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In June 2018, it will be four years since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected president of Egypt, with a landslide victory of 96 per cent of the votes over his only competition, Hamdeen al-Sabbahi.
According to the constitution, a presidential term is four years, which means presidential elections are due this spring. Having established a firm grip on the country, including the security forces and media, al-Sisi seems to have little to fear. Nevertheless, the prospect of elections is making the regime nervous.
In August 2017, an MP proposed a draft law to amend the constitution and extend the presidential term to six years, effectively delaying elections for another two years. Confronted with widespread opposition to such a proposal, even from staunch regime supporters, “the decision has been made to hold elections,” an analyst who preferred to remain anonymous told Fanack Chronicle. “The legitimacy argument is central for al-Sisi. No matter how forced [elections would be], choosing is important.”
Even so, the regime seems keen to prevent a fair race. “Al-Sisi is paranoid about losing support,” the analyst said. His popularity, which was at its height around the time of his election in 2014, seems to have waned since.
“There were great expectations and promises after the military takeover in 2013 that terrorism in Sinai would be eradicated in weeks. We are four years on and terrorism takes place almost daily,” military expert Safwat Zayat previously told Fanack Chronicle.
People who have felt the brunt of these reforms have expressed their discontent with al-Sisi. “It is surprising that despite how closed the system is, people still talk about politics in public. And this re-enforces [al-Sisi’s] paranoia,” the analyst said.
The most important presidential challenger to have emerged so far is Ahmed Shafiq. The former prime minister, he is believed to have the ability to garner support. In open and credible elections in 2012, he won 12.5 million votes, just behind Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi. He is a former military man – who contrary to al-Sisi has actual combat experience – is part of the Hosni Mubarak clique, has ties with the business elite and would be able to draw support from the Coptic community as well. “He is a man of many trades,” the analyst said.
However, without media access and backing from the security apparatus, which is closely tied to al-Sisi, it is doubtful whether Shafiq would stand a real chance.
Nonetheless, the regime seems to consider him too big a threat to be left alone. Soon after Shafiq announced his intention to run for president from his home in the United Arab Emirates, he was first barred from travelling and later deported to Egypt. Upon arrival, he disappeared off the radar for a day. His daughters told media they could not reach him and feared his arrest. However, the same evening, Shafiq appeared on a talk show. He had not been kidnapped and is still considering his election bid, he said, a significant step down from his earlier announcement.
He has since been staying in the Marriot in Cairo, a hotel with close links to the security apparatus since the ‘Marriot cell case’ against foreign and Egyptian al-Jazeera journalists in 2014. Shafiq seems to be de facto under house arrest in the hotel. When Reuters’ journalists tried to approach him there in early December 2017 for an interview, police in plainclothes stopped them.
Shafiq said on 10 December 2017 he would announce his final stance on the elections “within days”. At the time of writing, this had yet to happen. Several of his supporters have also been arrested, which Shafiq condemned on Twitter.
“I think the regime has become so incredibly insecure. It cannot tolerate even a semblance of opposition to complete the ‘democratic décor’,” political commentator Magdi Abdelhani told Fanack Chronicle.
Another presidential hopeful is rights lawyer Khaled Ali. He ran in the 2012 elections, in which he came seventh, and gained prominence in 2016 and 2017 as the main lawyer in the case against the unpopular handover of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. He announced his bid in November 2017 and finds his support base among leftist, pro-2011 revolution, opposition group. In the follow-up to the announcement, security forces raided a printing press and seized materials for Ali’s campaign.
Moreover, he has been handed a three-month prison sentence for ‘violating public decency’, after making a hand gesture outside court deemed inappropriate. He was subsequently released on bail and appealed the verdict. If convicted in the appeal case, he will be barred from running for president as per Egyptian election law.
Amnesty International described the sentence as ‘politically motivated’. Colonel Ahmed Konsowa is the third person who intended to challenge al-Sisi, announcing his bid for the presidency in an online video in late November 2017.
Konsowa was arrested soon afterwards and brought to trial at a military court. Military men are not allowed to engage in politics publicly. Konsowa claims he has resigned from the army, but the fact that he was wearing his uniform when he made the announcement worked strongly against him. In mid-December 2017, he was sentenced to six years in prison for violating military rules.
A fourth possible candidate, Anwar Sadat, an MP and nephew of the late president of the same name, postponed announcing his candidacy following the backlash the other candidates had faced, he told local media on 25 December 2017.
While possible competitors continue to face various challenges, al-Sisi himself is yet to make his candidature official, although there is little doubt he will run. A group of politicians started a campaign in September 2017 to collect signatures in support of his re-election. The campaign has been openly supported by a large number of celebrities, and by 24 December 2017, the petition had 12 million signatures.
Since mid-November 2017, numerous banners have appeared in Cairo bearing a large portrait of al-Sisi and reading, ‘We all stand with you for the sake of Egypt’. Without being an official candidate, al-Sisi’s re-election campaign is already in full swing.