CAIRO | With presidential elections coming up on March 26, Egypt's capital is festooned with campaign billboards and posters. That's an encouraging sight in the Middle East, and yet I sense that something is amiss. It takes me a while to realize what: The posters and billboards all feature one candidate, incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Other contenders are nowhere to be seen.
I soon learn that's because those who might have given Mr. Sisi a run for his money were persuaded to sit the race out. For example, former Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik had planned to throw his hat in the ring but after a few days in detention — with his family not knowing where he was — he changed his mind.
Or take Gen. Sami Anan, former chief of staff of the Egyptian army. He was accused of bribery and misconduct and placed under house arrest. That apparently dampened his political ambitions.
At this point, Mr. Sisi's only opponent is Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a politician who has supported the president in the past and is likely to do so in the future.
So should we dismiss this election as a charade?
A senior Western diplomat suggests we look at it another way: As an attempt by Mr. Sisi to win a vote of confidence. Turnout reached 47 percent when he ran four years ago, just after the military toppled President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader whose incompetent and oppressive rule had set off mass demonstrations. If turnout is a few points higher this time, Mr. Sisi will be able to claim that most Egyptians think he is steering the country in the right direction.
The bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, a dozen distinguished think tank scholars, are adamant that he is not. They have been attempting to call attention to his "crackdown on human rights," including "extrajudicial killings, the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the widespread documented use of torture, and the forced disappearances of hundreds of Egyptians."
Mr. Sisi's defenders point out that it's not unusual for leaders of nations at war to take extreme, even excessive, measures. And Egypt is at war — against jihadist insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, and against clandestine terrorist cells that can pop up anywhere in the country. The Western investors and tourists Egypt sorely needs will not return until and unless they believe Egypt has become relatively safe.
The president also has been undertaking necessary but unpopular reforms, for example reducing subsidies and letting the currency float to a realistic — and much lower — level.
This, too, is decidedly positive: A devout Muslim, Mr. Sisi has called for nothing less than a "religious revolution" to overthrow the "misleading ideologies harming Islam and Muslims worldwide," and to "stress the importance of renewing the religious discourse and spreading the moderate teachings of Islam."
Little publicized but no less significant is his attempt to reform Egypt's educational system. More than a quarter of the country's population is illiterate. Most of those who do attend school master only rote learning that ill prepares them for employment in today's economy — much less tomorrow's.
Tariq Shawqi is Egypt's new minister of education. He spent 13 years as a researcher and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, among the world's top engineering schools. Last year, when President Sisi asked him to enter the government, he had strong misgivings.
"I told him there will be huge resistance to meaningful change, including from within his cabinet, that it will cost a lot of money, and that the fruits of this effort will not come quickly. But I also told him that without serious educational reform, and I mean a complete overhaul, Egypt will be lost.
"He listened to me for five hours. Then he made the decision. He said, 'We have to do this.' He's the one brave leader willing to do what is necessary."
The reforms Mr. Shawqi envisions go well beyond the new curricula that Egyptian schools will have in September. "We need to teach skills. We need to teach critical thinking. Also mindset: To respect 'the other,' in other words, tolerance. Religion should be a private matter. All that and more has to be embedded in the learning system."
I ask him about the human rights situation. He sighs. "Here we have a jungle," he replies. "The president is dealing with gangsters. Qatar and Turkey are pouring money in to de-stabilize Egypt. Weapons are coming in from Libya. Sisi is trying to protect this country from collapse."
If you're like me, you're now puzzled. The oppression the Egypt Study Group condemns, you can't condone. At the same time, it does seem possible that President Sisi represents Egypt's best — perhaps last — chance to save itself from deepening poverty, increasing conflict and carnage.
How might we translate such ambivalence into policy? At least consider this: Separate freedom from democracy. Press Mr. Sisi to take effective steps to increase the former — but leave the latter for later.
As we should have learned over recent years: Elections alone do not a democracy make. So start with human rights, the most basic being freedom of religion and belief. Next comes the freedom to express one's beliefs. Before long, establish minority rights without which balloting is a path to majoritarian tyranny which is no better than other forms of tyranny.
The journey toward a freer society that, over time, becomes a more democratic society won't be quick or easy. Nothing guarantees success. But if there's a better way, I'm not seeing it.