The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Egypt’s presidential election, a strongman’s only challenger is barely campaigning

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi attends a military ceremony at a Paris hotel in October. (Charles Platiau/AP)
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CAIRO — The election billboards of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi are everywhere in this bustling capital. They read: “Yalla Sissi” — “Go Sissi” in Arabic — urging him on for a second term. Egyptian voters will struggle to find a billboard for his only challenger.

That obscure candidate, after all, said weeks ago that he wants Sissi to remain as president.

Moussa Mostafa Moussa has so far not given speeches, made television commercials or bought newspaper ads seeking votes. On March 4, his first election rally was attended by no more than 25 supporters. As leader of the centrist Ghad Party, Moussa has been one of Sissi’s staunchest supporters and part of a well-orchestrated effort backing Sissi for a second term.

Last weekend, Moussa told a state-owned television program that he doesn’t want to debate Sissi because he’s “not here to challenge the president.”

“He’s part of a play,” said Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a presidential contender who abruptly dropped out of the race in January. “He knows he has zero chance of winning.”

For many Egyptians, Sissi’s “campaign” is the latest sign of what critics say is the farce unfolding ahead of presidential elections scheduled for late this month. One former challenger, an ex-military general like Sissi, was thrown in jail. Others dropped out because of fear or intimidation. Another former candidate was arrested and accused of terrorism after criticizing the pre-election crackdown.

By ensuring his own victory, Sissi is tightening his grip on Egypt in ways never undertaken by his predecessors. Under President Hosni Mubarak, elections were marred by voter fraud, ballot stuffing and other irregularities, but a credible opposition nevertheless fielded candidates. The Muslim Brotherhood became the nation’s largest opposition bloc in parliament.

That would help pave the way for the Brotherhood’s rise following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, which ousted Mubarak. A year later, the party’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected Egypt’s first civilian president and sought to defuse the military’s power. In 2013, the military, led at the time by Sissi, toppled Morsi in a coup and imprisoned him.

This recent history is behind Sissi’s growing authoritarianism, analysts said. In the view of Sissi and Egypt’s military, Mubarak’s decision to accede to pressure from the United States and other Western countries and hold Egypt’s first-ever multiparty presidential election in 2005 ultimately led to his demise and subsequent political turmoil.

“The [Sissi] administration isn’t necessarily fragile or on the cusp of collapse — but it is certainly incredibly concerned about allowing a beginning of an opening,” said H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Indeed, it views Mubarak’s fatal mistake as having allowed that kind of beginning.”

Over the past year, Sissi has intensified an assault on basic freedoms. Hundreds of websites deemed critical of his regime have been blocked. Extrajudicial killings are rising, human rights groups say. Countless opponents have been jailed, “forcibly disappeared” or sidelined in other ways, targeted often by security forces in the name of combating terrorism, especially a virulent Islamic State affiliate in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt launches major offensive against Islamic State militants

The government’s latest target is the foreign media. Egypt’s top prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, has accused outlets of spreading false news and has threatened legal action against any that sought to undermine the country’s reputation with negative coverage. At the same time, economic austerity measures, rising prices and declining subsidies have triggered public frustration, putting Sissi’s popularity at risk.

The government’s elimination of potential competitors has drawn no public rebukes from Egypt’s key Western ally, the United States, or European nations. President Trump has embraced Sissi, inviting him to the White House. Under President Barack Obama, Sissi was never welcomed because of human rights abuses and the lack of democratic freedoms in Egypt.

Senior Trump administration officials say they engage the Sissi government on its human rights record privately. They point to the decision in August to cut or delay $290 million in military and economic aid in response to an Egyptian law undermining nongovernmental organizations, especially human rights and pro-democracy groups.

Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately brought up U.S. concerns about the elections during a visit to Cairo and restated U.S. support for free elections everywhere, his aides said. But Sissi’s crackdown on potential opponents and dissent has continued.

Tillerson calls for free vote in Egypt, raises concerns about human rights

A day after Tillerson’s visit, a consortium of human rights groups urged the United States and Europe to speak out, saying the Egyptian government “has trampled over even the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.” The groups urged Western nations to halt their substantial financial assistance to Egypt — the United States alone provides $1.3 billion in aid — until Sissi’s government improves its human rights record.

“Egypt’s allies should speak out publicly now to denounce these farcical elections, rather than continue with largely unquestioning support for a government presiding over the country’s worst human rights crisis in decades,” the groups said in a statement.

The government’s news office did not respond to requests for comment.

Egypt’s electoral commission, a government body, has publicly promised to run the election in an independent and transparent manner.

Since December, authorities have eliminated all credible challengers to Sissi. Two ex-military commanders — Lt. Gen Sami Anan and Col. Ahmed Konsowa — were arrested and jailed for violating military rules by intending to run for office. Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister and air force chief, withdrew from the race after he was reportedly placed under house arrest. In his statement, Shafik said he could not run because he had spent too much time outside the country.

Sadat, the nephew of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president assassinated in 1981, pulled out of the race after facing numerous obstacles, including the refusal of hotels to host his campaign events and attacks by government media. In backing out of the race, Sadat and another challenger, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, cited the government’s repression and safety concerns for their supporters.

“It’s all controlled democracy,” Sadat said. “This is not the democracy we were all looking for or expecting.”

Days after Tillerson’s visit, authorities targeted Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Islamist who leads the Strong Egypt Party. He was arrested after he publicly criticized Sissi and urged a boycott of the elections. A week later, an Egyptian court placed him on a terrorism list for alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, now banned by the Sissi government. Aboul Fotouh could face a freeze of his assets and a travel ban.

Egyptian leader left with no major election challenger after another rival arrested

“In the end we are speaking here of a repressive regime, and politics represent a threat to them,” said an official of the Strong Egypt Party who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his security. “It is unacceptable for the regime for people to have even a hint of an alternative political force other than them. No one can replace them, and that is their message.”

Moussa, the sole remaining challenger, announced his candidacy on Jan. 29 — the last possible day to join the race. That prompted immediate speculation that he was ordered to run to bring credibility to Sissi’s candidacy and to prevent the elections from becoming a vote solely on Sissi’s record.

“Without another name on the ballot, the exercise becomes a referendum — which simply doesn’t look all that good for international public diplomacy,” Hellyer said. “Nevertheless, the exercise is clear. After all, Moussa is on record as being a committed Sissi supporter.”

Moussa, an engineer by training, declined requests for an interview. At a news conference after announcing his run, he denied that he entered the election to help bolster Sissi’s legitimacy and create an appearance of rivalry. “We are entering a fair and honorable competition in order to win,” Moussa told reporters.

Two weeks ago, a few Moussa election banners went up in Cairo — after journalists asked his campaign whether they planned to put any up. But for most Egyptians, the elections are a foregone conclusion. Few believe the vote will be free or transparent. Others said Moussa’s candidacy was engineered by the government to please the international community, especially Egypt’s Western donors.

“Moussa is a puppet,” said Mohamed Fathy, 42, an agricultural engineer. “They made him run because they wanted things to look as if they are democratic and to claim that they do not arrest every candidate.”

He and others interviewed said they do not intend to vote.

Mohamed Ramadan, 42, a carpenter, also views Moussa and the elections in the same light and does not plan to vote. He supports Sissi for a second term to prevent political turmoil that in the past has spawned shortages of electricity and gas and other economic woes. “We need a military man,” Ramadan said. “For life to go on, even barely, this regime has to stay because they are the only ones capable of running things.”

Now, Sadat said, the most important issue for the Sissi government is to have a high turnout at the polls, at least 40 percent. With no credible opponent, he added, the government will have to mobilize people. He said “there are many ways they can make this happen,” suggesting that the government will manipulate the vote.

“For me, the presidential election is over,” Sadat said.

“What’s most important is what comes next after the elections,” he said. “Will things get better politically? Will there be freedom of expression? Or will we continue this very tough time?’’

Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.

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