Inside the Middle East's Most Important Upcoming Election

Inside the Middle East's Most Important Upcoming Election
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Why you should care

Because most Egyptians are on the edge of social collapse.

Double-digit inflation, untenable food prices, dwindling water resources, escalated extremism against Christians, vicious crackdowns on perceived dissidents and a serious deterioration of both health and education sectors. Welcome to Egypt, where 95 million people teeter on the edge of social collapse under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. So says Essam Heggy, an Egyptian planetary scientist and former scientific adviser to interim president Adly Mansour, who co-founded the Presidential Plan reform movement with plans to challenge el-Sisi in 2018.

The group recently announced 12 requirements for ensuring free elections in 2018, prompting a swift government backlash that Heggy says is designed to crush peaceful opposition and discredit the electoral process. We caught up with Heggy to find out why the world should be paying attention. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The day after the Civil Democratic Party’s announced opposition plans, the government arrested Khaled Ali and blocked at least 21 websites for “spreading lies and terrorism.” What happened?

Essam Heggy: We presented a list of conditions we think are integral to fair elections and our vision of why education, justice and human rights should be the foundation of government. We also discussed our communication with other civil society forces in Egypt, uniting liberal opposition parties to present a single, cohesive challenge to Sisi in next year’s election. Our team of academics broke the silence and fear that has been built around the succession of Sisi, turning what was supposed to be just a formality into a real confrontation between him and civil society — a confrontation the current regime can no longer escape. So they started arresting our activists. But instead of silencing us, they ignited a massive firestorm with the arrest of Khaled Ali, one of three potential presidential candidates [including Hisham Guenena and Massoum Marzouk] we are rallying behind. The next day, liberal news sites were shut down in an egregious crackdown on freedom of speech. Then they launched an effort to persuade the public that elections are a Western luxury Egypt can’t afford. We are less than 10 months away from elections, and there is no government-announced pathway to the vote, which is anticipated by millions of Egyptians as an opportunity to break with five decades of failed authoritarian military regimes, violence and social injustice.

“We are not waiting for Sisi to change his autocratic methods.”

Essam Heggy

Two of the candidates you’ve been supporting, Khaled and Hisham, have been arrested by security forces. Does this disqualify their candidacies?

We are not waiting for Sisi to change his autocratic methods. He inherited them from long years of service as head of Egypt’s military intelligence, during which time he repressed many of the country’s most qualified military personnel to protect Mubarak’s regime from internal disruptions. Today he is cracking down in an identical way on Egypt’s most courageous, honest and decent public figures, who he sees as a threat to his hold on power. We hope our persistence will show Egyptians that peaceful change is possible if everyone participates, and we are calling for the existing government and the opposition to act responsibly and sincerely in these elections. It may be our last chance to save the country from an uncertain future. If legitimate candidates are disqualified, this will be an open call for chaos by the regime.

President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al Sisi

President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al Sisi addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2016 in New York City.

Source Drew Angerer/Getty

What all is at stake in the 2018 elections?

Egypt is the most populated country in the Middle East … and has one of the region’s highest rates of poverty and illiteracy. These factors, among others, have given birth to an increasing number of jihadists involved in terrorism. If the country continues on the pathway of dictatorship, poverty and substandard education, it will become an even more dangerous place where extremist ideas thrive. That’s why you see repeated violence against Egyptian Christians. But make no mistake, the latest suicide attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is widespread ignorance and hate, which is perpetuated by government-controlled media portraying the country at war, fueling even more hatred. The real war here is the war against poverty and ignorance.

Would you ever run for president yourself?

No, I have a more important fight. As a scientist and educator, I firmly believe that education is the most powerful weapon against poverty and ignorance. Egypt can surprise the world in 2018 by electing a president with a program focused on education and justice as the founding elements of peace and tolerance. If successful, it will create a domino effect across the Middle East, terminating the roots of radicalism and long-lasting conflicts.

* Correction: The original version of this story wrongly attributed the pull quote to the author.

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