Sisi's only election pledge is to widen his crackdown

Sisi's only election pledge is to widen his crackdown
5 min read
26 Mar, 2018
Comment: Egypt's election farce only shows the president's weakness, writes Amelia Smith.
An Egyptian soldier guards a polling station as the presidential election gets underway [NurPhoto]

On Egypt's dusty streets hangs a banner bearing the grainy image of Moussa Mustafa Moussa, General Sisi's only contender in the elections. Behind him is the familiar red, white and black flag; to the side of him a slogan has been penned in black ink: "The presidential candidate Moussa Mustafa supports the candidacy of Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi."

This poster contains all the information observers need to prove that the Egyptian presidential elections are a farce.

Moussa's bid is nothing more than an attempt by Egyptian authorities to give the impression of a democratic contest, since all other opposition candidates have been bullied out of the race. They needn't have bothered, for there are few who believe it. Moussa has endorsed Sisi several times.

Days before the election, Sisi had not outlined his policies or launched a manifesto - but instead intensified his crackdown on the opposition, leaving them in little doubt that when he begins his second term the modus operandi of the state will remain unchanged.

Journalists have been rounded up and news websites blocked. Authorities have promised legal action against "fake news", declared defamation of the security services is tantamount to high treason and called for a boycott of the BBC after the network published a report detailing sexual violence and torture against the forcibly disappeared.

Many have asked how the regime can deepen its crackdown, given that Egypt is already the third-worst jailer of journalists worldwide. Since 2015, death penalty sentences have increased, as have the number of civilians being tried in military courts. Sisi has had to build 13 new prisons to house all the political prisoners he has arrested - 60,000 at the last count.

It has become increasing clear over the course of the presidential 'race' that Sisi is afraid of other members of the deep state

A sticky web of legislation has been put in place to give the state a veneer of legitimacy to further repress the population, for example by withdrawing the passports of activists they deem to be "terrorists". More than 400 news and human rights websites have been blocked under the press law and 47,000 Non-Governmental Organisations prevented from operating under the NGO bill.

It's not just rights workers and reporters who are being targeted. It has become increasing clear over the course of the presidential "race" that Sisi is afraid of other members of the deep state.

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After he announced his intention to be a candidate, former army chief of staff Sami Anan was detained and charged with running for office without permission. Ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was forcibly disappeared in Egypt after announcing his intention to run and has since reappeared only to pledge his support for Sisi.

Fourteen international and regional rights organisations, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Human Rights Watch, have called on Egypt's allies to speak out against violations carried out by the military regime.

But Egyptians can expect little support from an international community more interested in joint counter-terror efforts, the refugee crisis, Libya and trade deals. In February, the largest UK trade delegation in decades arrived in Cairo. Since the 2013 Rabaa massacre, UK arms sales and foreign investment in Egypt has increased - in other words, it is the lure of profit that has prevented the UK from taking a stand on the issue of human rights.

It's not just the UK. Years of debt and the uncertainty that followed the 2011 uprising has made Egypt desperate for foreign investment - and there is a long line of countries waiting to sign up, from France to Singapore, from Italy to Saudi Arabia. In February, the US secretary of state visited Egypt and boasted of the $1 billion in military aid the US had given Egypt to fight "terror threats".

Sisi's fight against "terror" is nothing to gloat about. At the beginning of February, in a show of strength in the lead-up to the elections, the military and the police launched a joint counter-terror operation in the Sinai which brought down phone and internet networks and isolated the area as roads in and out of cities were blocked.

At this rate, will there even be anyone left to vote?

Schools and homes were demolished, and Amnesty International reported that cluster bombs were being used in the area. Egypt has long conducted a heavy-handed war in the Sinai which intensified after the 2013 coup when a state of emergency was declared in the region.

The army has been criticised for using operations there as a guise under which to imprison yet more civilians - more than 3,000 people have been detained in this latest operation. At this rate, will there even be anyone left to vote?

While there is little doubt that Sisi will secure the presidency this time around, as was the case in 2014 when he secured 97 percent of the vote, there is concern among ruling authorities that this victory will be undermined by low voter turnout.

A coalition of Egyptian opposition groups has called for a boycott of the election on the basis that it is a "farce", and an "absurdity bordering on madness" - they are now being investigated for attempting to overthrow the regime. This shows not only paranoia on the part of the current government but is yet another indication that the military man is not as strong as he would like everyone to believe.

Amelia Smith is a London-based journalist who has a special interest in Middle East politics, art and culture. She is editor of The Arab Spring Five Years On. Follow her on Twitter: @amyinthedesert

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.