As Egyptians were hoping to see a new Egypt with all democratic rights restored to citizens and their economic position improved, the successful 2013 coup by the military removing and arresting the present Mohammad Morsi came as a rude shock to them.
The military shut the mouths of the people, crippled all democratic expectations. In the televised announcement, Sisi listed Egypt’s achievements during his first term, including a nascent financial recovery after years of political turmoil and economic instability.
People felt betrayed by the revolutionaries and military establishment. They also see a secret deal between them. But most of Arab Muslim nations and their western allies rejoiced the military take over from the democratic dispensation.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who came to power in a coup against his democratically elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, is now all but certain to win the March election in a landslide. After removing, with the backing of the USA and Saudi Arabia, among others, the first ever elected President Mohammed Mursi, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi became President of Egypt.
In January Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he will run for a second term in office in an election in March, which the former military commander is widely expected to win. The vote will be held on March 26-28, with a run-off vote on April 24-26 if no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round. Candidates will register from Jan. 20 to 29.
Ahead of its March 26-28 presidential election, the Sisi regime is intensifying its crackdown on a free press. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is running essentially unopposed for reelection; the regime has been relentless against even the hint of credible opposition.
A coalition of Egyptian opposition groups have called for an election boycott, calling the vote”absurdity bordering on madness” after all serious candidates were either arrested or subjected to a campaign of intimidation. In a joint statement, eight Egyptian opposition parties and 150 pro-democracy public figures urged Egyptians to stay away from the March polls in protest, accusing the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of preventing “any fair competition”.
Several potential candidates have either been arrested or faced threats, intimidation and physical violence, forcing them to drop out. Sami Anan, a former general, had planned to run against Sisi but was arrested at gunpoint by Egyptian security services. His vice-presidential candidate, Hisham Genena, was attacked and seriously injured in a busy Cairo street.
In December 2017, Ahmed Konsowa, an army colonel, was sentenced to six years in prison after announcing his candidacy, while human rights lawyer Khaled Ali withdrew after receiving a three-month prison sentence. The New York Times quoted one of Shafik’s lawyers as saying that the Egyptian government had forced him to withdraw by threatening to investigate previous charges of corruption against him.
Earlier, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, seen as the most serious potential challenger to date, said he was no longer considering a bid following a firestorm of criticism from state-aligned media and speculation that he was being held by authorities in a Cairo hotel. His most high-profile challengers are former army chief of staff Sami Anan and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, but neither is expected to garner enough votes to oust him.
Sisi’s only challenger is Mousa Mostafa Mousa, a government supporter who entered the race at the 11th hour, amid fears that a widespread boycott could lead to embarrassingly few votes being cast. Mousa, who formally submitted his candidacy 15 minutes before the deadline despite not publicly declaring his intention to run until the day before, denied allegations he was cooperating with the government, saying, “We are not puppets in this race.”
However the 66-year-old has repeatedly endorsed Sisi, and last year formed a campaign called “Supporters of President el-Sisi’s nomination for a second term”. Egyptians took to social media and used the hashtag Al-Kombares, which loosely translates to someone playing the role of an “extra”, to mock Mousa’s candidacy and the upcoming poll.
The supporters of Sisi claim that his rule has brought some stability to the country, but critics say his popularity has been eroded by tough economic reforms that have hit people’s livelihood’s hard and by a crackdown on dissidents. Some argue that measures are needed to keep the country stable as it faces security challenges including attacks by Islamic State militants in the North Sinai region.
Egyptian presidents have often “used false organic displays of popularity as part of their political propaganda toolkit. Sisi came to prominence when he led the army’s ouster of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 – Egypt’s first freely elected leader – two years after the downfall of longtime ruler President Hosni Mubarak in the “Arab Spring” uprisings that swept the Middle East. The former general became president himself in 2014, winning 96.91 percent of the vote, although turnout was only about 47 percent of the 54 million voters, after voting was extended for a day. Sisi’s critics say his popularity has been hurt by austerity reforms, security problems, a crackdown on dissidents and his decision to hand two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, which showered Egypt with billions of dollars of aid, touching a nationalistic nerve.
Democracy is causality
Democracy and a free press are again facing an existential threat in Egypt. The regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is intensifying its long-running crackdown on journalists in the lead-up to the country’s March 26-28 presidential election.
Egypt ranks 161 out of 180 countries in press freedoms according to watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 Press Freedoms Index. The government’s warnings to media are not new. in recent months, authorities have blocked about 500 websites, including media outlets like Al-Jazeera and the local Mada Masr, while journalists have been arrested.
Media in Egypt faces increased scrutiny and restrictions by authorities ahead of a presidential election this month incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will dominate. The disturbed president, addressing media, warned on Thursday against “defamation” of security forces.
A reporter for the Huffington Post’s Arabic website was detained last month after publishing an interview with prominent dissident Hisham Geneina who mentioned the existence of documents that are damaging to senior state officials. At least 29 journalists are in detention, according to Reporters Without Borders, including some accused of working for media affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. Some of the restrictions are unprecedented.
The government has not confirmed or denied its role in the blackout, but Taher said internet providers do not block websites without a request from authorities. For some outlets, the measure has impacted their operations. One site, Masr Al-Arabia, had to reduce staff by 60 percent.
The government’s State Information Service called for an official boycott of the BBC last week after a report on abuses in which a woman claimed her daughter had been forcibly disappeared by security. The daughter later appeared in an interview on a local television station, saying she had runaway, married and had a child. The BBC said it stood by the “integrity” of its reporters. The report appears to have prompted the prosecution statement saying its lawyers would take action against outlets that publish “false news” and “news and rumours that harm public safety.” Much of the domestic media is seen as generally pliant, and criticism of Sisi is rare.
The government has increased criticism of foreign media, which had been a frequent target of attacks by politicians over the years. It often accuses foreign journalists of biased coverage of the country, especially when it comes to human rights abuses.
Rights groups say he has led an unprecedented crackdown on political opponents, activists and critical media. Those challenging Sisi describe a sweeping effort to kill off their campaigns before they have begun, with media attacks on candidates, intimidation of supporters, and a nomination process stacked in favour of the former general.
Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia have improved, while its relations with the USA have worsened—lately over issues of North Korean arms deals. The reelection of another Egyptian ‘strongman’ will be a significant step backward for the country, made harder to rectify after the fact if the constitution is amended.
After a brief dip in relations over disagreements regarding the Syrian war, Egypt and Saudi Arabia appear to have become closer. Both countries have exceedingly powerful one-man rule systems, with both leaders claiming the mantle of ‘reformer’ against a reform-resistant culture—though both are strengthening their grasp in terms of near-dictatorial powers.
The March 4-7 visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Egypt is a clear sign of the improved relations. Egypt is supportive of Saudi Arabia’s 9-month long bitter dispute with fellow GCC member, Qatar, which has devolved into a stalemate with no winner.
Saudi Arabia has always been a crucial financial supporter of Egypt—and of Sisi in particular—after the coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of President al-Morsi and put Sisi in power. Riyadh’s deep opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood matches Sisi’s, and the two are determined to prevent the group from gaining influence in either country.
Saudi financial support for Egypt is more important now given the relative downturn in relations between Egypt and the USA. The issue between the two countries is not over human rights or freedom of the press. President Trump has expressed support for Sisi as a ‘strong leader’ and met with him at the White House in April 2017 and in Riyadh in May 2017.
Rather, the issue is Egypt’s illicit purchases of North Korean military hardware that runs afoul of international sanctions. In August 2017, the U.S. suspended $291 million in military aid to Egypt because of allegations by the USA and the United Nations that Egypt was allowing the North Korean embassy in Cairo to serve as a hub for illicit arms deals.
In 2016, a North Korean freighter was intercepted before it made port in Egypt and was found to be carrying 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades. As the U.S. increases pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs, it will look very negatively upon any actions that provide Pyongyang with monetary resources.
Egypt has had a long history of arms deals with North Korea, to which numerous US governments have routinely objected. The intense focus by the Trump government on the issue is a rare but important point of contention between Cairo and Washington.
Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has removed all signs of democracy from the scene of Egypt. After enjoying power of President for a full term, now he is eager to resume power, “democratically” by elections, though for him the poll result would be a cake walk as no one thinks he would be defeated.
Yet, Sisi is keen to create an impression that Egypt is peaceful and people are happy with his misrule.
The expected push to remove term limits—combined with the regime’s absolute control over the national political dialogue and the military’s oversized role in the economy—would have provided the briefest of moments for opponents to organize and promote a future for Egypt that isn’t a return to its past. But that is not possible in Egypt.
There is, of course, opposition to Sisi and the return-of-the-pharaoh rule but it is scattered; the regime has been relentless against even the hint of credible opposition. The absence of unified and organized opposition makes it very unlikely that the expected constitutional changes will be thwarted.
That the regime is still so intent on squashing any reporting that might raise questions as to the country’s current and future paths, even in an election where there is no credible opposing candidate, indicates the goals of the regime are looking beyond the counting of the upcoming ballots.
As the Washington Post noted in a March 8 article, the election is not really about reelecting Sisi; it is about a ‘procedural hurdle to clear before the much more consequential effort of constitutional change.’
Rights activists say the authorities have become more restrictive in general, showing little tolerance for dissent.
Since the election of president Sisi is a foregone conclusion there is no need for speculative exercises here.
The fate of Egyptians cannot be any better after the poll.