A shoo-in for Sisi in Egypt's presidential election
With the first ballot set for March 26-28, the sitting president is the favourite to win by default. This is a re-run of the position of Hosni Mubarak between 1990 and 2000.
In front of the al-Sayeda Zainab mosque in central Cairo, about 10 minutes from Tahrir Square, street vendors congregate around the civil servants leaving the surrounding ministries.
Very few pay attention to the two billboards featuring President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, apparently gazing with confidence towards the future.
On the walls, however, tattered posters testify to the fact that the area was the site of fierce political competition during the 2012 presidential election and the legislative elections of 2015. Since then, the portrait of Sisi has reigned, un-challenged.
It is an image that has become commonplace: His blown-up visage adorns the streets of all the working class neighbourhoods of Cairo.
The former Field Marshall is making preparations for an election that will be a foregone conclusion. Anyone who dared to come forward as a candidate has faced intimidation, judicial proceedings and media smear campaigns.
Ahmed Shafiq throws in the towel
On 29 November 2017, Ahmed Shafiq, a former army Chief of Staff, provoked a stir by broadcasting a video from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) eagerly announcing his intention to stand against Sisi in the presidential elections.
Narrowly beaten by Mohamed Morsi in 2012, Shafiq was Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarak. This time he believed he had the means to succeed. His declarations in favour of a (civil) state guaranteeing citizens' rights and respecting democracy drew attention, standing in contrast with Sisi's classical rhetoric in which he repeatedly invoked the menace of terrorism to justify his authoritarian rule. Shafiq's status as a general and a former chief of Mubarak's regime lent him weight.
However his enthusiasm soon disappeared. Exiled in the UAE since 2012, Shafiq was extradited to Cairo just hours after making his declaration. He was held under house arrest at the Marriott hotel in Zamalek in the centre of Cairo and subjected to a vast campaign of defamation.
Lawyers sympathetic to the regime launched 22 separate judicial proceedings against him for misappropriation of public funds and corruption during his time in office. Shafiq bowed under the pressure. He finally threw in the towel on Sunday 7 January.
Shafiq is not the only "son of the army" - a term used to describe Egyptian military men - to attempt to challenge Sisi.
A few hours after Shafiq's announcement, the General Ahmed Konsowa also announced his intention to enter the presidential race. He made the statement in uniform, on a YouTube video, openly accusing the army of trying to prevent him from leaving his military post to do so.
He was arrested on 19 December and condemned by the North Cairo military tribunal to six years' imprisonment for breaking the military law preventing members of the armed forces from talking about politics or using their uniform for political ends.
Ammar Ali Hassan, Professor of Political Science at the University of Heloun, explains "that judgement was deeply ironic, because Sisi himself did exactly the same thing three years ago, when he was in the military. He announced his presidential candidature dressed in khakis".
|The former Field Marshall is making preparations for an election that will be a foregone conclusion|
In an election that appears to be tightly sewn-up, a new candidate could still appear, in the form of Sami Anan, a previous military Chief of Staff. Sami Balah, General Secretary of the Arabism Egypt Party (Masr Al-Oroba), which Anan created in 2015, has suggested Anan may run.
In an attempt to learn from Shafiq's experience, he would announce his candidature at the last minute, so the regime had insufficient time to block him. Second in command in the military council that ran the country from the fall of Hosni Mubarak until the middle of 2012, Anan harbours some animosity towards the president.
He has criticised Sisi's management of the Ethiopian Nile Dam project, as well as the handover to Saudi Arabia of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the strait of Tiran.
Could Sami Anan be the one to open a chink in the protective wall Sisi has built around himself?
Read more: Egypt arrests ex-military chief Sami Anan for running against Sisi
According to Wagih, even if Anan doesn't give in to the pressures on him, his chances of winning the election are slim. "For many ordinary people and politicians, Anan shouldered the major responsibility for the bloody incidents that took place under the Military Council government of 2011 and 2012."
[Editor's note: Sami Anan announced his intention to run for president on 12 January 2018. On 23 January he was detained and summoned for questioning by the army.]
Although none of the civil candidates represent such a serious threat to Sisi, they too have been subjected to intimidation.
Human rights lawyer Khaed Ali has complained of restrictions preventing him from running his campaign. He is accused of offending public morals for supposedly making an obscene finger gesture after a judgement annulling the government's decision to hand Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. He risks up to three months' imprisonment. The verdict will be delivered on 7 March, and will be crucial for his electoral future.
Mohammed Anwar Sadat, President of the Party for Reform and Development and nephew of Anwar Sadat, was prevented by police from booking a hotel for a conference to announce his intention to stand. On 15 January, he announced he would not run, declining to "take part in a battle I've lost in advance".
Failure in Sinai
Khaled al-Balchi, the campaign director for Khaled Ali, says: "a real presidential election could create change in Egypt's leadership that is sorely needed after Sisi's catastrophic mandate.
That's the reason the president doesn't want any real competition. He's afraid of losing popularity. In 2014, he was worried about low turnout, but this time he doesn't care about that. The regime's sole aim is to get through this election unencumbered."
After the attack on the al-Rawda mosque in North Sinai on 24 November - the most deadly attack in Egypt's modern history, which left 305 dead - President Sisi promised to put an end to the scourge of terrorism in just three months.
|'Egyptian political life is clinically dead,' - Ammar Ali Hassan|
A couple of months later, the jihadist insurrection was growing stronger, with attacks on police officers and the military becoming almost daily occurrences. On 29 December, 10 people, among them several Christians and police officers, were killed in an attack on a church in southern Cairo by a member of Islamic State (IS).
Videos circulating on social media show an armoured vehicle fleeing the police during the attack. The aggressor can also be seen walking freely for about 15 minutes afterwards without any intervention from the police.
The war against terrorism is no longer a sufficient pretext for police violence and the repression of political voices in Egypt.
According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, more than 41,000 Egyptians are behind bars. Extra-judicial assassinations by the police and forced disappearances are becoming regular practice.
Read more: Egypt's President Sisi announces bid for re-election
According to the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedom (ECRFEG), 264 people disappeared during the first half of 2017. The same organisation counted 76 cases of "physical liquidation" by the police between January and April 2017.
The economic crisis is deepening too.
More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to government figures. In a single year, the government decided to reduce subsidies, float its currency and impose heavy taxation. The middle classes have been economically asphyxiated. A large proportion of the population is asking what has happened to the president's promises.
The people's candidate?
"Four years after coming to power, Sisi's victims are numerous. He's gagged the Islamists, the revolutionaries, the liberal parties and the workers' movement. Egyptian political life is clinically dead," says Ammar Ali Hassan.
The addition of these political voices to the ranks of ordinary people, angry about the economic crisis could provide the springboard for a movement against Sisi.
Some pro-regime media outlets have warned that the president's adversaries could gain the support of large sections of the population.
|Despite his lack of popularity, Sisi presents himself as the people's candidate|
In an article published on 2 December by the magazine Akhbar al-Youm, Editor in Chief Amr Al-Khayat cautioned that Ahmed Shafiq could easily win thanks to the votes of the Islamists, the revolutionaries, the business community and a private sector angered by the economic grip of the army.
Despite his lack of popularity and his attempts to win the next presidential election through intimidation, Sisi presents himself as the people's candidate: it is not he who wants to stand for a second term, but the people who demand that he does.
In September 2017, a massive campaign using the slogan "To Build It" (Egypt) was launched by the members of the pro-Sisi parliamentary coalition, secretly co-ordinated by the regime.
The campaign collected signatures in favour of Sisi's candidature. Offices were created for this purpose in all of Egypt's provinces, and even abroad, according to Karim Salem, member of parliament and spokesperson for the campaign.
At a conference entitled "The Egyptians are demanding Sisi stand for a second term", held on 24 December at a large Cairo hotel, the organisers announced with great pomp that they had gathered more than 12 million signatures.
"Sisi keeps trying to give the impression he has the people behind him. In most of his speeches, he repeats that his politics and his decisions are blessed by the people, who have vested him with total authority since 2013," says Ammar Ali Hassan.
Civil servants forced to sign
Thanks to the support of the army and a series of laws adopted since his election, the president has succeeded in bringing key state institutions under his control. The justice system, the police, the prosecution and the civil service all operate in his favour.
According to some civil servants contacted by Orient XXI, forms for people to declare their support for Sisi are circulated in administrative offices. Those who refuse to sign are threatened with punishment.
On 26 December, Khaled Ali demanded the regime give real guarantees that the presidential election would be impartial and the neutrality of state institutions would be assured. He went so far as to denounce the pressures exerted on Ahmed Shafiq that forced him to withdraw from the race.
Sisi also controls the choice of members of the National Commission for the Supervision of Elections. A law passed in 2017 effectively gives the head of state the power to choose between candidatures presented by the large judicial institutions.
|Sisi refuses all forms of competition or opposition, even partial|
The media too is under orders.
The very few independent media outlets which refuse tacit accord with the regime experience obstructions and censorship. This is the case for Mada Masr, a partner in the network of independent media in the Arab world founded by Orient XXI .
These are the tools required to ensure an election is decided in advance.
The few attempts to create peaceful political change through the ballot boxes have come up against a regime for which authoritarianism seems to have no limits, according to Khaled Al-Balchi.
While the political class (with the exception of the the Muslim Brotherhood) has accepted the authority of a chief of state installed by a coup, Sisi refuses all forms of competition or opposition, even partial.
Jamal Boukhari is a pen name.
This article was first published by our partners at Orient XXI.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.