is currently the third most densely populated capital city in the world.

At the same time, energy and foreign currency shortages continue to hamstrung growth while the implementation of labor and subsidy reforms has been slowed by Egypt’s bureaucrats.

The International Monetary Fund said earlier this year that Sisi’s reforms were starting to produce a “turnaround.” But so far, big business feels being left out.

“Life used to be cozy for Egyptian tycoons,” according to Reuters, “especially under former president Hosni Mubarak, an ex-airforce chief who opened up the economy during his final decade in power.”

Mubarak’s son, Gamal, a former investment banker, was expected to succeed his father and continue the liberalization. “But all that ended with Mubarak senior’s overthrow in a 2011 popular uprising.”

Corruption and crony capitalism had given liberal economic reforms a bad name in Egypt and failed to stem high unemployment among its urban youth.

Army’s interests

The army, which directly controls vast areas of the economy, from roads to bottled water production, also worried about Mubarak’s succession plans.

Many analysts believe the threat to the military’s interests led it to allow Mubarak’s downfall, even though he was one of one of their own.

Sisi, then, must tread carefully, satisfying businessmen and foreign investors without alarming his generals.