- - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

CAIRO — Egypt’s presidential election scheduled for late March has taken on an increasingly authoritarian flavor, as government officials pressure virtually every serious rival to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to drop out.

With one challenger arrested and a second dropping out in the space of two days this week, political observers say Mr. el-Sissi is presenting Egyptian voters more with a referendum on his rule rather than a genuine competition with other candidates. The irony of the political strong-arming is that Mr. el-Sissi, the former army chief who has been in power since a 2014 coup, retains strong popularity among voters.

The president, who officially submitted his nomination application Wednesday, has cleared his electoral path to another term without addressing Egypt’s deeper political, economic and security challenges.

El-Sissi is viewed as the military figure who saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013,” said Amr El Shobaki, a political scientist and chairman of the Arab Forum for Alternatives, a think tank in Cairo. “I think that this lack of choices is a loss for the pro-Sissi movement, which still has a majority of support despite the decline in his popularity.”

On Wednesday, leftist human rights lawyer Khaled Ali bowed out of the race after accusing the government of intimidating his campaign workers.

“People’s confidence that this election can be transformed into an opportunity to have a new start has, in my view, regrettably ended,” he told a Cairo press conference.

Mr. Ali “had to announce his withdrawal,” said Hamada El Semelawey, 27, an Ali supporter and Cairo University graduate student. “It’s over because el-Sissi would have destroyed us.”

A day earlier, authorities detained former armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan on charges that his campaign violated military law when he failed to seek his commanders’ permission to run for office. Mr. Anan was widely seen as Mr. el-Sissi’s prime competition in the three-day election starting March 26.

The arrest brought a sharp condemnation from the international rights group Amnesty International.

“It is clear that the Egyptian authorities are hell-bent on arresting and harassing anyone who stands against President el-Sissi,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa Campaigns director, The Associated Press reported. “This is consistent with the Egyptian government’s ongoing efforts to crush dissent and consolidate power by attacking civil society, activists and human rights defenders in the country.”

Last week, former lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat — a nephew of former President Anwar Sadat — also terminated his candidacy. Former prime minister and air force Gen. Ahmed Shafiq pulled out of the race this month after security forces detained him in a hotel when he returned to Egypt from exile in the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Shafiq has since been released.

Mr. Anan’s declaration to run drew particular ire from the military establishment after the 69-year-old lieutenant general criticized Mr. el-Sissi’s social and economic policies in a speech on Jan. 13. He depicted the el-Sissi government as rigid and lacking compassion for average Egyptians after the government imposed tough economic reforms, including removing subsidies for food and fuel, as part of a program to qualify for a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Egypt must be a human state before it is a state of stone,” said Mr. Shafiq, who slammed the military’s domination of the economy and the courts.

Mr. Anan’s family said they don’t know where he is being held.

“All the phones of the campaign team have been shut off,” said the candidate’s son, Samir Anan. “All we know is that they took my father around 11 a.m. while he was on the way to his political party headquarters.”

Mobilization drive

A massive mobilization effort characterized Mr. el-Sissi’s re-election drive even before the president officially entered the race.

The president has been endorsed by 464 out of a total of 596 members of Egypt’s parliament, and the “In Order to Build It” campaign said last month that 13 million citizens had signed its petition urging the president to run for a second term.

Mr. el-Sissi was unapologetic about the abrupt arrest of Mr. Anan, saying in a televised ceremony honoring Egyptian police Wednesday that the country must be on guard against unidentified outside forces trying to swing the election.

“The evil people are still trying to achieve their goal and all eyes are on Egypt, but no one will hurt Egypt,” Mr. el-Sissi said. “We don’t want anyone to lead us astray with rhetoric that we don’t need.”

The president has made strides in fulfilling his promise to improve the lot of average Egyptians. He has embarked on massive infrastructure projects while moving dramatically to reduce the country’s trade deficit. The IMF recently revised its growth outlook for Egypt to 4.8 percent for the current fiscal year.

Still, average Egyptians are suffering after the local currency lost nearly half its value last year.

“My wife told me it would be smart to go to the local primary school and sign the endorsements for el-Sissi,” said Girgis Gaber, a 36-year-old sanitation worker in downtown Cairo. “But then the civil servants there said I should let a group of office workers jump the line in front of me. I decided that I was tired of waiting for bureaucrats and of waiting for el-Sissi’s promises of a better life to come true.”

Mona Khalil, executive director of the Russian-Egyptian Business Council, rejected the notion that Mr. el-Sissi’s campaign is effectively a Middle Eastern variant of the widely criticized elections in Russia next month expected to be a cakewalk for authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin has moved to prevent any real challenge to his re-election bid, using the courts to stop the campaign of his most viable opponent, Alexei Navalny, a popular anti-corruption activist.

“Putin has been in power since 2000 and el-Sissi is heading into his second term of presidency, during which he is expected to continue his economic reforms and giant industrial and national projects,” she said. “Of course, the results of presidential elections are predictable in both cases, but the recent Cabinet reshuffle including six female ministers gives many of us hope for innovative approaches to political solutions for Mr. el-Sissi’s second term.”

But advocates for democracy in Egypt are despondent.

“It seems that Mr. Sissi is now running on his own,” said Mr. Sadat. “The way that rules are written he can now win even if only 5 percent of the electorate shows up to vote for him. The military now has complete control over the economy and the society, and they are now running the whole show.”


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